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Kosovo. Impact of the war in Ukraine on Serbian politics

3 January 2023

At the end of December 2022, tensions between Serbia and Kosovo were reduced, but the situation remains unresolved. The Serbs living in the northern part of Kosovo do not accept the existence of that State and are questioning decisions introducing new license plates and documents. The government in Pristina, in turn, seeks to enforce its prerogatives throughout Kosovo. The war in Ukraine fuels the aspirations of the Serbs, which is why 2023 may bring a serious increase in tensions in this region of Europe.

On July 31, 2022, on the Serbia-Kosovo border in Novi Pazar, a shootout took place between an unknown perpetrator and the Kosovo police. In nearby Mitrovica, the Serbs living there beat Albanians and blocked two border crossings. Although there were no fatalities, the situation on the Pristina-Belgrade line became increasingly tense. And all because of the desire to introduce Kosovo license plates in the northern part of this territory, inhabited by the Serbs.


Information chaos

More than 250,000 posts appeared on Twitter in the trending section about the situation in Kosovo. The platform was flooded with information about the alleged war that broke out between the two nations. Everyone was spreading disinformation – the inhabitants of the region, trolls, politicians and celebrities, because everyone had something to say. False information was spread about civilian casualties, wounded Serbs and Kosovo soldiers. Photos from years ago were pasted as illustrations to current events and it was done even by an  Albanian preacher Elvis Naçi, who has over 1.2 million followers on Instagram.

A NATO unit operating as part of the UN Stabilization Force Corps (KFOR) informed about the possibility of intervention in the event of a security threat. A Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Honcherenko expressed his country’s readiness to intervene in the event of Serbian aggression, despite the fact that Ukraine does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

 All this created an impression of a dramatic nature of the situation, many people thought that the spillover of the conflict into the Balkans was almost inevitable. Meanwhile, only a day later, there was an almost complete de-escalation as a result of pressure on the Kosovo authorities from the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The government in Pristina decided to suspend the decision to forcibly change Serbian license plates to Kosovo ones.

Importance of Kosovo for Serbs

Why is Kosovo so crucial for the Serbs and what causes the Serbian-Albanian conflict? Kosovo is not as economically important as Catalonia is for Spain – its GDP is only 1/6 of Serbia’s. It is also not as strategically located as China’s Xinjang. The occupation of Kosovo would guarantee neither access to the sea nor to an important commercial centre. It is worth noting, however, that there are many valuable metals necessary for the production of electronics.

The unique importance of Kosovo for the Serbs stems from history, as Kosovo-Metohja is the cradle of their state. From the 12th century until the absorption of Serbia by the Ottoman Empire, these lands were part of the so-called Old Serbia. Kosovo, with its highly developed mining industry, was the economic center of the Kingdom and Empire of Serbia, and for some time it was also the political center of the state until Stefan Dušan moved the capital to Skopje.

It was on “Kosovo Field” in 1389 that the most important battle in the history of Serbia took place. Turkish troops then routed a coalition of Serbs and other Balkan nations, paving the way for almost 500 years of Ottoman domination over the region. The battle left a huge mark on the national consciousness of the Serbs, there are many references to it in folk poetry, literature and art. Although Albanians and Bulgarians also fought with the Turks, the Serbs appropriated the memory of Kosovo Field and made the battle a symbol of their struggle for sovereignty.

During the almost 500 years of Turkish rule in the Balkans, the ethnic structure of the region has changed. Albanians, unlike the Serbian population, willingly converted to Islam, which was why they were favored by the Turks, and their settlement in Kosovo was supported. As the 1838 census showed, Albanians in Kosovo were already the majority, constituting 58% of the population. In 1878, Serbia regained its independence, but Kosovo remained Turkish. In 1905, at the end of the Ottoman rule, as much as 65% of the population of the province were Albanians. During the Balkan Wars, they fought for a union with the newly created Albanian state, but the region eventually fell into the hands of the Kingdom of Serbia (1913), transformed after the end of World War I into the kingdom of SHS and then into Yugoslavia.

After regaining Kosovo, the Serbs tried to counteract the centuries-long Albanianization of the region, which led to the persecution of the ethnic Albanians. The gradual arrival of the Serbian population there was stopped by World War II. Kosovo came under Italian occupation and was incorporated into “Greater Albania”. The Italians thus added fuel to the fire, causing ethnic tensions.

