On September 24 there was a major incident in Kosovo at a small village called Banjska, in northern Kosovo, when Serbian paramilitaries clashed with Kosovo’s police force. Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vučić, appeared to move Serbian Army units closer to Kosovo’s borders. Fears of an outbreak of war between Serbia and Kosovo mounted rapidly, fuelled by alarmist media reporting and conflicting accounts of what had happened, and international diplomats scrambled to defuse the tension. As the dust settled, it was clear that huge damage had been done to the negotiating process. But was the region really on the brink of war, as many claimed?
I don’t think so. As the famous Prussian military theorist and general Karl von Clausewitz stated: “War …is a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.” Politicians resort to war when they see no means of achieving their aims through negotiation. But Benjamin Disraeli, a generation younger than Clausewitz and, significantly, a politician rather than a soldier, riposted that war is never a solution, only an aggravation. The point where the two thinkers intersect is that war can be a part of a political process, but only if it brings advantage. As things stand, I do not see conditions where the political leaders in what used to be Yugoslavia see any advantage in fighting.
Part of the problem with Western analysis of former Yugoslavia is that a belief was formed in the 1990s that people in that part of the world have a propensity – even a liking – for violence. A number of expert writers, Misha Glenny notable amongst them, have demonstrated that this is simply not true. Bosnians, Albanians and Serbs are no more likely to want to get into a fight or a war than are Belgians or Portuguese. The fighting in Yugoslavia in the 1990s was above all a product of circumstance, not blood lust. But this sense that former Yugoslavs are in some way inclined towards violence persists, even though there has been no serious fighting there since the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999. Indeed, one could more convincingly argue that there is much less willingness amongst the population at large to see new wars break out precisely because the recollection of the waste and destruction of the 1990s is so fresh in their memory.
It is certainly true that, in the 1990s, a number of national leaders believed that they could gain advantage – territorial adjustments, movement of minority populations, access to valuable assets – through war and they deliberately initiated violence to achieve their aims. But the critical point here is their perception that they could benefit from war.
There are two likely flashpoints for violence in former Yugoslavia, both in the two frozen conflicts that were not properly resolved at the end of the war phase – Bosnia and Kosovo. A few years ago, there was a lot of squawking in the hencoop about new fighting breaking out between the ethnically based entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina if the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Mile Dodik, went through with his threats to withdraw from some elements of the Bosnian constitution.
I wrote at the time that I thought this was empty bluster and events proved me right. The reason is simple: In Bosnia, the cliques around Dodik and his Bosniak and Croat opposite numbers, Bakir Izetbegović and Dragan Čović, now dominate the Bosnian economy, having created entire ecosystems that channel money into their parties’ coffers. For them, war would be a disaster. Slaughtering a cow means you can no longer milk it. Of course, they need to keep ‘winning’ elections by demonising the other ethnic groups and creating crises that rally their voters. But unlike in the 1990s these ‘leaders’ stand to lose, not gain, from violence. They want the status quo to continue.
In Serbia and Kosovo, the status quo is not acceptable. Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, needs to see his country’s status resolved so that it can normalise international relations and join the EU accession process. Vučić shares those European ambitions – he would go down in history were he to bring to an end Serbia’s decades-long alienation from the European mainstream – although the price of a deal will take some swallowing. Would these political aims be advanced through war? Absolutely not: the guilty party would be blamed for the failure of the negotiation process; punitive sanctions would be introduced, and EU ambitions put on hold for another generation. Therefore, I do not believe that Vučić condoned the Banjska operation for the simple reason that it has brought him only disadvantage and put him on the back foot in the negotiations process which will continue.
The problem here is that there are three important factors in the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia that are at best hard to control, at worst dangerous. One is the hard right in Serbia: they do not want to see Kosovo’s independence recognised at any price and know that provoking armed clashes will throw up roadblocks in the negotiating process. Another is their Kosovo Albanian counterparts on the political right: they believe that provoking Serbia into an armed response will draw NATO into the dispute and that Serbia will be fatally weakened through international sanctions.
Last, but certainly not least, there is Russia. The Balkans are now more important to the Kremlin than ever. This is almost the last corner of Europe where Russia has allies and influence. Instability in the Balkans means that Russia is still relevant and not as isolated as would otherwise be the case. Russia has no interest in seeing a peace deal in Kosovo and will use all available assets, which, in the case of Serbia are substantial, to prevent it happening. We have seen in other countries how Russia is unashamed about interfering in domestic politics. With about 50,000 Russians resettled in Belgrade after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, with the religious ties between the Serbian and Russian Orthodox churches and strong emotional ties between the Serbian hard right and Russia, there is plenty of scope for them to destabilise Serbia.
Unfortunately, this means that the negotiating process between Kosovo and Serbia is certain to be plagued by further incidents such as the Banjska attack. Negotiators, diplomats and journalists will, therefore, need to remain calm and refrain from embracing narratives that are pushed by one side or the other, including the spoilers mentioned above. We must all focus on the huge prize on offer if the negotiations are successful and give our support to the process, not to either of the negotiating sides. Of course, Vučić and Kurti must be held to account for their actions when they are found to be culpable, but we must be prepared to abandon stereotypes from the 1990s and give them the benefit of the doubt where appropriate. If we continue in this spirit, I am confident that not only will there be no return to war in the Balkans but the foundations of lasting peace can be laid.
Sir Ivor Roberts was the British ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1994 to 1997 and later a British envoy to the Balkans. He is the author of the book “Conversations with Milosevic”. After Yugoslavia, he served as British ambassador to Italy and Ireland and he is former President of Trinity College, Oxford.
Source : Balkan Insight