Kosovo-Serbia War Speculation Is Much Ado About Nothing

Why fears of a Russia-Ukraine spillover in the region are unfounded even though we should keep an eye on it

Kosovo-Serbia War Speculation Is Much Ado About Nothing
NATO soldiers greet a truck driver near the town of Zubin Potok in North Kosovo / Armend Nimani / AFP via Getty Images

Establishing statehood from scratch has not been a smooth process for Kosovo.

Followers of Balkan affairs are well accustomed to the cyclic nature of tensions and crises that regularly occur every couple of months in the youngest European nation. More often than not, it involves a seemingly technical and otherwise mundane issue that gets elevated to the level of an international or at least regional crisis and requires the involvement of the United States, the European Union, NATO and the United Nations.

With the renewed invasion of Ukraine maintaining a firm hold of the front pages across the continent and beyond, focus on Kosovo understandably slipped for most of 2022. That is until July 31, when Kosovo started trending on Twitter as a slew of journalists and analysts began predicting that a new front in Russia’s confrontation with the West was about to be opened along the border between Kosovo and Serbia.

Telegram channels that had delivered up-to-the-minute updates from the front line in Ukraine shifted gears almost in unison to share videos from the North Kosovo region, and Ukrainian Twitter took a pause from demanding the West #closetheskyoverUkraine and pledged their support for Kosovo in “an aggressive war” that was just about to be launched by Serbia, “Putin’s Trojan horse in Europe.” Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and has relied on Russia’s support in blocking initiatives involving Kosovo in bodies such as the U.N. Security Council.

Seasoned Kosovo experts were the most surprised. While many had noticed an uptick in nationalist rhetoric from Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who accused Kosovo of conducting an ethnic cleansing campaign in June over its requirement that Serbian citizens living in the country switch to license plates and entry documents accepted by the Kosovar state, it most definitely did not look like the start of a war.

If anything, it seemed exactly like any other political crisis and war of words that regularly hits Kosovo. While those less attuned to the region’s politics might be surprised by the barricades being erected to block key roads in the country, this happens at least once a year in Kosovo, particularly in the north.

A country of less than 2 million people, Kosovo has become a staple of international relations textbooks, especially those arguing in favor or against interventions. Often cited as the spark that ignited the disintegration of the socialist federation of Yugoslavia at the end of the 20th century, it set a slew of precedents including being the cause of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia and Montenegro (making it a consistent target of hate on the intellectual left, especially for followers of Noam Chomsky).

But outside the realm of heated (and often drunken) college debates, Kosovo’s extremely brief history as a nation, having only declared independence in 2008, has largely been marked by its struggle to wrest itself from Serbia’s influence and detach itself from the heavy hand of international guarantors of its independence. Because it is considered a partially recognized state internationally, the U.N. Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, still represents the country abroad and facilitates interactions with various global agencies, such as Interpol. The latest dispute is just one of the many technical issues Kosovo has to solve before establishing control over the entirety of its territory.

Most of Kosovo’s problems involve the two main ethnic groups in the country: the overwhelming ethnic Albanian majority, which makes up about 90% of the population, and the Serbian minority. When the U.N. Security Council approved resolution 1244 and established its administration of the breakaway province in 1999 — making it the first U.N. protectorate in Europe — it insisted that the rights of the ethnic Serb minority be protected through many checks and balances, no matter how much smaller the group compared with Kosovo Albanians.

Yet for many ethnic Serbs, mostly concentrated in the north of the country, Kosovo was not — and never would be — their home country under such circumstances. In the many years following the NATO bombing, they maintained a strong relationship with Serbia, refused or at the very least preferred to have Serbian documents over Kosovar ones, and lived in enclaves where Belgrade paid for health, education and other public services.

That brings us to the issue over license plates. For those living in the enclaves, it was easier to have license plates issued by Serbia since much more of their driving was done within their isolated towns as well as back and forth to Serbia than among their Albanian compatriots. In their bubbles of isolation strewn all over the country, the past two decades of Kosovo’s existence had barely left a trace.

