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Kosovo: A Detonator, a Quiet Province, or Something More?

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Image on the right: pipe-wielding and stone-throwing Serb militant nationalists assaulting NATO peacekeepers in the northern Kosovo town of Zvecan in late May.
Image on the left below:   Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti tells  after clashes.
Screenshot of CNN news
Image on the right: pipe-wielding and stone-throwing Serb militant nationalists assaulting NATO peacekeepers in the northern Kosovo town of Zvecan in late May. Image on the left below: Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti tells after clashes. Screenshot of CNN news

The recent outbreak of violence following the elections in the northern municipalities of Kosovo appears to be exhausted. However, its causes and underlying issues remain unresolved. Most importantly, there are concerns that this small Balkan country could become a catalyst for yet another European war.

The elections in the Serbian municipalities in northern Kosovo seem to be on the verge of being repeated. Why hold them again when voter turnout in the previous May elections was minimal? Perhaps it is hoped that this might somehow alleviate the internal tensions carefully fueled from the outside. Europe hasn't paid much attention to it, if not for its historical experience—World War I began precisely in the Western Balkans.


Legacy of the "Iron" Dictator

There are deeper roots for the conflict than the First World War. Even during the times of socialist federative Yugoslavia under the leadership of Croat Josip Broz Tito, Kosovo had a certain level of autonomy. However, the Serbian majority seemed to believe it was too much. Why? There are several reasons, one being the ethnic and religious diversity of the Balkans. Serbia is predominantly populated by Orthodox Christians, while the Albanian population of Kosovo is Muslim. Nearby, there's Bosnia and Herzegovina with a mixed Muslim-Orthodox-Catholic population and predominantly Catholic Croatia.

After Tito's death, who maintained a certain unity in the federation through his iron-fisted authoritarianism, centrifugal processes began. Starting from 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Belgrade, Kosovo was given a new constitutional regime but not genuine autonomy. At that time, the population of autonomy constituted about 20% of Serbia's 8 million people. And this region exploded because ethnic Albanians were effectively deprived of many civil liberties.

The outbreak of violence in 1998 remains deeply ingrained in the national memory of Kosovar Albanians. Ultimately, acts of violence by Belgrade against the Kosovo Albanian majority provided grounds for NATO's military intervention in 1999.

For nearly a decade, international supervision of Kosovo was carried out under the mandate of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Then, in 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. However, during the interim period from 1999 to 2008, Kosovo although nominally considered an autonomous province of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Belgrade already had no real control over the region. Serbia only maintained control over four municipalities in northern Kosovo where the Serbian majority resides.

Gradually, Kosovo is gaining recognition as a sovereign state. However, there are still many countries that have not recognized it, although they maintain certain relations. For example, Ukraine has not recognized Kosovo, considering it a matter of principle due to potential parallels with Russia's annexation of Crimea. However, Kyiv recognizes the foreign passports of Kosovo as travel documents for those who come to Ukraine. Ukrainian athletes also do not hesitate to compete alongside Kosovar athletes in international competitions.


A Gray Zone

In fact, it is these four northern municipalities with a Serbian majority that play the role of the apple of discord. Tension have arisen there not for the first time. Previously, for example, it was related to demands from the authorities in Pristina (the capital of Kosovo) to use exclusively Kosovo license plates. In previous instances, this also led to confrontations, although not as intense as at the end of May. Just as a reminder, at the end of May, thirty soldiers from the international peacekeeping force KFOR were injured.

Currently, the problem stems from the elections, which were boycotted by the Serbian majority in the four northern municipalities near the border with Serbia. This is because there is no minimum voter turnout requirement in Kosovo. Thus, even the turnout of a few percentage points in those municipalities, represented mostly by the local Albanian community, was sufficient to form new municipal authorities.

Representatives of the local Serbian community strongly protested against the presence of the newly elected officials in the municipalities. They engaged in clashes with KFOR representatives, wielding pipes and stones.

Interestingly, similar levels of confrontation are not occurring in certain municipalities in other regions of Kosovo, where the Serbian community is sometimes noticeable or even predominant. The most intense events occur precisely near the border with Serbia.

It is symptomatic that in other areas of Kosovo, beyond the northern municipalities, there is a significant revival of economic life with support from countries that also supported Kosovo's sovereignty. However, in those four crisis-ridden municipalities, a gray zone has practically emerged.

One would think that Serbia would be interested in stability in that region and the growth of the Serbian community. But something entirely different is happening—population outflow due to uncomfortable living conditions, a lack of quality job opportunities, and other characteristics of the confrontational situation.

This casts a negative light on the support provided to the local Serbian community by Serbia. However, it doesn't greatly disturb the local Serbs. Many willingly join the ranks of protesters for various reasons. Of course, many others behave completely differently and choose to seek happiness in Serbia, more often in Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere—anywhere but in northern Kosovo.


They Don't Want War

And the pressing question is: what are the chances of Kosovo becoming the detonator of a new European war? Surprisingly, the answer again needs to be sought much further east than Pristina and Belgrade.

Partly because Russia has currently invaded in Ukraine, a thousand kilometers east of Kosovo.

Regarding Kosovo, the situation is quite transparent. Of course, the Albanian community will not vote for local politicians who are too accommodating to Belgrade, from their perspective. However, Kosovar politicians aspire to join the EU and access its resources. Therefore, recommendations from Brussels are highly influential for them. Well, recommendations from Washington are also crucial since KFOR genuinely guarantees the integrity of Kosovo. This promotes the country's sovereignty and the process of its further recognition. So the recommendations are as follows: normalize the situation, seek compromise solutions, but within the framework of preserving Kosovo's sovereignty.

This is not a speculation; it is the position expressed by the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, in his speech on June 9 in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which he summarized in his Twitter post: "I presented the democratic and economic progress of Kosovo, stating that the EU can reform and expand simultaneously, and we look at Croatia as a good example of membership in both the EU and NATO."

Regarding Belgrade, the situation is somewhat more complicated. Firstly, powerful Serbian resentment plays a noticeable role there. Phantom pains over Greater Serbia should not be underestimated as a factor. Moreover, this resentment is carefully fueled by Russian influence, which has been significant in Serbia not only politically but also economically for over decades.

However, secondly, since the beginning of 2022, Belgrade has started to view its traditionally close ties with Moscow somewhat differently. And it is impossible to deny a certain amount of healthy pragmatism on Belgrade's part. After all, the relations with Russia have acquired a clearly toxic taste since February 2022 due to its reputation as an aggressor country and the imposed economic sanctions.

Furthermore, the geographical isolation of the region from Russia matters. Currently, an operation similar to the Russian paratroopers' seizure of Pristina Airport in June 1999 is simply geographically impossible.

Thirdly, it seems that the EU and the US would prefer a gradual integration of both countries into European structures and, in the long term, even into the European Union. "The United States... calls on both sides to take immediate steps to reduce tensions and confirm their commitment to negotiations for the normalization of the situation under the auspices of the EU," announced US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in his Twitter post, strongly condemning the attack on KFOR representatives operating under NATO leadership.

Therefore, the most likely scenario is the search for a path to alleviate ethnic tensions, hold repeat elections in Kosovo, and reduce the intensity of Belgrade's pan-Balkan ambitions. Gradually stepping away from the precipice seems to be the way forward.

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