Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti warns that Russia is stoking tension between Kosovo and Serbia due to the failure of the war in Ukraine, while Belgrade has taken a first step towards deploying troops in the region.
Nationalism, barricades and license plates: what is happening in Kosovo
Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, where they are the majority, have been barricaded for more than a week, preventing the free movement of Kosovar authorities, despite calls by the United States and the European Union for the illegal blockades to be dismantled.
A large group of members of the Narodne Patrole, a Serbian nationalist organization linked to the Russian Wagner paramilitary group, also gathered this Sunday on the Serbian side of the border between Serbia and Kosovo, and threatened to confront NATO troops.
Faced with the growing risk of violent confrontations, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić used the right granted him by a UN resolution to ask NATO for permission to send 1,000 police and army personnel, citing the need to protect Serbian communities.
Serbia’s request last Friday, the first since the Kosovar war ended in 1999, will almost certainly be rejected, but the concern is that it could be the first step towards a unilateral deployment decision.
“A step towards the partition of the country”
Kurti fears that the tense situation could escalate to the benefit of Vladimir Putin. Russian and Serbian forces conducted 104 joint military exercises in 2021.
The Kosovar leader says it has been agreed to give NATO-led troops, known as Kfor, time to persuade those on the barricades to withdraw, but they cannot be allowed to stay that way much longer. According to him, the barricades are a step towards the partition of the country, independent of Serbia since 2008, as recognized by a large part of the EU (Spain is one of the exceptions).
“Our concern [es] that the removal of these barricades cannot exclude victims”, he said. “And so we want to be as careful as possible to make sure that there is no destabilization and relative peace and security is maintained. However, we cannot allow this violation of legality and constitutionality forever. So, yes, this needs to end as soon as possible.”
“The EU and the United States agree that the barricades must be removed. But they are also concerned about the use and abuse that Belgrade might make of it,” Kurti added.
“I think the concern of our Western partners and friends is Belgrade’s ties to Moscow. We do not know how they could become operational in the event of an increase in tensions with an escalation in the north. I think their biggest concern is precisely this: now that Russia has been seriously injured in the Ukraine after their invasion and aggression, they have an interest in the ‘domino effect’. They are interested in outsourcing their warmongering to the Balkans, where they have a client who is in Belgrade.”
The Kremlin has stated that it wants “the situation to be resolved through diplomatic means”, but that it says it wants “all the rights of Serbs to be guaranteed”.
The clash in northern Kosovo, during which masked gunmen have used trucks, ambulances and agricultural machinery to block roads, began after the arrest of a former ethnic Serb policeman suspected of involvement in recent attacks on Kosovar police.
The underlying point of tension remains Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
The European Union has tried to broker an agreement to normalize relations, but Kurti says the increasingly close ties between Belgrade and Moscow are an obstacle to moving forward.
A Franco-German proposal suggests that in exchange for Belgrade not hindering the breakaway region’s accession to the UN as a member state, Serbia will receive financial aid from the EU and a fast track into the bloc.
Kosovo needs Serbia’s approval for UN membership because its allies Russia and China have veto rights in the Security Council.
The EU plan, based on a 1972 agreement that helped normalize relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, was welcomed in principle by President Vučić, but First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Serbian Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić, closely linked to the Kremlin, later announced his rejection.
avoid more wars
Vučić has also taken a stand against EU sanctions on Russia in relation to the war in Ukraine. Coordination between the military of both countries has intensified in recent years.
Beyond the extensive joint military exercises, an agreement was signed in October 2020 on the establishment of a representative office of the Russian Defense Ministry in its Serbian counterpart.
Kurti says he remains confident that Serbia will end up joining the EU along with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo.
Kurti last week submitted a formal application for membership of the current Czech presidency of the EU. “There is a war in Ukraine, we must prevent it from spreading. So entering the EU helps,” Kurti said. “We know that there is a long way to go. For Finland and Sweden it was three years. For Malta and Cyprus, 14. The average is nine. And I said publicly: ‘Let’s aim for the average.’ I see a certain willingness in the EU to think otherwise after the continent is at war.”
Translation of Lara Motto