The EU launched a political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia in 2012 that was meant to resolve these lingering issues. The reason the EU’s involvement was necessary — and the reason the events on July 31 were the least surprising for the locals — was because in Kosovo, it was typical for issues such as the taxation of imports from Serbia to provoke the burning of border crossings, as it did in the summer of 2011.

Insiders refer to it as controlled chaos, or politically orchestrated havoc, as a means for each side to get what they want in the ongoing negotiations between the two former belligerents. It usually follows a predictable timeline: The government in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, proposes a measure that it intends to apply nationwide, including the Serb enclaves. Serbia, just like most nations with a significant minority in a neighboring country and in line with its continued refusal to accept Kosovo’s independence, protests and starts attaching outrageous historical precedents to an ostensibly boring matter. ​​For example, when the government in Pristina began insisting that Kosovo Serbs, who are hooked up to the main Kosovo power grid, pay their electricity bills, the main negotiator in the dialogue for Serbia at the time, Marko Djuric, said this was the first step toward Kosovo becoming a chauvinist, expansionist power in the Balkans intent on forming the state of Greater Albania.

Political issues between the two countries led to an imbalance in the voltage and electricity frequency along the power grid shared by Kosovo and Serbia, and ended up affecting the entire European electricity grid, with people reporting slowed-down electric clocks all over the continent.

When Albin Kurti, the leader of the Self-Determination Party in Kosovo, became prime minister in 2020, he promised he would handle things differently. He is colloquially referred to as “The Tear Gas King” of Kosovo because of his frequent arrests for throwing tear gas at police while on the front line of every major protest in the country, coupled with his making the world news when his party was in opposition and launched tear gas canisters in Parliament.

Kurti has been protesting since the ethnic Albanian community faced the worst oppression at the hands of former Serbian president and strongman Slobodan Milosevic and was even a political prisoner. Over the years he built a steely resolve and became less inclined to play by the rules imposed on Kosovo by the EU and the U.N. In fact, his protest movement was known for stunts such as toppling — in broad daylight no less — the omnipresent white U.N. vans in the country. When he came to power, Kurti pledged to confront what he saw as the hypocrisy with which Kosovo was treated internationally.

On the one hand, when the government acted in a manner that the U.N. or the EU deemed irresponsible — such as imposing a 100% import tax on goods produced in Serbia, effectively stopping all trade — Kosovo would get told off and reminded that it had responsibilities as an independent nation.

Yet when Kosovo wanted to make decisions involving domestic issues, like attempting to impose a unified license plate system, it was told this had to be negotiated internationally with Serbia present at the table, too. If there was anything Kurti personally hated, it was that the international guarantors of Kosovo’s independence allowed Serbia to intervene in its internal affairs.

So while Kurti could not dictate how Serbia acted toward Kosovo, he could use his sovereign powers — backed by the Parliament where his party has an overwhelming majority — to poke Serbia in the eye and remind it that Kosovo was, despite Serbia’s fervent opposition, an independent country and that he could make Serbian citizens jump through hoops just like Serbia did for his compatriots.

Any time Kosovo citizens travel through Serbia, they are issued a temporary travel document, which amounts to a piece of white paper with their personal details and the Serbian government’s logo on top, since Serbia does not recognize any Kosovo documents and refuses to stamp Kosovo passports. Since these documents are issued manually to each person, the process can lead to hours-long queues at the border until everyone gets their pass, which is an additional cause for frustration.

With the license plate issue remaining unresolved since at least the fall of last year, Kurti decided to tack on an additional measure and apply the principle of reciprocity with regard to entry documents — to do unto Serbia as it did unto them. As a general principle of bilateral relations between two countries, this is common, but in the context of Kosovo’s closely monitored relationship with Serbia, it caused massive outrage (and led to the above-mentioned accusations of ethnic cleansing).

