Serbian threats towards Kosovo are a challenge to regional security. So far European countries and the US have failed to take heed.
Serbia’s recent aggressive acts, such as its militarisation at the border, are not simply about Kosovo’s reciprocity policy on car number plates. After all, the reciprocity measures are only in place as a direct response to Serbia’s own identical policies on Kosovo.
The Serbian government’s acts of aggression should be understood in the context of a much bigger pattern that has characterised Kosovo-Serbian relations for over a decade, and it is driven by both domestic and international factors.
Internationally, such militaristic responses provide political fodder for Serbia’s revisionist history narrative, in which it portrays itself as the rightfully aggrieved party.
They also make political concessions from the EU more likely, as EU elites consistently prioritise Balkans “stabilisation” over democracy, justice, or human rights promotion.
Serbia can escalate a situation while also receiving praise and concessions for eventually “deescalating it,” as per EU appeals.
It was under the leadership of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic that the issue of Kosovo became even more entrenched and vital to Serbia’s domestic agenda.
This agenda included the denial of the atrocities that the Serbian government committed in the 1990s, including denial of the genocide in Srebrenica and Vucic’s more recent explicit denial of the Racak massacre in Kosovo.
In fact, in the last few years, Vucic has publicly embraced the worldview of the country’s late President Slobodan Milosevic and his intentions for Serbian domination, only criticising Milosevic’s failure to achieve these goals.
Serbia’s long campaign against Kosovo
Over the years, Serbia has waged a successful de-recognition campaign against Kosovo and continues to block Kosovo’s membership at the UN, Interpol, and other international organisations.
Therefore, Serbia’s recent threats and militarisation represent another attempt to delegitimise Kosovo’s existence, promote revisionist history in which Serbia is painted as the victim, and ultimately portray Kosovo as the aggressor, with the intention of isolating Kosovo from international support.
In the long run, a decrease in international support for Kosovo’s statehood would embolden Serbia towards more aggression and perhaps a direct military invasion.
Even if this current crisis simmers down, if Serbia can get away with its current military posturing, it knows that it will be able to get away with more next time, hence gradually escalating the regional crisis in the long-run.
Internationally, while the Serbian government is growing in its nationalism and authoritarianism, it is also gaining influence via its connections to Russia and China.
Kosovo’s Western partners, the US and the EU, on the other hand, have remained relatively silent on Serbia’s aggression and have been lukewarm or even hindered Kosovo’s path to sovereignty (e.g. Western-supported coup during Kurti’s first government).
Domestically, Serbia’s recent acts of aggression are in line with Serbia’s general authoritarian tendencies, as seen in Serbia’s public protests, with Serbian police beating nonviolent protesters down in the recent past.
Vucic’s aggression toward Kosovo, therefore, also serves as a distraction for his domestic constituents and for the government’s autocratic behavior.
The aggressive acts against Kosovo allow the Vucic regime to consolidate power and unify the country along ethnic lines and to reactivate nationalist myths of Serbia’s “glory days”, despite Serbia’s ongoing political corruption, opposition movements, and many other domestic issues. We’ve seen this before in the 1990s Balkans.
The rhetoric on the Serbian side seems to justify these military threats via the need to protect ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, although no violence against such groups have been reported.
They are also interpreting Kurti’s reciprocity measures as a threat to Serbia’s sovereignty, most likely because such reciprocity measures are a way for Kosovo to assert its sovereignty in the north, after years of Kosovo cooperating with international actors and further eroding its domestic powers within this region.
The west's appeasement of Vucic
Overtures by the EU and US have also emboldened the Vucic regime.
Serbia’s campaigning has convinced at least 15 countries to “revoke” their recognition of Kosovo, but it is Kosovo that is asked to concede more and more for the sake of regional stability.
As in the case of transatlantic threats to create the Kosovo Specialist Chambers or else be referred to the UN Security Council — the international community asks that Kosovo concede to Serbia and then punishes Kosovo when it refuses to hold on to some tattered shred of its hard-fought sovereignty.
Generally, the West seems eager to ignore Serbia’s unyielding positions and dangerous nationalist and revisionist narratives, working with regional authoritarian actors for the sake of stability.
Vucic has defied the US and EU time and time again, as in the example of Richard Grenell demanding that Serbia end its de-recognition campaign against Kosovo, which fell on deaf ears.
As another example, as the US bullied Kosovo’s government into obedience and as the EU charged former Kosovo President Thaci for war crimes at the Hague, there was no mention of the reality that the Serbian justice system has convicted only a small number of people for the death of thousands of victims in Kosovo, amongst other ongoing human rights issues.
They do not punish Serbia for its purchase of sanctioned weapons from Russia, its de-facto government in northern Kosovo, or its growing trends of authoritarianism.
So far, the EU’s calls for de-escalation have been dripping in “both sides” rhetoric, which promotes a false neutrality that only aids the aggressor. Such claims of equal blame are a step in shielding powerful actors from facing consequences to the violence that they commit.
They impact more than just the present and future, something that Serbia is counting on. These both sides narratives erase the painful past in Kosovo – one of international aggression driven by an intentional, evidenced, and systematic state policy to get rid of ethnic Albanians through murder and displacement.
By continuing to equalise the culpability, both in the past and present, and dismiss the grave power asymmetries between Serbia and Kosovo in the name of a fragile stability, the EU is indirectly justifying and allowing Serbia’s aggression.
Dangers ahead for Kosovo
Kurti must understand the risks inherent in his reciprocity measures and his attempts to enforce Kosovo’s sovereignty.
The main risks are the alienation of Kosovo’s Western partners, which would make Kosovo’s security situation very precarious and further embolden Serbia to aggression. Moreover, the current situation seems to have brought Serbia and Russia toward greater engagement and cooperation.
As Kurti experienced during the tariffs fiasco of March 2020, Kosovo can’t act unilaterally without provoking some form of international punishment.
In March 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the US administration froze $50 million of vital financial assistance to Kosovo and threatened to remove peacekeeping from the area because Kurti wouldn’t remove reciprocal tariffs on Serbian goods without some concession.
Therefore, the second iteration of the Kurti government must be acutely aware that Kosovo cannot assert its sovereignty, even with reciprocal measures, without backlash from the US, EU, and other international actors.
But Kosovo cannot maintain its security without some external support – which poses a most challenging trade-off that Kurti must delicately balance out.
Still, it is difficult to see another path toward consolidating Kosovo’s statehood and sovereignty in this current climate, given that Kosovo’s Western partners do not have the political will or carrots (EU membership) to affect real change. Instead, they continue to demand more and more concessions from an already gutted Kosovo and minimal concessions from an emboldened Serbia.
Unfortunately, as long as the West’s “both sides” framings continue, they will only serve to silence and limit the weaker actor, Kosovo, and to sugar-coat the past violence and present aggressive policies of the stronger actor, Vucic’s Serbia.
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