This story was originally published by Sbunker as part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished by Global Voices with permission.
Long before the conflict in Ukraine escalated into a full-scale war by Russia, tensions existed in the Western Balkans, as did Russia's interest in the Western Balkans remaining a troubled area within Europe and being used as a threat, whenever deemed useful to its interests.
Not more than six years ago, the involvement of the Russian secret service in a failed coup in Montenegro was confirmed. This was at a time when Montenegro was concluding the procedures for NATO membership and this certainly did not suit Russia. Ever closer relations were also seen between the Prime Minister of Northern Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, and Russian President Vladimir Putin — relations that clearly hindered the progress of the Macedonian state towards NATO membership. On the other hand, the close relations that the representative of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina Milorad Dodik cultivated with President Putin gave a clear signal of Russia's motives and interests in this part of Europe. And finally, sustaining tense relations between Kosovo and Serbia, turns out to be a well-thought-out strategy of the Russian Federation to cement its influence in the region.
Aware of an increased Russian interest in the Balkans, Kosovo has been committed and has taken appropriate action to thwart any destabilizing efforts in the country. In this sense, last year, the Government of Kosovo declared non-grata two Russian diplomats who operated in Kosovo, on the grounds that they posed a threat to the national security of Kosovo.
However, after the Russian attack on Ukraine, the alarm was raised about the possibility of escalating the conflict in the Western Balkans because of the unresolved issue between Kosovo and Serbia and the fragile political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, despite increased attention in Ukraine, the US and the EU rebalanced their focus on the Western Balkans. A senior US delegation visited the region, where the main demand was to end the “status quo” between Kosovo and Serbia. On the other hand, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the EU has been more vocal in calling for Serbia to side with the West in imposing sanctions on Russia.
Incidents in northern Kosovo
Two attacks on police in northern Kosovo in April, which it is not clear who carried them out, but which the Kosovo government has described as an attempt to destabilize from the outside, brought back mutual accusations between the parties. Although the case is under investigation, the Kosovo government described it as a terrorist attack, claiming that bullets fired at police vehicles were fired from Serbian territory.
Minister of Internal Affairs Xhelal Sveçla and Police Director Samedin Mehmeti said in a joint press conference that the border police officers were attacked for three days in a row, during the shifts at the border point with Serbia- Jarinje. According to Svecla, the first attempted attack was carried out by placing metal hedgehogs on the national road, “in order to disable the work of the Kosovo Police and at the same time endanger the lives of police officers.” In the second attack, stones were thrown at the Kosovo Police.
The third attack was carried out with firearms near the checkpoint set up in order to prevent the use of illegal roads. Albanian and Serb police officers were traveling in the police vehicle.
In a public appearance, Interior Minister Xhelal Sveçla stated that:
“The serious commitment of the institutions of Kosovo, especially the Kosovo Police, to establish order and law in every corner of Kosovo, has become an obstacle for Serbia, for certain groups, which are directly supported by Serbia and it truly thwarts the plans of all those who have seen Kosovo as a potential cradle for their criminal activities and as a continuation of other crises.”
Regarding the non-publication of the attacks earlier, the minister has reasoned that they have left time for the police to find out the causes. But, after the attack in which the lives of police officers were directly endangered, as the Minister of Interior put it, there were assessments by the security organs that it was a terrorist attack and the information was shared with the public in order to prevent any kind of misinformation.
Despite reaching some agreements in the past that also deal with the security aspect in the north, they have not contributed to maintaining calm. In some cases, Kosovo's own officials have reiterated that Serbia continues to keep the parallel structures in the north alive, aiming to create tensions whenever Belgrade demands it. Attacks like these in the north have often served to create a new situation on the ground, after which negotiations have begun. Since the post-war period, the so-called “Civil Protection” structure has operated in the north through intimidation and blackmail as a means to maintain the presence of the state of Serbia in this part of the territory. The attempt of Kosovo institutions to extend sovereignty to the north has usually met with resistance from Serbs. This has been accompanied by roadblocks and attacks on police.
It is worth mentioning that Kosovo and Serbia have signed an agreement to dismember the “Civil Protection” and the former members of this structure — 483 are integrated in Kosovo central institutions.
