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Serbia-Kosovo: The Bloody Past and The Uncertain Future

It’s a tension that won’t end easily. After all, for 25 years, since 1998, when the Kosovo war that lasted a year and a half began, Serbia and Kosovo have been engaged in a diplomatic, political and sometimes bloody struggle. Kosovo wants full independence and recognition; Serbia is not about to give away the “heart and soul” of its nation so easily.

The latest tensions are based on the local elections in northern Kosovo, from which the Serbs of the country abstained, while the participation reached only 3.4%, almost exclusively from the Albanian element of the country. However, Kosovars insist that the elected mayors and councilors are legitimate, as they have obtained the necessary percentages, even with almost zero participation.

The Serbian element, apparently, reacted within Kosovo with demonstrations declaring the non-recognition of the result of the regional elections, while preventing the elected local rulers from coming to their offices.

Meanwhile, last weekend the Kosovo police raided Serb-dominated areas in the north of the country, occupying municipal buildings so that, they say, the elected local rulers can freely come to their offices, wanting to pre-empt the term of three of weeks given by the competent electoral committee to assume duties after being designated as elected.

Belgrade, on Vucic’s order, has already put its armed forces on high alert on the border with Kosovo, where – since 1999 – NATO forces have been stationed inside Kosovar territory to maintain peace, following that war that it had cost the lives of 10,000 people and caused the uprooting of about 1 million citizens. Serbia, however, has declared that it will not stand idly by if Serbs in Kosovo are attacked again.

However, there has been no shortage of violent clashes between Kosovo police and NATO peacekeepers on the one hand and Kosovo Serbs on the other, resulting in several injuries on both sides.

Twenty-five very difficult years
The Kosovo War
From 28 February 1998 to 11 June 1999, fighting between the Kosovo Albanian Liberation Army (KLA) – with NATO air support and the Albanian ground army – and the military forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) were harsh and with a high blood tax.

It had all started with KLA attacks – with weapons supplied by Albania, which had leftover equipment from the Hoxha era hidden in unlikely places across Albanian territory – against the then Yugoslav authorities in Kosovo, who, as early as Tito’s death in 1981, he wanted independence even within the Yugoslav federation, as until then it had been a province of Serbia.

Albanian women and children are evacuated due to the Serbian advance, Tuesday, March 23, 1999.
Serbian forces – regular and paramilitary – were then concentrated in the insurgent areas, with hostilities escalating without a diplomatic solution being found. It was the time of NATO, which intervened militarily, participating at the same time in the war in Yugoslavia.

That war had finally ended with the Kumanovo Agreement in June 1999, when both sides – NATO and Serbia – agreed to the Alliance’s military presence and the withdrawal of Belgrade’s forces.

Kosovo declares its independence
In 2008, Pristina decides to go one step further, after the end of the wars of the 90s and the relative stability, for which the Balkans and the West were working. Kosovo is unilaterally declared an independent state, something Serbia has never accepted, still – at least at the time – claiming the region as an integral part of itself.

Independent Kosovo was recognized by 100 countries, including the USA, while Russia, China and five EU member states. (Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Slovakia, Romania), among others, did not recognize the independence of Pristina.

Both sides, however, have engaged in dialogue over the last 15 years trying to end the – mainly – diplomatic dispute. The E.U. she has been contributing to the best of her ability ever since

been contributing to the best of its ability to find a permanent and commonly accepted solution, which, however, does not appear in the near future.

A first step was, of course, the Brussels Agreement in 2013, when the governments of Pristina and Belgrade agreed to the – even partial – normalization of their relations, with the common ultimate goal of the integration of both sides into the European family, which for years aims at its Balkan enlargement.

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February 17, 2008. Children of Kosovo Albanian descent climb a statue as citizens celebrate Kosovo’s independence, on the Albanian side of the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitsovica. (©AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)

The Brussels Agreement also provided for the uninterrupted operation of Kosovo’s security forces, free local elections, and the creation of the Union of Serbian Municipalities of Kosovo to protect the Serbian element of the country.

At the same time, in the following years, the interconnection of the two countries by land and air was normalized, while in 2020 it appeared that there was room for the normalization of economic relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

In the meantime, however, last November a new dispute had arisen between the two sides concerning the issue of signs. Kosovo, K wrote at the time, had decided to fine some 10,000 drivers belonging to the Serbian minority for keeping license plates issued by Serbia before 1999, sparking a backlash and leading to the resignation of nearly 600 police officers who belonged to the Serbian minority, as a sign of protest. The issue seemed to be resolved with the intervention of the E.U. and of its high representative himself, Josep Borel.

