Even the most seasoned experts on Balkans brawls will be excused for having difficulties in following the latest bout of crisis between Kosovo and Serbia as peace and stability in the region are threatened once again.
Fifteen years on from Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Serbia still treats it as an illegal breakaway state. Now, as tensions and military build-ups rise after an outburst of violence on September 24, the UK has now decided to send extra troops to the fledgling republic. Alicia Kearns, MP and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that “deterrence in the Balkans must be a priority for the UK and Europe. Action must be taken now to prevent further escalation.”
The worrying developments even caught the attention of The Rest is Politics podcast hosted by the New European’s Alastair Cambell with Rory Stewart, which put its focus on British politics on a temporary hold to examine what is happening in Kosovo in a special episode.
The White House is worried, too. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the “United States is monitoring a troubling Serbian military deployment along the border of Kosovo that is destabilising the area”. He also declared that the recent attack by a Serbian paramilitary group in northern Kosovo “was not a random one and that the amount of types of arms that were found represent a threat not only to Kosovo personnel but international personnel, including NATO troops.”
But what actually happened to warrant such a dramatic reaction by the top security officials across the Atlantic alliance?
The serious incident was an attack by a group of Serbian-led gunmen in Kosovo territory, who killed one policeman and injured another. It was called an “act of terror” by the Kosovo government, as well as the EU and US.
Prompt reaction by Kosovo police, coordinated with western security and military forces on the ground, ensured that the terrorists were subsequently located and surrounded inside a Serbian Orthodox monastery. Three attackers were killed and the rest fled in circumstances that are unclear, leaving a large cache of military equipment behind.
The quantity and the quality of this gear was shocking to observers and NATO itself. Over 20 vehicles, including two armoured carriers, hundreds of kilos of plastic explosive, rocket-propelled grenades and grenade launchers, sniper rifles – enough equipment and machine guns for around 100 people to do serious damage to peace in the entire Balkans.
This brazen attack was then defended by Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić
as a “desperate act” of “oppressed Serbs”. Echoing the baseless Russian accusations made against Ukraine before even the occupation of Crimea in 2014, Vučić turned to Russia, further accusing Kosovo of carrying out “brutal ethnic cleansing” with support of the west.
Vučić’s attempt to disassociate himself from the attackers was soon challenged with drone footage showing Milan Radoicic, a close associate of Vučić and a leader of the Belgrade-controlled Kosovan Serb Party, as the apparent chief of the paramilitaries inside the monastery.
Serbian government initially tried to deny Radoicic’s involvement, calling the drone footage a “scam”, but Radoicic, who has been on US and UK sanctions lists since 2021, went public in an email read out on video by his lawyer in which he admitted leading the group and announced his resignation from the political party. Serbia was forced to briefly detain Radoicic, but he was released less than 24 hours later.
The situation inside Kosovo but also in the diplomatic landscape is changing with bewildering pace. Only a few months ago, Kosovo was being accused by the west of escalating the situation with its actions in the Serb-populated north, where the police stepped in to help mayors take office in three areas where the polls had been boycotted by local Serbs. Both the US and EU introduced sanctions against the Kosovo government, cancelling military exercises with the fledgling Kosovan army and suspending 500 million Euro in aid projects.
Some politicians in both the Europe and US – including the chairs of the US and UK foreign affairs committees – criticised the “lack of pressure placed on Serbia” and were unhappy with this asymmetrical pressure on Kosovo, and accused the EU commission of appeasing Serbia.
Now Serbian actions and words have flipped the script. Both the US and EU have joined the Kosovo government in mourning the slain policeman by lowering flags to half-mast in their respective embassies in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, and western security institutions are assisting Kosovo in investigating the attack.
The terror attack represents massive, undeniable and unrepentant escalation by Serbia and its proxies in the north of Kosovo.
Vučić has gone into belligerent mode, using the UN General Assembly session in September to accuse western countries of “hypocrisy”. Not surprisingly his tirade in New York, won high marks by the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
The west has reacted unexpectedly strongly in the last few days, but this has come only after two years of appeasement towards Serbia. Both the US and EU have been treating Vučić with kid gloves in an attempt to woo the country away from the influence of Russia. In return, Serbia started selling weapons to Ukraine, although it did not put sanctions on Russia.
The irony is that the relations between Kosovo and Serbia are eminently fixable. Both countries have agreed to follow a path based on an EU plan supported by the US, which called for Serbia to de facto recognise the reality of Kosovo’s existence, while Serbs in Kosovo would get a more robust self-management inside Kosovo.
This plan may seem to be in tatters now, but it’s the only framework that there is. With a US presidential campaign and European Parliament elections on the way and war still raging in Ukraine, it is simply not realistic to expect the west to find the resources to engage in the Balkans at the level we saw at the end of 1990s. Voters in both Europe and the US are wary of their governments being dragged into a new conflict.
The latest incident, provoked by Serbia’s naked aggression, also means Kosovo must finally be offered a roadmap for membership to NATO as a real incentive. Kosovo has actually advanced as a free democracy – according to relevant global indices, much more so than its peers in the Balkans. Western friends of the Balkans may also want to appoint a special rapporteur at the Council of Europe to investigate the circumstances of the terror attack in an independent and unbiased manner.
Serbia on the other hand seems to have once again bitten off more than it can chew. This has been a feature of Serbian politics for over 100 years, since the first Balkan wars in the early 20th century.
Vučić too seems to be facing the biggest crisis of his career. He survived the era when he served under war criminals Slobodan Milošević and Vojislav Šešelj and rebranded himself a pro-West democrat, hobnobbing with the likes of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, but these latest deadly manoeuvres put all that in danger.
Kosovo can’t be expected to pay for the lack of democracy or hope in Serbia. And it must also start focusing on its own deliverables, helping enable the West to reinforce Kosovo’s position in the architecture of security in the Balkans.
Serbia, for now and for the considerable future, looks like a lost cause.
Petrit Selimi is a former foreign minister of Kosovo. Find him on Twitter/X @Petrit