BALKAN BLOG: Five days to preserve peace in the Western Balkans

BALKAN BLOG: Five days to preserve peace in the Western Balkans
A meeting between Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (right) on August 18 failed to resolve the dispute. / European Union
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow August 26, 2022

A deadline is approaching in Kosovo for controversial new rules on ID cards and car number plates to enter force. If it happens, the move is expected to lead to a new outburst of protests in the volatile northern Kosovo region. Senior diplomats from the EU and US are in the region urgently trying to avert a new crisis before the rules enter force on September 1. 

Under the measures announced by Pristina, ethnic Serbs will be given temporary IDs and car number plates to replace the travel documents issued by the Serbian authorities. Ethnic Serbs who live in Kosovo will be required to obtain new number plates with the Kosovo country code RKS, which is not accepted by Serbia, instead of the KS code.

As the original date for the measures to enter force, August 1, approached, Serbian officials described them as a step towards the expulsion of the Serbian population from Kosovo. Officials in Pristina, meanwhile, argued that they are merely exposing reciprocal measures that are the same as those taken by Belgrade for people travelling to Serbia from Kosovo. 

Local Serbs in northern Kosovo reacted angrily, barricading roads to the border in the hours before the measures were supposed to come into effect. Narrowly averting a worse crisis, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti announced on July 31 that Kosovo was ready to postpone the decision until September 1, if the barricades were removed.

Now, however, September 1 is fast approaching and despite a determined diplomatic push by EU and US envoys there has so far been no compromise. Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic met on August 18 in Brussels, but the meeting ended without agreement. Since then, EU envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Miroslav Lajcak and US special envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar have visited the region in a bid to avert a fresh crisis, but so far without a breakthrough. 

After the latest meeting between Escobar, Lajcak and Vucic on August 25, Lajcak said that the discussion had been “difficult but responsible”, while Escobar tweeted: “Tough and long meeting just now with President Vucic. We appreciate the president’s commitment to peace and stability. The work continues.” 

Vucic’s comment after the meeting, as reported by Serbian news agency Tanjug, was that he will not give up on vital national and state interests, or the interests and security of Serbs in Kosovo.

The main progress so far has been an assurance from both Kurti and Vucic that neither side wants an escalation of the situation or an outbreak of violence on September 1. 

In the shadow of Ukraine 

Despite a lengthy normalisation process mediated by the EU, relations between Serbia and Kosovo periodically escalate. The core of the problems between the two countries is that Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia — following a bloody war in the late 1990s — but Belgrade does not recognise Kosovo as a separate state. There is a substantial minority of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, concentrated in one part of the country, who look to Belgrade other than Pristina for leadership. 

Russia backs Serbia in its determination not to recognise Kosovo, and has helped to block Kosovo from membership of the UN and other international bodies. 

With the invasion of Ukraine and speculation that we are entering a new Cold War era (albeit with most of the former eastern bloc countries now ranged on the Western side), there are fears that Russia will exploit existing tensions in the Western Balkans to destabilise the region. This concerns not only northern Kosovo, but also Bosnia & Herzegovina where leading Bosnian Serb politicians have been threatening the secession of Republika Srpska, the county’s Serb entity. 

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is adding fuel to the fire of tensions in the Balkans. Moscow’s propaganda disseminated throughout the Balkans by Russian media and disinformation proxies are fanning the flames,” said Capucine May, Europe analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, in comments emailed to bne IntelliNews

“Putin’s invasion has emboldened some of the Balkans’ more nationalist leaders, including Republika Srpska’s [Milorad] Dodik and Serbia’s Vucic. The war is fuelling their pro-Serb rhetoric and increasing tensions across the region,” May added. 

Unhelpfully, Russian officials have weighed in on the situation. On August 2, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova urged the US and the EU to stop encouraging Kosovo’s “radicals” to provoke Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia.

“Until the West realises that the threat to undermine the fragile stability in the Balkan region is very real, dangerous experiments will continue. Responsibility for this lies entirely with the West and, above all, with Washington,” Zakharova said  

Later, when Serbian Interior Minister Aleksanda Vulin visited Moscow earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s office said there is a need for a solution that has “full respect for Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Meanwhile, Ukraine, which currently does not recognise Kosovo — mainly because Russia has used the Western recognition of Kosovo to justify its own actions in east Ukraine — may reconsider its position in light of the new geopolitical situation in Europe. MP Oleksiy Goncharenko said on August 6 he had filed a draft resolution to the parliament on the recognition of Kosovo.

Is war a possibility? 

The big fear at the moment is that a failure to resolve the situation before September 1 could result in larger-scale violence in northern Kosovo. 

As mentioned, the leaders of the two countries have said they want to avoid any violence — but at the same time they appear to be playing to audiences at home by emphasising the dangers of the standoff. 

Vucic said after the tensions were calmed at the end of July that “the most difficult scenario” in Kosovo was barely avoided. He added: “We were one step away from disaster.”

He has also repeatedly talked of the need to defend the interests of Serbs in Kosovo. 

Kurti said in an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica on August 7 that the risk of a new conflict between Kosovo and Serbia is high, as the situation has changed since the invasion of Ukraine.

“The first episode, a consequence of the fascist idea of panslavism that the Kremlin has, was Ukraine. If we have a second episode, for example in Transnistria, then the probabilities that a third war will develop in the Western Balkans, and in Kosovo in particular, they will be very high,” Kurti added.

More recently, he called in an interview with Germany’s Welt for an increased peacekeeping force on the ground, saying it was needed due to "threats from Serbia and Russia”. 

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Vucic and Kurti recently, and called for restraint on both sides. He also said that Nato, which has the 3,700-strong KFOR force in Kosovo, is ready to step in if needed. “KFOR is ready to intervene if stability is jeopardised,” said Stoltenberg at a joint press conference with Kurti on August 17. 

Verisk Maplecoft’s May talked of the risks of disinformation on social media that at the time of the last clashes presented “skirmishes as a full-out war”, and stressed that “tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are unlikely to tip into all-out war”. 

“The risk of conflict is lessened by the presence of the Nato-led KFOR peacekeeping force and ongoing international diplomatic mediation efforts. The fact that both countries – whether they admit it or not – still harbour hopes of joining the EU is another important factor,” argued May. 

She also pointed out that “blockades and violence are relatively common occurrences along this border, especially over the formalisation of identity through license plates and ID cards.”

With little progress in the talks so far, and no obvious path to a compromise — Kurti has made clear that he does not plan to scrap the measures — the introduction of the new rules may simply be postponed again. But while pushing the issue down the road should help to avoid an immediate crisis next week, the two sides are coming no closer to the lasting resolution that is required to normalise the situation in the region and for either to progress towards EU accession