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In Kosovo, fears that Russia could inspire a new Serbian offensive

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By Arian Lumezi
Kosovo Security Force soldier places a Kosovo flag on top of armored security vehicle donated by U.S during a handout ceremony in the military barracks Adem Jashari.
Kosovo Security Force soldier places a Kosovo flag on top of armored security vehicle donated by U.S during a handout ceremony in the military barracks Adem Jashari.   -   Copyright  STR /AP

Kosovo had celebrated the 14th anniversary of independence from Serbia just one week before Russian soldiers crossed into Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

As a small, south-eastern European country not very far from Ukraine, the invasion found Kosovo in a precarious and uncertain position. The war, now in its 22nd day, presents a wide range of possible implications for Kosovo’s future.

During the tense months when Russian units began assembling near the Ukrainian border, Kosovans were already debating whether Belgrade might use the conflict as an excuse to attack Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Indeed, there are few Europeans that better understand what Ukrainians are currently going through than the people of Kosovo, who had to endure a conflict waged by a neighbouring state and fuelled by nationalist ideology a little over 20 years ago.

If Russia had been able to advance quickly in Ukraine, the Balkans would be in real trouble.
Agon Maliqi
Analyst

The 1998 Kosovo war was a culmination of years of state repression of Yugoslavia against ethnic Albanians; nine years after Slobodan Milosevic had revoked Kosovo’s autonomy bringing the province under the direct control of Belgrade.

The war between the Yugoslav forces and Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla lasted until June 1999 and ended only after NATO conducted a bombing campaign against Serbia for around three months in a bid to drive Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo.

Much of the reporting in the Western media that has described the conflict in Ukraine as the first European war since WW2 have neglected this conflict, as well as the wars from Slovenia to Macedonia that accompanied the unraveling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

When the Ukraine war began, Kosovo was quick to pick its side: a government building was lit up with the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag. Kosovo also extended support for 20 journalists from Ukraine and pledged to accept 5,000 refugees.

The mutual cultural affinity and the stable political alliance between Serbia and Russia made Belgrade an important player on the sidelines of Putin’s newest military adventure, unavoidably dragging Kosovo in the list of hotspot places in this part of the region that could see a spillover of war.

Aware of the vulnerability of the region, Western diplomats were quick to react: German Foreign Affairs Minister, Annalena Baerbock, visited Sarajevo, Prishtina and Belgrade, while Borrell visited Albania starting a tour in the region and delivered messages of hope for the quick EU integration for the Western Balkans countries in light of recent events in Europe.

Security issues

Kosovo’s government established a ‘Security Fund’ and invited citizens to donate funds to the young Kosovo army. But although popular, the initiative is not expected to have any major impact on the strength of Kosovo’s military.

The government has also formed a working group on Kosovo’s NATO membership bid, which is held up by the fact that five EU member states - Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Romania and Cyprus - do not recognise its independence.

Kosovo has a NATO presence with the KFOR mission that continues to serve as a guarantee to Kosovo’s security under the Kumanovo agreement achieved in 1999 that put an end to the NATO 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia.

Serbia continues to maintain a heavy influence in the northern part of Kosovo along the border. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite presidency has actively threatened a separation of Republika Srpska.

Political analyst and expert Agon Maliqi says that Russia has followed an aggressive path in the Balkans by investing in keeping conflicts open in Bosnia and Kosovo, after it had actively tried to prevent NATO accession for Montenegro and North Macedonia in a bid to create destabilisation fronts in the war of influence with the West in the region.

Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
A man passes by a mural depicting the Russian President Vladimir Putin, that reads: ''Brother'' in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, March 12, 2022.Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Maliqi believes that there was a real danger of the conflict in Ukraine escalating in the Balkans, but the resistance of the Ukrainians and the quick reaction from the West kept the situation under control.

“If Russia would be able to advance quickly in Ukraine and the reaction from the West wouldn’t be like it is, the Balkans would be in real trouble,” he said.

Serbia declined to join the long list of countries introducing sanctions against Russia and was the only country in Europe with pro-Russian demonstrations held in its capital after the Russian invasion began.

Belgrade tabloid newspapers, seen to be under the influence of President Aleksandar Vucic, somewhat bizarrely covered the war as an attack of Ukraine against Russia.

But Belgrade also endorsed the UN resolution condemning the Russian war of aggression, which critics see as an attempt by Serbia to have its cake and eat it, using its ties with Russia as a leverage in its relationship with the West.

Kosovo’s dialogue with Serbia

Kosovo’s long process of dialogue with Serbia, mediated by the European Union, has had many roadblocks along the way. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell – currently on a tour visit in the region – conceded that the dialogue “is not moving at the pace it should.”

This process, seen as a crucial step for both countries in their aspirations to join the EU, entered a new phase of status-quo when the current Kosovo government came into power roughly a year ago.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti has repeatedly refused to consider the dialogue with Serbia a priority, building a narrative that Prishtina does not stand to benefit from the urgency with which the process was being handled by his predecessors and the mediating EU.

The fear of potential destabilizing actions in the region might give Vucic leverage against the West, warns Donika Emini, a politics expert specialising in the dialogue process between Kosovo and Serbia.

On the other hand, Emini points out that the current crisis might also help Kosovo to strengthen its position and to use the situation to overcome the remaining state-building challenges.

Emini adds that EU membership it’s still not a simple process, especially for Kosovo, “although immediate needs to integrate the Western Balkans have appeared.”

“The current norms are being challenged…but there will be no progress in the integration process without an active engagement of political elites in the Balkans for further reforms and democratization.”

Maliqi agrees that the integration process for the Western Balkans countries might get a new push, with the EU seeing an immediate need to bring the region closer, but warns against “building a lot of illusions.”

In general, he thinks that the war in Ukraine might help to shift old positions in the Balkans and reduce Russia’s influence.

“Russia’s influence in the Balkans is waning, and with that, Serbia is losing its blackmailing position [towards the West].”