In fact, last February, the mediation of the E.U. and again, the two sides – through Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic – accept, however orally, the famous Ohrid Agreement for the normalization of their diplomatic relations, with an immediate timetable for the implementation of the agreements.

Until it seems that new tensions are about to hit the already unstable region, after the recent issue that arose with the local elections in northern Kosovo, with the complete abstention of the Serbian element from voting and the tensions and predilections of both sides . At the same time, the Serbian element, as a sign of protest, in addition to the election boycott, already last November, carried out a collective resignation of Serbian officials from the region, including administrative staff, judges and police officers.

The deep roots of the conflict

The dispute over Kosovo could be described as… eternal. Serbia values ​​the region as the heart of its state and religion, as many medieval Serbian Orthodox Christian monasteries are located in Kosovo.

On the other hand, the Albanian element considers Kosovo exclusively its own country, condemning and resisting every attempt at repression by the Serbs over the years. In fact, the voices that call for union with the motherland, Albania, whose elements are scattered throughout the region, never cease.

Every attempt by the government in Pristina to impose tighter controls on the North provokes the reaction of the Serbian element.

Any attempt by the government in Pristina to impose tighter controls on the northern part of the country, dominated by Serbs with close ties to Belgrade, provokes a reaction from the Serbian element.

Typical is the example of Mitrovica, the central city of northern Kosovo, which is actually divided in two, in a way, one might say, ghettoized – the two sides never come into contact with each other. Smaller Serbian enclaves are also found in the south of Kosovo.

The escalation scenario

The tensions inevitably bring to mind the conflicts of the 1990s, putting the Balkans and their nationalisms back on the agenda of the West – notably the EU, but not in the way it would like; that is, with the possibility of expand further.

However, according to analysts, we are rather far from the scenario of provoking a heated episode between the forces of Belgrade and those of NATO on Kosovar territory. On the other hand, no one rules out micro-tensions inside the country, without, however, particular fears of a further escalation in hostilities.

“Belgrade will not fight NATO troops, while Pristina does not have the necessary armed forces.”

“There are no objective conditions for a hot episode in the region,” says Ioannis Armakolas, associate professor of Comparative Politics of SE Europe at the University of Macedonia and head of the SE Europe Program at ELIAMEP, speaking to “K”. “Belgrade will not fight NATO troops, which are not on its territory anyway, while Pristina does not have the armed forces that would allow it to carry out a hot episode. On the other hand, Serbia, after the Treaty of Kumanovo, is forbidden to militarily approach the border with Kosovo, as the Serbian zone has been deemed demilitarized. However, with the tacit acceptance of the West, Belgrade has been increasing its presence in this zone in recent years.”

Although, by order of the Serbian president, Serbian troops have been put on high alert and massed near the border with Kosovo, Ioannis Armakolas tells us that this is something that Aleksandar Vucic does often, especially for his domestic audience. 

Destabilization and Greece

As Ioannis Armakolas emphasizes in his conversation with “K”, the tension that is occurring again between Belgrade and Pristina creates problems for the security of the EU. with the destabilization in the region and the difficulty that the two sides will face in the agreement on independence and the claimed territories. 

“It is a bad sign that we are returning to something “old” in the region,” he underlines. “I estimate that we will not reach levels of critical destabilization in the Balkans, however it does not appear that tensions will cease in Montenegro, North Macedonia, inside Serbia with the Albanian element and inside Kosovo with the Serbian element,” our interlocutor notes .

In response to “K’s” question about how big a problem these tensions can create in Greece, he considers that although any tension on the Greek border is not positive, however, there are many NATO member states in the region (North Macedonia, Albania , Montenegro) as a safety net to avoid any generalized tension.

“Serbia benefits from controlled instability”

From what it can be concluded, the Kumanovo Agreement in 1999 left many “cloudy” spots, creating the well-known imbalances in the wider region. “Serbia lost control of Kosovo, Kosovo, however, just became a UN “protectorate” with the prospect of independence. The West made a mistake – in my opinion – that it did not rush to resolve the issue once and for all, postponing it for the “future”. The problem, it seems, will cease to exist only with the full independence of Kosovo”, estimates Ioannis Armakolas.