Locals were not particularly surprised when Kurti announced this, being largely familiar with his predilection for mischief. Neither were the EU or other international organizations, while some did issue harshly worded tweets. The reactions from Serbia and Vucic were expected, and if anything, it allowed him to spend several days filling government-controlled news channels and outlets (Serbia has consistently ranked low in terms of media freedoms) with angry diatribes about how the Kosovo Albanians were terrible and this should not be tolerated any further.

The spillover to Ukraine, a country whose citizens and supporters have held a vice-like grip on social media sites such as Twitter and now hold significant sway in determining the narrative both around their country and Europe in general, was not expected. For starters, Ukraine does not recognize Kosovo’s independence either. While Kosovo has made efforts to provide support during the renewed invasion with initiatives such as training women in demining efforts (after all, the Balkan region remembers war much more vividly than the rest of the continent), there have been no significant changes in the diplomatic relations between the two. Given that Ukraine’s leadership is focused elsewhere, this seems understandable.

Perhaps the recent hysteria over the possibility of war breaking out in Kosovo was precisely what the debate around Ukraine’s future was missing. In terms of precedents, there is no country that bears more parallels to Ukraine’s current predicament than Kosovo.

Russia’s president-turned-hobby-historian, Vladimir Putin, purports that Ukraine is the birthplace of the Russian nation, just like Milosevic claimed Kosovo was to Serbia during the 1990s. Russia disregards the desires and unique history of Ukrainians, just like the needs of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians were ignored when it was a province of Serbia during the 20th century. Both countries share a socialist background, and both populations are accused of being “ungrateful” for the many benefits they received during socialism, despite there being a clear pattern of economic and political subjugation.

In this comparison, Serbia, as the Russian proxy in the Balkans, exerts similar predatory, territorial and political claims toward its smaller and weaker neighbor. Finally, just like we saw with Ukraine earlier this year, Kosovo became synonymous with a unified Western front against Serbian aggression in 1999, ultimately leading to the NATO bombing that saw countries like Germany engage in aerial bombings for the first time since World War II. Grueling sanctions, too, were applied to Serbia to dissuade it from engaging in or supporting the aggression in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and just like we see today with Russia, they failed to produce any meaningful results.

Most explicitly, Putin mentioned Kosovo almost daily in 2014 as an argument to legitimize the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas and continues to do so after the renewed invasion in February. His singular obsession with Kosovo has been cited by several leading Russia experts as being the reason for his anti-Western shift over the years, but these analysts usually fail to notice his true motivations behind it.

Putin is not particularly worried about international humanitarian law or its implications and citing his fear of NATO expansion does not paint the full picture. What Putin saw and associates with the 1999 NATO bombing, what struck fear in his heart, was not a penchant for philosophical debates about the morality of the world’s biggest military alliance bombing a country into submission. It was the realization that perhaps, after he violated agreement after agreement and countless other Western attempts at appeasement — just like Milosevic did — they could move to bomb him or use other radical means to remove him from power.

Because if there is anything Kosovo has become a symbol of, it is the decision by a unified Western front to take away the power of autocratic leaders to decide the fate of their citizens when it is deemed they are unable to act in their interest. For those who look closely at the Western rhetoric at the time, Milosevic’s ill treatment of ethnic Albanians when Kosovo was a Serbian province is the single main reason cited for the intervention.

Knowing his penchant for reading the fine print, Putin definitely noticed. He also realized that if the West could do this to Serbia — which, while significantly smaller than the Russian Federation but with an army among the five most powerful in Europe at the time, albeit without nuclear weapons — one day, the West could decide that a Russian leader like him was abusing his citizens and decide to intervene in a similar fashion.

This is why the spike in interest in Kosovo among observers in Ukraine and beyond should not be downplayed, despite the misplaced worries about a war breaking out. The parting message for Ukrainians, as they continue fighting Russian encroachment on their territory, should be that the key lessons as to the limits of Western involvement in their cause lie precisely in the Balkans and that these precedents should help them navigate issues such as the reintegration of the Donbas and Crimea.

One day, they too will have to think about what license plates people driving in from Russia will need, when the armed conflict is replaced by a war of technical and mundane things.

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