ZOiS Spotlight 3/2023

Kosovo and Serbia: Teetering on the Brink of Escalation

by Vedran Dzihic 08/02/2023

In recent months, the decades-long tension between Serbia and Kosovo has once again come close to erupting into an armed conflict. A political compromise appears to be an urgent necessity, but for that, the narrative of eternal enmity and intransigence must be redrawn.

Police patrol nearby a roadblock in northern Kosovo at the end of December 2022. IMAGO / VXimages.com

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

In recent weeks and months, a casual observer of relations between Serbia and Kosovo might easily have gained the impression that it all came down to a sparring match between two political prize-fighters: in one corner, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, in the other, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Around the ring, they would have spotted an intriguing mix of spectators, many from international politics – onlookers from Russia and China on one side of the arena and from the US and the EU on the other, with a few from Hungary and neighbouring countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania in between. As demonstrated by the event going on in the ring, the conflict between Kosovo, independent since 2008, and Serbia, which still lays claim to this former Serbian province, appears to be never-ending.

And indeed, tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have been simmering for some time. The conflict escalated in socialist Yugoslavia but steadily worsened after 1981. Repressive measures by Serbia in the 1990s were followed by war between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serbian troops; the outcome was finally decided by NATO – in Kosovo’s favour – in 1999. After years of painstaking post-conflict development under the auspices of the United Nations, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence in 2008, marking the start of a gradual statebuilding process. However, Serbia still contests Kosovar independence and retains de facto control over Serb-populated northern Kosovo.

A spiral of escalation since summer 2022

When the government in Pristina proposed to implement new measures regulating vehicle licence plates and movement of people between Serbia and Kosovo in summer 2022, tension was ramped up. Describing the measures as “a provocation”, Belgrade threatened war and mobilised its troops. At the urging of the US government, which is currently doing its utmost to curb Russian influence in the region, a temporary de-escalation was achieved in late autumn. But in December, there was a further twist in the spiral, with roadblocks in Kosovo and shots fired, another reminder to the West how quickly this conflict can escalate and jeopardise security both within the region and in Europe more widely.

The two main protagonists in the conflict are Aleksandar Vučić and Albin Kurti. Both politically and personally, they are much of a muchness. Kurti is the target of almost constant abuse and demonisation by media outlets loyal to Vučić and is described by Vučić himself as “terrorist scum”. Kurti, for his part, calls Vučić a “mini Putin” and decries Serbia as an authoritarian offshoot of Russia.

Russian influence in Serbia is indeed considerable. Since the latest tensions began in northern Kosovo in early August, Russia has come down firmly on the side of Serbia, claiming to support this “brother nation” and identifying the West as the “bad guy” and the main antagonist, not just in Ukraine but in the Balkans as well. The TV broadcaster Russia Today – funded by the Russian government – has now launched its own Serbian-language channel, which provides a stream of pro-Russian propaganda to an already strongly pro-Russian public. The Russian intelligence services also operate in Serbia and there is cooperation between the two foreign ministries, as well as, in all likelihood, direct political agreements. These close ties are reflected in the opinion polls: 40 per cent of the Serbian population describes Russia as Serbia’s most important foreign policy partner, with the EU trailing behind on 30 per cent and then China on 24 per cent. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the most popular foreign politician in Serbia with a score of 45 per cent. Chinese President Xi Jinping is the runner-up with 12 per cent, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s rating of just 5 per cent puts him at the bottom of the ranking.

The end of Serbia’s see-saw policy?

President Vučić has long pursued a policy of oscillating between the West – meaning the US and the EU – on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. Since the start of the war in Ukraine and now the latest escalation around Kosovo, this see-saw policy appears to be reaching its limits, at least as far as Russia is concerned. In January 2023, the winds of realpolitik changed direction and are now blowing back into Vučić’s and Kurti’s faces. A five-member team from the West, comprising the special representatives of the EU and the US and delegates from the French, German and Italian governments, visited Pristina and Belgrade and made it clear to both sides that there was a desire to defuse the crisis with a substantive agreement in order to avoid this teetering on the brink of armed conflict every few months. A “Franco-German plan” was to serve as the basis for this decisive move. The proposal did not envisage mutual recognition of Kosovo and Serbia; the intention was to ensure that the two sides did not hinder each other’s development.

At first, Aleksandar Vučić seemed to be doing his utmost to torpedo the plan. Under mounting pressure, however, he apparently performed an about-face in January when he made a primetime appearance on TV and announced to the Serbian public that Serbia was willing to accept the plan. Serbia’s failure to do so, he claimed, would lead to its forfeiting the prospect of EU accession and result in the withdrawal of investment, with far-reaching political and economic consequences. This was followed by uproar in the Serbian parliament in early February 2023, with right-wing parties – which reject any compromise with Kosovo – accusing Vučić of betraying the Serbian cause.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti has come under pressure as well. A key element of the plan concerns the formation of an association of Serb-majority municipalities – a proposal which is rejected by Kurti, who insists that he will not accept the establishment of a partly autonomous, ethnically defined entity similar to Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The US is particularly vexed at what it regards as Kurti’s obstinacy, even threatening him with possible political alternatives that would facilitate the compromise. The fundamental dilemma faced by the West is that there is currently very little prospect of EU enlargement, making it almost impossible to motivate the two sides to make concessions. At present, both Kurti and Vučić appear to be playing for time and are continuing the political cat-and-mouse game.

The search for a new narrative

This climate of mistrust, intransigence and a narrative of the “Evil Other” is emblematic of the decades of strained relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Each new escalation deepens the divides between the two sides and creates obstacles along the path towards peaceful coexistence. From this perspective, a political compromise seems to be a more urgent necessity than ever. In the long term, a radical shift in mutual perceptions will have to be sought. In place of a narrative of eternal enmity and intransigence between Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbs, it is essential to work towards a new real utopian scenario – one which is predicated on the possibility of friendship between the two neighbours.

Dr Vedran Dzihic is a Senior Researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna.