Last week the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Frederica Mogherini, visited the Western Balkans to soothe rising tensions by re-affirming the EU’s commitment to ensuring lasting peace in the region. However, it is uncertain whether her intervention will have had any effect on the current state of affairs, which have been steadily deteriorating in the past months — most notably between Serbia and Kosovo.
EU integration of Kosovo and Serbia
Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 — nine years after the NATO Kosovo air campaign of 1999 which sought to drive out the Serbian army who were accused of ethnic cleansing. This declaration was quick to be rejected by Serbia, which regards Kosovo as the cradle of its state and of the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, the relationship between the two countries has been normalized in the following years, culminating in 2013 with the signing of the EU-brokered Brussels Agreement. Through this agreement, Serbia would begin the process towards obtaining EU membership, while Kosovo would be brought closer to candidacy status. Hence, EU accession served as an incentive to ease tensions between the two countries.
As of today, with the EU currently facing countless crises ranging from sporadic terrorism to the rise of populism, the accession of Serbia to the EU seems to have been put aside. Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have also intensified over the past few months. The Serbian ethnic minority populating Northern Kosovo (roughly 40-50,000) do not recognize Pristina as their capital, and began building a wall in the town of Mitrovica in late 2016, separating themselves from the ethnic Albanian majority making up 90% of Kosovo’s population. More recently, a train with the inscription “Kosovo is Serbia” written on it in twenty-six languages was sent from Belgrade in the direction of Pristina, to which the Kosovo government responded by sending armed forces near its Northern province.
Fearing that these rising tensions could ultimately lead to conflict, Albania and Croatia, NATO members since 2009, asked the Alliance to revise its plans for its peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, the Kosovo Force (KFOR). Set up following the 1999 NATO Air Campaign, the KFOR mission provides stability in the region by acting as a deterrent against a renewal of hostilities, and is today made up of approximately 4,500 NATO troops. In the aim of increasing regional stability, Albania and Croatia demanded that NATO consider strengthening Kosovo’s local defence and security institutions.
Greater power plays
While rising tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are partly influenced by the EU’s inaction regarding the accession of the two countries, they are also fueled by larger changes on the international political scene, such as the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, an event which was warmly hailed by the Serb minority in Kosovo. The latter hopes that the American President’s ambivalence towards the Alliance, along with sympathy for his Russian counterpart, will provide greater support for Russia, a long-time ally of Serbia, in the region. They hope that increased Russian presence, coupled with a potential US-Russia agreement regarding Kosovo, could lead to a partition of Kosovo, with Northern Kosovo being absorbed by Serbia. On the other hand, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have been fearing a potential reduction of NATO troops in their country and in the Balkans in general, which would deprive them of protection.
At the same time, Russia, which opposed the 1999 NATO campaign in Kosovo, is reinforcing its hold on the Western Balkans through support for Serbia and Serbian ethnic groups. In the fall of 2016, Russia helped Bosnian Serbs organise a referendum regarding their status in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and was accused of attempting to trigger a political coup against Montenegro’s government, whose country is soon to join NATO. Shortly after, Russia announced it would “give” Serbia six MiG-29 multirole fighter aircrafts and armored vehicles with a huge discount. Regardless of Russia’s historical ties with Serbia, these manoeuvres demonstrate a clear desire from Vladimir Putin to extend his zone of influence to the Western Balkans, to the detriment of NATO and the EU. Some analysts have even considered the possibility of Russia’s creating a military base in Serbia which would dramatically limit NATO’s military influence in the region.
2017 is set to be an important year in the Western Balkans, notably due to the forthcoming Serbian presidential elections in early April and the possibility of having a snap election in Kosovo. The elections could either lead the region towards increased tensions, or ease already existing ones. As of today, to limit political tensions and to prevent any accident which may lead towards armed conflict, NATO and the EU must reiterate their commitment to ensuring Kosovo’s security and peace in the Western Balkans. Regardless of their affinities or support for specific ethnic groups or states, NATO, the EU, and Russia must realise it is in their common interest to bring lasting peace to the region. Starting another proxy crisis, as in Syria, is only likely to lead towards greater instability and tension, for which the people of Kosovo and Serbia will be the first to pay.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.