Serbia, however, from the end of the wars of the 90s onwards, managed to regroup and stand on its own feet, while Kosovo remains without a stable international presence and recognition by major organizations, such as the UN (in addition, Russia and China, as permanent members of the Security Council, veto in such a case) and the EU, which has now turned its attention to Ukraine and the inclusion of the defending country, but also of Moldova, in the chorus of European states.

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From the recent events in the town of Zvetsan, in northern Kosovo. (©Associated Press)

“Thus, the state of waiting, this pending situation, will probably continue, without a final solution in sight”, says Ioannis Armakolas. “Besides, Serbia has nothing to gain from the recognition of Kosovo. On the contrary, it seems to benefit from the tension in the wider Balkan region, as it can play its role as a factor of stability, thus increasing its influence.” 

“Controlled instability in the region is therefore in Serbia’s interest, as it wants, at the same time, to create a Serbian Republic in Kosovo, on the model of Bosnia-Herzegovina – a bad example for the region. The only possibility for Belgrade to accept the independence of Pristina – something currently impossible – is to join the EU”, our interlocutor estimates.

The Serbian turn to Russia

“Serbia seems to be moving away from the West and towards Russia and China,” says Ioannis Armakolas. “Both politically, but also psychologically – and this is definitely in Russia’s interest, which has no particular means of intervention to influence the region,” he adds.

Moscow, lacking a strategic solution and vision in the Balkans, is investing in destabilization.

“Russian influence in the Balkans is hybrid and only – with information warfare and perhaps with the presence of the Wagner mercenary group in Serbia,” underlines Ioannis Armakolas.

Moscow, as it emerges from the discussion, in the absence of a strategic solution and vision in the Balkans, invests in destabilization, however “it does not have many possibilities of intervention. Take North Macedonia for example: and the name issue was resolved and it joined NATO,” says Ioannis Armakolas.

Where will this all lead?

If we accept that Serbia does not gain and has nothing to gain from the recognition of an independent Kosovo; if it fails to take political control in Pristina; if in the end Belgrade prefers obstruction and its non-alignment with EU foreign policy. E. -which promises him a European future-, preferring its geopolitical rivals, then what will happen to Pristina, at a time when nationalist tendencies – on both sides of course – seem to be increasing and multiplying?

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Serbian flags in the main square of the ethnically divided, Serb-dominated city of Mitrovica. (©AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

“Kosovo, for 15 years, from the declaration of its independence and after that, faithfully followed the West, based on the perspective of full and recognized independence”, says Ioannis Armakolas to “K”.

“The Kosovar Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, believes that the West must change its attitude”.

“Now he sees that the plans of the West have failed and he wants to break away, as he sees that Belgrade has strengthened over the years. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti believes that the West must change its attitude, finally overcome Belgrade’s 15-year appeasement approach. What does this mean; To regain control and order in Northern Kosovo, where Serbian paramilitary groups operate uncontrollably, as does organized crime, with the absence of administrative structures and institutions. Pristina says: “You must allow us to have a presence in these lands. At the same time, he is asking for recognition from the five remaining EU member states, which as a general line maintain the “find them with the Serbs and we’ll see from there on””, notes our interlocutor.

Besides, Albin Kurti is determined to extend state sovereignty throughout the country, according to an analysis by ELIAMEP. On the other hand, due to the active resistance of Belgrade and the extremist elements of the Serbian community of Kosovo, its efforts, according to the same analysis, have led and will lead to repeated crises.

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Police forces in Leposavic, northern Kosovo. (©AP Photo/Marjan Vucetic)

Moreover, according to ELIAMEP’s forecasts, the Kurti government’s initiatives, such as the submission of applications for EU membership. and the Council of Europe, reinforce Belgrade’s nervousness and increase its appetite to tolerate radical elements and escalation of tensions.

However, everything shows that the European perspective of both sides is moving away. The destabilization only seems to create a problem in Belgrade and Pristina, as they deviate, among others, from the conditions for joining the EU, which, logically, will affect the wider Balkan region.

“The enlargement of the E.U. in the Balkans it passes through Ukraine, for which Europe is in a hurry to advance its accession negotiations for security reasons. This is now the priority”, notes Ioannis Armakolas, concluding our conversation.

Source: Kathimerini



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