In a globalised world where a largely stable international order of nation states with agreed-upon boundaries is in place, borders contested by rival nations are few and far between. Those who grow up in the Western world in particular are generally unaware of such places, or at least ignorant of how they operate.
Yet as I made my way from Serbia into Kosovo in early July, I was reminded that the border is one of those that remain contested. Having come from the steadiness of quiet Zagreb and then into the bustling energy of cosmopolitan Belgrade, I was woken up to the reality that is the former Yugoslavia as I passed under numerous bridges and signs proclaiming “Kosovo is Serbia”.
When crossing the border and passing through the Serb-dominated and then Albanian-majority areas within the city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, the tension is palpable. Italian Carabinieri gendarmerie and NATO trucks blockade the bridge that divides the two communities and eye with suspicion any male who crosses it by foot.
The multinational forces present here are on high alert, which is hardly surprising given that the tension had led to a direct clash between ethnic Serb protestors and soldiers from NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) unit in May. That’s when Serbs had come out to prevent the recently-elected ethnic Albanian mayors from taking their positions in the municipal offices and buildings.
That clash resulted in dozens of KFOR troops being injured in an incident which many people feared had the potential for renewed conflict in the region. The incident not only raised the threat of a fresh conflict, though, but also created a rare and surprising rift in Kosovo’s relationship with its long-standing and historic Western backers.
The EU implemented measures — it refused to use the word “sanctions” — against Kosovan government officials, reducing high-level visits, contacts and financial cooperation with Pristina for allegedly failing to calm the situation. EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano called the measures “incremental” and highlighted that they have “financial and political consequences.”
The US also punished Kosovo by cancelling its participation in joint military drills, postponing diplomatic meetings, and ceasing advocacy for its membership bids at the UN and the EU. The US Ambassador to Kosovo, Jeff Hovenier, essentially blamed Pristina for taking the decision regarding the Albanian mayors without coordination with Washington.
“When we found out we strongly said no because we foresaw the consequences we are seeing now,” said Hovenier, adding that the US had warned Kosovo of the “negative impact” that such autonomous decisions would have for its image in the international community and for normalisation efforts with Serbia.
Amid such measures by the US and EU, many in Kosovo and beyond have condemned their positions as direct attempts to side-line the sovereignty of the Kosovan authorities and the fledgling republic’s self-determination. They believe that the country’s traditional backers are misusing their leverage in order to favour and appease Serbia to draw it away from Russian influence.
Sitting in a cafe in the capital Pristina, the chairman of the Association of Journalists of Kosovo, Xhemajl Rexha, told me that, “Everyone has been surprised to see Prime Minister [Albin] Kurti stand up to US and EU pressure to hold new elections and move the elected Albanian mayors [to their offices].” That surprise is due to the fact that, “Everything that Kosovo is now is thanks to the US and UK and other western allies’ intervention to basically stop the war in 1999,” he explained. This was a reference to NATO’s decision to bomb Yugoslav army positions and bring in peacekeeping forces that year in order to ensure Kosovo’s independence from Serbian domination.
Rexha maintained that Serbia has a direct hand in the incitement of ethnic Serbs within Kosovo and that Belgrade provides directives. He claimed that the Association of Serb Municipalities – the group which represents Serbs in the country – “is basically a branch of [Serbian President Aleksandr] Vucic’s party.”
It is therefore in Serbia’s interest to have instability within Kosovo, he said, adding that it is “very much interested to have this status quo in which Kosovo is not internationally recognised, at least not as a member of the UN.” It directly contrasts with “Kosovo’s interest to find a solution which would lead to UN membership.”
The journalist confirmed the strategy to pull Serbia away from Russia’s influence, especially given the ongoing war in Ukraine. “The West is appeasing Vucic in order to have him impose sanctions on Russia — which will be very difficult — or in some way just become part of its effort against Russia… but it goes against the interests of Kosovo.” In that regard, he said, Serbia is attempting to play both sides, acting as a regional hub for Russian influence while giving Western powers false hope that it may join hands against Moscow.
He dispelled any notion that NATO and Western powers will abandon Kosovo, however, referring to the current spat as a general disagreement which will not discard the many common interests shared between Pristina and its guarantors.
That view was reinforced by Klisman Kadiu, an advisor to Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi, who told Middle East Monitor: “The US and the EU are our allies. Indispensable allies. It is our common values, beliefs and commitments for democracy, freedom, rule of law and human rights that make us such.”
According to Kadiu, it will take far more than the current dispute to seriously damage ties between Kosovo and the West as relations are value based. “They are strong and deeply rooted. There might be instances where we do not fully agree on the approach, but never on ultimate goals and interests. We believe that rule of law and democracy on one side, and security and peace on the other, can and should go hand in hand.”
He maintained that, “Kosovo is a success story of the NATO intervention in 1999 and sustainable democratic progress today, even at a time of the rise of autocratic regimes.” He cited Pristina’s success in rising up through the ranks of the Transparency International Corruption Perception index, Reporters without Borders, and World Press Freedom Index. He also highlighted Kosovo’s impressive record of press freedom, noting that this year’s Freedom House report ranked it “first in the Western Balkans, second in Europe and third in the world for progress made in political rights and civil liberties.” Kosovo’s success, he added, is its allies’ success as well.
The advisor compared that record with Serbia, which he said “declines yearly in international indices regarding the rule of law, democracy, press freedom, [the] fight against corruption and so on.” He referred to it as an “autocracy, where opposition stands no chance of winning elections, [and] that holds close, wide and deep ties with the Kremlin.” Kadiu insisted that “a democratic country and a success story such as Kosovo should be defended and upheld.”
Serbia was the heart of the former Yugoslavia and continues to be a prominent regional player. Like any aspiring hegemon — such as the US in the Americas or Saudi Arabia in the Gulf — it is trying to maintain prominence in the Balkans by throwing its weight around, all while Kosovo has remained aligned with Western policy. It is for this reason that so many in Pristina and beyond view the EU and US stances as unfair, perhaps even a betrayal of the historic ties simply for what looks like appeasement with an increasingly aggressive Belgrade.
Europe insists, however, that it is not biased. “The EU is an honest broker invested impartially in helping Kosovo and Serbia — the Parties to the Dialogue — to reach compromise solutions, which also contribute to the security, stability and prosperity of the entire region,” a spokesperson told MEMO. “That dialogue is at the heart of the EU engagement in the Western Balkans… and aims to achieve a comprehensive legally-binding normalisation agreement between Kosovo and Serbia addressing outstanding issues in order for both Parties to progress on their respective European path, create new opportunities and improve the lives of their citizens.”
The EU spokesperson stressed that it is up to both Parties to achieve this agreement. “The EU only acts as facilitator, the responsibility for agreeing on European solutions ultimately lies with the Parties.”
The dispute between Pristina and its Western backers may well be nothing more than a temporary disagreement, yet it represents the first major rift between them on an issue that is not a random policy difference, but a struggle over the very nature of Kosovo’s self-determination and ability to implement a decision in its national interests against Serbian instigation.
At only 15-years-old Kosovo is a young and small nation. It is in the early stages on the long road that is nation-building, and is attempting to build up adequate and modernised armed forces. It still needs guarantors such as NATO and its Western allies, and challenging Serbia and its Russian backers independently may be unrealistic.
Nevertheless, the feeling prevails throughout Kosovo that if the West is sincere in its aim to de-escalate tensions while countering Russian influence, it must be cautious against side-lining a historic and important ally in the process.
Source : Middle East Monitor