After the war and the creation of a socialist Yugoslavia, its leader Josip Broz Tito took steps to repair relations between the feuding nations, including by guaranteeing Kosovo’s autonomy within the Republika Srpska. However, after his death, it was Kosovo that became the spark that set the Yugoslav federation on fire. On April 23, 1987, during a visit to Kosovo in the face of Albanian repression of Serbs, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević declared: “No one will beat you anymore.” The loss of the region’s autonomy set in motion an avalanche of events that eventually led to war.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia, over a million Serbs found themselves within the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina under the Dayton Agreement (1995). At the same time, they have become a minority in Kosovo – they constitute only 1.5% of the population of 2 million (2011 census). They live in the north and in enclaves in the south and east. In 1999, after the American-European operation “Allied Force”, Serbia was forced to withdraw from Kosovo, but never recognized its independence, proclaimed in 2008. It was then that the Serbs began to be reluctant towards the West and even closer to Russia – an ally since the 19th century.

Relations between Serbia and Russia

Tsarist Russia, rivaling the Ottoman Empire, helped Serbia regain its independence in 1878. Then, in the Balkan Wars, the Russians sided with the Serbs several times, and backed them  once again in 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on the Serbs in response to the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. Russia and Serbia remain in very good relations to this day. Serbia is the only European country to have entered the customs union as part of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAUG) assembled by Russia. Serbian society does not support Ukraine, which can be seen e.g. after pro-Russian demonstrations or rallies gathering thousands of participants. At the same time, however, Serbia is an EU candidate country and has ambitions to maintain close relations with the West.

It is in Russia’s interest to use Serbian nationalism in Kosovo and the separatist activities of the authorities of Republika Srpska – an administrative unit of Bosnia and Herzegovina established under the Dayton Agreement ending the war in Yugoslavia – in order to destabilize the Western Balkans. This would divert the world’s attention away from Ukraine, which lies on the outskirts of the North Atlantic alliance, and shift it towards Kosovo or Bosnia, which lie at the heart of NATO. When in March 2022 Bosnia and Herzegovina expressed its desire to join the alliance, the Russian ambassador began to openly threaten: “If Bosnia and Herzegovina decides to be a party to any matter, it is its internal matter. But another thing is our reaction.”


Republika Srpska and Serbia

The main tool of Russia’s pressure on Bosnia is Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, a nationalist party that rules in Republika Srpska. For years, it has been aiming to break away from the Bosnian state and integrate with Serbia. Christian Schmidt, the UN High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, reported in October 2021 that Dodik’s efforts to create a separate army, tax system and judiciary within the Republika Srpska could lead to the disintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such a course of events would be in favor of Russia, but the government in Belgrade is distancing itself from such a policy due to the EU candidate process. After Schmidt’s report that was extremely critical of Dodik, Serbia did not react and did not provide diplomatic support to the president of Republika Srpska.

The Serbian Progressive Party, led by President Aleksander Vucic, cooperates to some extent with parties promoting Serbian irredentism, such as the Bosnian Alliance of Independent Social Democrats or the Montenegrin New Serbian Democracy, but does not support them on the international arena. A good example of such a policy is the issue of establishing 9 January as a holiday in Republika Srpska.

In 2015, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina ruled that it was unconstitutional because Orthodox celebrations in honor of St. Stephen, so celebrating this date as a national holiday may discriminate against other nationalities and denominations of the federation. This prompted Dodik to organize a referendum on this issue in which the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Republika Srpska voted in favor of January 9. However, it was criticized not only by the international community, but also by Serbia itself, as a violation of the Dayton Agreement.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, contrary to what Putin expects, is trying to continue his previous policy of balancing between East and West even in such difficult conditions as the war in Ukraine puts before him. He still believes in Serbia’s future accession to the EU and the possibility of avoiding tensions with Russia. Despite the general aversion to Western European countries and the US that is present in the Serbian society, the main trading partner of this country remains the European Union (in 2021, over 60% of turnover). The prospect of joining this organization and the related economic, financial and political benefits continue to be a strong magnet.

From Serbia’s point of view, getting involved in a conflict with Bosnia or Kosovo would mean “burning the bridges” that Belgrade is trying to build with the West. It could also lead to retaliatory action such as Operation Allied Force. Isolated from Russia, Serbia could not count on any support, it would become a vassal of the Kremlin and a pawn in its game. Such a prospect is obviously unacceptable to the government in Belgrade.

