With the US preoccupied by the Israel-Palestine conflict, Serbia may feel more emboldened to try its hand in northern Kosovo.
By Fron Nahzi
The United States and its Western allies are shifting their attention to contain the escalation of a larger conflict in the Middle East. This change in focus might render Kosovo and the region more vulnerable to revisionist nations looking for chances to alter borders.
Just three weeks ago, Kosovo forces successfully thwarted an organized Serbian militia’s attempt to divide the northern, Serb-populated region of Kosovo. Instead of denouncing this action, Belgrade responded by deploying additional Serbian troops along Kosovo’s borders. It was only after a stern warning from the US that Belgrade withdrew its forces. Serbian President Vucic’s assertive response should leave little room for doubt in Brussels and Washington regarding Belgrade’s intentions. With this updated perspective in mind, it is now imperative to initiate a fresh approach to the Serb-Kosovo dialogue process with a renewed focus on security concerns
While Kosovo and Serbian opposition parties unanimously point to President Vucic as the architect for the September 24 Banjska attack in northern Kosovo, given his firm control over the ethnic Serb population in Kosovo, Western diplomats have chosen a more cautious stance. They have opted for a wait-and-see approach, once again hoping that Vucic might eventually align with their interests.
Vucic understands that as long as the specter of war and instability hangs over the region, he does need not play by the rules. It is unsurprising to find that Vucic has reneged on numerous promises to the West. Earlier this year, he backtracked on his commitment to sign an 11-point EU plan for normalizing relations between Belgrade and Prishtina and publicly declared he had no intention of signing any agreement with Kosovo. Ironically, the Ukraine conflict has bolstered Vucic’s position and added a layer of complexity to resolving the Belgrade-Prishtina dilemma. Fears that Moscow might extend the Ukraine conflict to the Balkans have further cemented Vucic’s position and strengthened his ties with Russia. In return, Moscow has rewarded Vucic with arms sales, discounted gas, and support for Belgrade’s stance on Kosovo and the separatist efforts of the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska. In the meantime, Vucic’s primary advantage in dealing with the Western countries lies in his capacity to suggest a more Western-leaning position.
Both Brussels and Washington would prefer to have Vucic in their camp to not only isolate Russia further, but also counter Putin’s aggressive ambitions. The US Ambassador to Serbia, Christopher Hill, has spearheaded this effort and has often praised Vucic while publicly disparaging Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti for the failed negotiations. Unfortunately, Hill’s bully diplomacy approach, which pressures the weak while supporting the powerful, has only intensified the division between Belgrade and Prishtina and needs to stop.
In an effort to implement the provisions as outlined in the Ahtisaari Plan, the European Union initiated the Belgrade-Prishtina Dialogue in 2020, under the leadership of former Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak. The 2007 Ahtisaari Plan provided a path to Kosovo’s independence that emphasized the protection of the rights, identity, and culture of non-Albanian communities in Kosovo—an agreement willingly accepted by Pristina.
An integral aspect of this plan was the empowerment of the Kosovo Serb Community, granting them a significant degree of authority over their own affairs, which was subsequently incorporated into Kosovo’s constitution. Unfortunately, the dialogue has produced little results, in part because they lacked a dominant authority, like the US, and too often have been exploited by local and international leaders for personal political gain.
In 2021, President Trump’s Special Envoy, Richard Grenell, sidestepped the EU negotiators and proposed an economic package that also included a possible territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia. The deal had the potential to reshape the Balkan map and escalate tensions, ultimately fell through due to the indictment of then-President Hashim Thaci for war crimes by the Kosovo war crimes court in The Hague. Had it succeeded, President Trump might have used it to bolster his “art of the deal” image in his bid for a second term and potentially influenced Washington to dissuade the Kosovo Court in The Hague from indicting Thaci. Grenell, who currently advises Vucic, has denied territorial exchange was part of the agreement.
Prime Minister Kurti’s positions during the dialogue appeared more often an opportunity to pad his nationalistic credentials rather than find a lasting solution. Both the US and the EU have accused Kurti of displaying stubbornness and recklessness. Most recently, Kurti aggravated tensions in the region when he attempted to forcibly install ethnic Albanian mayors who received less than two per cent of the votes following a Kosovo Serb boycott of local elections.
What is urgently needed is a clear plan that safeguards the territorial security and integrity of Kosovo while ensuring that ethnic Serbs in Kosovo enjoy the rights as outlined in Kosovo’s constitution. To achieve this objective, the United States should actively participate in the EU-led negotiations, injecting much-needed momentum and bolstering confidence in the process.
Furthermore, those individuals responsible for orchestrating the Banjska assault must be held accountable. It’s doubtful that Belgrade can be relied upon to conduct an impartial investigation, especially when considering that President Vucic orchestrated a state memorial to commemorate the militia members who died. This can only be achieved through a collaborative investigative body led by the European Union and the United States.
Furthermore, the US and its allies should send a strong message to Belgrade and other potential destabilizers in the region, stressing that such behavior will not be tolerated. One way to achieve this goal would involve adopting a strategy similar to that of Western policies towards Russia and its leaders. This would include imposing sanctions not only on Serbia but also freezing the assets and foreign bank accounts belonging to President Aleksandar Vucic and his associates.
To ensure the borders will remain unchanged and protected, the US and its allies should increase financial and tactical support to the Kosovo forces. The Kosovo forces acted proportionally and professionally in a very precarious situation that could have blown up Kosovo and the entire Balkans and won the right to patrol the northern Kosovo borders.
Prime Minister Kurti, for his part, must redouble his efforts to engage with ethnic Serb communities, who promptly distanced themselves from the Banjska incident. Viewing them as an integral part of the solution, rather than an impediment to peace, is essential.
Fron Nahzi is an Adjunct Faculty member at American University’s School of Public Affairs, and author of the forthcoming book entitled ‘Ethnic Interest Groups in US Foreign Policy: The Albanian American Movements’ (Routledge Press).
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of American University.