Diplomats demand that tensions be avoided
Aware of the fragile situation in the north of the country, Western embassies in Kosovo and the European Union Office have condemned the attacks on police, but at the same time sought to avoid speculation that could spark tensions in this part of Kosovo. Thus, the US Ambassador to Pristina, Jeff Hovenier, expressed concern over reports of gunshots and throwing stones at police officers near Zubin Potok. Meanwhile, the EU Office has strongly condemned what it called a “violent attack on a Kosovo Police patrol.” In the same line of condemnation was the NATO Mission in Kosovo, where in addition to condemning the attacks against the police, it offered its readiness to support the Kosovo Police, if requested.
The Serbian List condemns the attacks
As happens rarely, the Serbian List and other officials from Belgrade reacted to these attacks. Although the motives and perpetrators of the attacks remain unknown, the entity representing Kosovo Serbs described it as official Pristina's tendency to smear the Serbs.
“This incident is aimed at destabilizing the situation, but it is also an attempt to present Serbs as bandits, which is not true,” was said in a statement by the Serbian List.
This subject called on “all citizens to refrain, not to fall prey to provocations and not to allow such incidents that endanger the much-needed peace in this area.”
In order to stop smuggling, Kosovo police earlier this year closed several illegal roads in the border area with Serbia. But in the period 26-28 April, KFOR announced that in coordination with the Kosovo Police and the MIA it has taken action to open the road near the administrative borderline.
According to them, any security measures aimed at improving the police and maintaining a safe and peaceful environment should be weighed in proportion to the needs of local communities and freedom of movement for locals.
Unstable “status quo”
US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried said that this situation suits only Russia, which is interested in expanding the conflict. Thus, concrete steps were demanded towards reaching a final agreement which would include all unresolved issues between the two parties
Nearly 10 months after the last Kurti-Vucic meeting, they were invited to an informal dinner in Berlin hosted by the EU's special envoy for dialogue, Miroslav Lajçak. Earlier, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met separately with Vucic and Kurti, who sought the commitment of both to reach a final solution.
But the parties have not given clear signals that they will change their positions. While Kurti insists that mutual recognition must be at the center of the agreement, Vucic has ruled it out, demanding that Kosovo meet its obligation to establish an Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that progress in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is of great importance for peace and stability in southeast Europe, as well as for the European integration of both countries. According to Scholz, the future Kosovo-Serbia agreement will have many details, and the most important – that which Kosovo insists upon – will include mutual recognition. But such clarity regarding the epilogue of the agreement has not been expressed by Miroslav Lajçak. This is due to the fact that five countries do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, consequently, the EU has a neutral attitude towards Kosovo’s status. The only promise for Kosovo when it comes to dialogue is the confirmation of a European future for Kosovo and the Western Balkans. In the absence of clarity that would put an end to the stalemate in the dialogue, the EU from time to time reverts to the demand for implementation of agreements from previous dialogue rounds, including the establishment of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities. The EU has also been criticized by Kosovo officials for taking a one-sided approach, not treating the parties as equals in dialogue.
Putin compares Kosovo with the regions in Ukraine and the Caucasus
The case of Kosovo has continued to be mentioned by Kremlin officials to justify the annexation of territories in Ukraine. After meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Vladimir Putin said he had personally read the ICJ ruling on Kosovo, according to which the implementation of the right to self-determination for the territory of a given part does not oblige it to request permission to declare sovereignty from the country from which it secedes.
“This is written in relation to Kosovo and this decision has been supported by all. If this is the case, then the Republic of Donbas and the Republic of Donetsk have the same rights to not implement Kyiv’s central authority when declaring their sovereignty, as the precedent exists,” said Putin.
Russia's interest in linking its political and military actions to the Balkans is longstanding but has intensified after the attack on Ukraine.
It is precisely this attempt by Russia to compare Kosovo with the regions in Ukraine and the Caucasus that has prompted Western structures – the EU and NATO and some political leaders to accelerate the achievement of a final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. This would be the only way for the status quo not to serve Russia and for the region to consolidate its path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.