Serbia’s Attitude to the War in Ukraine

The difference in the goals of Serbia and Russia is shown by the invasion of Ukraine and the rationale used by Russia to justify it – the separatist aspirations of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics. For Serbia, this is unacceptable, because it would set a precedent for Kosovo seeking recognition of its independence. Belgrade considers the issue of the state’s territorial integrity to be more important than the right to self-determination, which is why it expresses its solidarity with Ukraine. As the former Serbian ambassador to Belarus, Srecko Đukić, explained: “Moscow has probably taken a decisive step in recognizing Kosovo and has certainly made it easier for Washington and the West to solve this problem.”

After Russia recognized the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk, Serbia informed President Zelensky that it was ready to condemn Russian actions if Ukraine condemned the actions taken by the UN in Kosovo. Members of the Serbian government and media loyal to the authorities emphasized their concern about the whole situation. Serbian Prime Minister Anna Brnabic openly stated: “Russia is now doing everything that the West did to the Serbs in 1999 and 2008.”

Despite this, the government in Belgrade cannot afford to take a clearly pro-Western direction or even symbolic sanctions against Russia, because only a dozen or so percent of the population would support them. It would also not guarantee a change in the perception of Serbia in the West, nor would it speed up accession to European structures, and could expose the country to a much stronger response from Moscow. Serbia’s rulers realize that neutrality is the best solution at this point. However, staying neutral is a real challenge. The government not only has to deal with pressure from its ally and the expectations of a conflict-oriented society, but also with increasing pressure from Kosovo.

Serbia’s policy towards Kosovo

The Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, strives to emphasize the separateness and sovereignty of his country. He intends to use Serbia’s close ties with the Kremlin and Serbian irredentism to present it as an aggressor with imperial tendencies against whom intervention must be taken. Kosovo reported in March about an alleged mass mobilization that was supposed to herald an invasion, but this did not happen.

In January 2022, Kurti did not agree to organize a referendum among the Serbian population, announced by the authorities in Belgrade. This was a break with the long-standing precedent of the participation of local Serbs in Serbian politics and the organization of elections and referenda in Kosovo in a neutral formula proposed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Since then, there has also been a dispute over license plates. The Kosovo authorities want the Serbian minority to stop using plates and documents issued by the Serbian authorities. Serbia’s reaction shows that it is unlikely to escalate the conflict against this background. In 2021, similar border friction lasted for two weeks and required the use of special police units. Neither Serbia nor Kosovo backed down then. In 2022, contrary to the media hype, the tension was relieved quite efficiently. Belgrade sought mediation with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell. Serbia has abolished the requirement to hold documents other than Kosovo’s to cross the border, similar promises have also been made by Kosovo. Despite protests, Serbia also accepted the decision not to hold a referendum in Kosovo and organized separate polling stations near the border for the local Serbs.

This policy of the government in Belgrade is widely criticized by Serbian citizens, who perceive it as a concession to Kosovo. They fear that President Vucic is moving to recognize Kosovo’s independence and turn his back on Russia. In order to counteract this, calm the public mood and maintain the image of the people’s party, the government’s propaganda machine conveys information that citizens want to hear. The authorities create a positive image of Russia, speak of support for Serbs living outside their homeland, and promote anti-Western content. At the same time, however, Belgrade’s actions demonstrate pragmatism in the face of the conflict in Ukraine and reluctance to extend it to the Balkans.

The Russian invasion did not change the policy of balancing between East and West pursued by the government in Belgrade. The main objective of Serbia’s foreign policy remains to remain neutral in the face of a complicated geopolitical situation, but also in the face of a clear agitation among Serbs and the rise of pro-Russian tendencies. Added to this is the problem of the expectations of the Serbian minority in Kosovo which go against the intentions of the government in Pristina.

The situation of the government in Belgrade is further complicated by the fact that public opinion in Europe has adopted the narrative of Serbian support for Russia and is more sensitive to the possibility of an escalation of this conflict, also in the Balkans. At the same time, President Vucic is aware that the use of Serbian nationalism in both Serbia and Kosovo is in Moscow’s interest, so he will try to neutralize any tensions in this regard, while stressing that he will not allow the Kosovo Serbs to be marginalized.


Author: Kajetan Milewski, CIR associate