Analysis: Are Kosovo and Serbia on the brink of war?

An escalation into a conflict in the Western Balkans was averted but the likelihood of future flare-ups remains high.

Kosovo police officers display seized weapons and military equipment during the police operation in the village of Banjska displayed in police camp in Mitrovica, Kosovo, Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo flared anew over the weekend when some 30 heavily armed Serbs barricaded themselves in an Orthodox monastery in northern Kosovo, setting off a daylong gunbattle with police that left one officer and three attackers dead. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Kosovo police officers display seized weapons and military equipment during the police operation in the village of Banjska in a police camp in Mitrovica, Kosovo on September 25, 2023 [Visar Kryeziu/AP]

On September 24, armed Serb paramilitaries ambushed a police patrol near the village of Banjska in the northern part of Kosovo, killing one police officer. The gunmen then fled to a monastery near the Kosovo-Serbia border, where police forces engaged with them in a firefight. Three armed Serbs were killed; the rest were either arrested or managed to flee. It was one of the worst episodes of violence in the country since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999.

In the aftermath of the incident, Belgrade and Pristina traded blame. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that the Kosovo government’s “terror” had driven the Serb minority in the northern part of the country to an “uprising”. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti accused Serbia of supporting financially and logistically “organised crime” groups attacking his country – something Belgrade denied.

On September 29, White House spokesperson John Kirby said that Serbia was massing an unprecedented number of forces at the border. With 4,500 NATO troops stationed in Kosovo through the KFOR peacekeeping mission, the threat of military showdown with the West as well as with Kosovo may have appeared real. But there was no further escalation.

After a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Vucic announced he had called on some troops to withdraw from the border.

The incident did not spark an armed conflict but it did reveal a few important realities. First, Belgrade continues to use the Kosovo issue to take attention away from domestic problems; second, Vucic may be losing control over his Serb allies in northern Kosovo; and third, the momentum in the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations has been lost, which could result in more flare-ups.

Vucic’s domestic troubles

Over the past few months, the Serbian president and the cabinet, dominated by his Serbian Progressive Party, have faced growing public discontent. Two mass shootings in Serbia triggered weekly antigovernment protests.

Public anger has focused on the country’s sizable security apparatus, which was helpless in preventing a mass shooting in the very heart of the Serbian capital, and on Vucic’s loyal media which have fostered the cult of wanton violence.

Protesters have demanded resignations at the interior ministry, the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA), the media regulator and two pro-government TV channels, Pink and Happy. There have also been demands for early elections.

Facing the mounting pressure, Vucic has indicated that there may be early polls for parliament and local councils in December.

The incident in Kosovo was a welcome distraction for the president. Shifting the domestic conversation to the plight of the Serbs in northern Kosovo and flexing muscles is his trademark strategy of political survival. It was not the first time he manufactured the appearance of going to war to protect Serbs. Chances are, it won’t be the last one, either.

Confronting Pristina indeed carries a lot of political capital in Serbia. Gung-ho rhetoric in Serbian nationalist media has been pushing for Serbia to attack and “reconquer” Kosovo. Some in the Serbian society do entertain this idea, especially as they perceived the West to be in decline, while Belgrade – allegedly – enjoys the backing of superpowers like Russia and China.

Belgrade losing control of Kosovo Serb proxies

While on the domestic front, the escalation may have helped Vucic improve his political fortunes, his grip over the politics of the Serb-dominated region in northern Kosovo may be in peril.

Over the years, the Serbian president succeeded in taking control over the local leadership which is allegedly linked to smuggling and organised crime. The politics of Srpska Lista (Serb List, SL), the main party in the four northern municipalities where Serbs are a majority – Mitrovica, Zvecan (where Banjska is located), Leposavic and Zubin Potok – has been largely in line with Belgrade.

But on Friday, SL’s deputy leader Milan Radoicic, who is sanctioned by the US and wanted in Kosovo, accepted responsibility for the stand-off, claiming that Belgrade had nothing to do with it.

If this is true, it would imply that Vucic cannot control his allies on the ground, which, of course, raises questions about the EU policy of relying on the Serbian president to keep the situation in Kosovo under control.

Radoicic’s admission could also have been made under pressure from Belgrade: Vucic asking his local Serb henchmen to own up to their blunder and absolve him from some of the responsibility.

However, Kurti and Kosovo Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla – who originally showed footage of Radoicic’s presence at the monastery during the clashes – have pointed out that only the Serbian military could have provided the heavy weaponry and the uniforms of the attackers involved in the incident.

Either way, the damage to Belgrade’s reputation has been done. It is safe to assume the relationship between Vucic and Serb paramilitaries, leaders and nationalist groups in northern Kosovo is growing more difficult. In the worst case scenario, this could lead to more unpredictable actions by the Kosovo Serb leadership.

Bleak prospects for negotiations

After all the bluster for domestic consumption, Vucic had to de-escalate, as he found himself in a tough spot. The Banjska shoot-out made him look like he was the spoiler of the Western effort to find a settlement of the dispute with Kosovo. That could be bad news for him, as if he is the problem rather than the solution, there is no reason for the West to cut him slack on other key issues, such as Serbia’s reluctance to join sanctions against Russia.

Previously, the EU and the US had blamed Kurti for being the hard-headed one and sabotaging the so-called normalisation talks led by the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell. Brussels even implemented some sanctions against Pristina. Now, however, Serbia comes across as the guilty party.

Kurti, of course, has seized the opportunity to drive this point further. He has been exposing Belgrade’s malfeasance on social media daily. Domestically, in Kosovo, he has doubled down on the narrative that he stands for law and order – as well as for upholding the country’s sovereignty in the north. The incident – although raising the dark prospect of violence in the north – appears to have worked in Pristina’s favour.

This state of affairs complicates Western efforts to push for a resolution of the Kosovo issue. The blueprint is clear and has been so since 2013: de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Serbia in exchange of self-rule for the Serb minority under the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM).

But the last round of leader-to-leader talks in Brussels led nowhere and the tentative agreements reached in February-March remain unsigned. Kosovo wants recognition first. Serbia would rather have ASM done as a first step.

To break the deadlock, the EU and US will probably have to double down on their diplomatic effort to secure a compromise. But since the summer of 2022, recurrent crises like the one around Banjska monastery have thrown a spanner in the works. By the looks of it, the way forward will be equally if not more daunting; there will be more future flare-ups and tensions along the way.

Source: Al Jazeera