History repeating? Kosovo and Serbia on the edge

6 Mins read

Belgrade and Pristina have been existing in what the outside world would see as harmony, but as NATO deploys 1,000 extra troops to patrol the Kosovo-Serbia border, the former war zone is faced with the fear of history reoccurring.

A Kosovo Albanian policeman killed in cold blood by three armed Serbs, who were also shot dead, became the latest atrocity in the escalating tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.

U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, Jeffrey M. Hovenier described the attack as “coordinated and sophisticated” and suspects that the gunmen appeared to have had military training.

“The quantity of weapons suggests this was serious, with a plan to destabilise security in the region,” he stated.

The gunmen were led by Milan Radoicic, a Kosovo Serb business figure and politician with strong links to Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party. Serbia denies controlling or arming gunmen.

Although this was the deadliest violence in the region as of late, it is not the first in 2023. In May, Serb rioters battled NATO peacekeepers protecting Kosovo municipal officials, with many wounded on both sides.

Ethnic tensions began to rise last year amid the Kosovo government’s aim of making those in majority ethnic Serb areas swap their Serbian-issued car number plates for Kosovan-issued ones.

This was followed by President Aleksandar Vucic backtracking on his commitment to sign an 11-point EU plan to aid relations between Belgrade and Pristina, stating publicly he will not sign any agreement with Kosovo.

Moscow has been supplying Vucic with arms and discounted gas, supporting Belgrade’s stance on Kosovo. Vucic’s relationship with Brussels and Washington has been bruised by his partnership with Moscow as it appears Russia has claimed another ally against the West.

I spoke with a young Serbian, who wishes to remain anonymous in this piece. It is clear that those affected by the ongoing tensions are the civilians trying to rebuild a future which was not destroyed by them.

“It’s just hard to develop as a country when everybody is against you; the EU, NATO and America have destroyed a lot of hope in the country over the past 20 years. As a young person in Serbia or Kosovo today, it is hard trying to make a living with low salaries, political tensions, and an authoritarian/corrupt government,” they said.

“It hurts me to say this, but life in Serbia has become quite unfavourable for young Serbian people, so many look to find jobs elsewhere in Europe, mainly Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The constant tensions with Kosovo also do not help our situation.”

Salaries in Serbia are amongst the lowest in Europe, with an average worker outside of the capital earning just over £300 per month.

“While Serbia is a beautiful country which I am proud to call home, life is proving to be very difficult there. The authoritarian government makes it hard for people to believe in anything the opposition says, and people (especially older generations) are fed up with biased government propaganda.

“The government is spending so much from its budget on ‘world class’ infrastructure and other things to make it seem like the president is working for the people, but with such an enormous debt we are creating due to this, it will result in us young people paying this debt back in the future,” they said.

Streets of Mitrovica at night [Marko Risovic]

“When it comes to young people, or any people in general, there is a strong feeling that Kosovo was, is, and always will be the heart of Serbia. It is quite an important topic in discussion right now. Every day you hear or talk about it. Serbians do not want to forget their own people down in Kosovo, we do not want to leave them alone, we want to know that we are supporting them.”

My source highlights that it is the individuals living in the region of Kosovo who are in the worst position.

“I’ve heard many stories of people suffering down there, and that the Kosovo government is purposefully making the lives of the Serbian minority harder, in order to try and force them out of the territory.”

After the Kosovo war broke out in 1998, the division between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo became intense. Peaceful resistance to Milosevic’s regime of oppression during the nineties soon led to a response of armed resistance from the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Demanding independence, the Kosovo Albanians attacked the Serbs until the intervention of NATO in 1999.

What followed was the death of more than 13,500 civilians, as well as the displacement of between 1.2 million and 1.45 million Kosovo Albanians.

The atrocities of the war left the region full of hate and destruction. This led to the disunity between Albanians and Serbs.

“Before this war, nobody talked about who is Albanian or who is Serbian. Many Albanians lived with no problems all over Serbia. In fact, almost every single sweet pastry shop in the capital of Serbia, Belgrade, was owned by Albanians. These individuals however all moved out of Serbia as tensions started,” my source said.

Today, 100,000 Kosovo Serbs populate the four northern municipalities lying close to the Serbia border, which Serbia aims to control.

The intervention of NATO culminated in adoption of the resolution 1244 on June 10, 1999. Kosovo and Serbia have since both been governed in complete separation, Serbia without authority over Kosovo. The fear was that if Serbian rule returned it would provoke violent opposition.

The resolution aimed for independence for Kosovo with the hope to make it politically stable and economically viable, all of which would have to be completely rebuilt since the devastation of the war.

Whilst Belgrade and Pristina both have municipal governments, other sovereign functions remain in the hands of either Kosovo or Serbia. Kosovo operates border posts and runs the police, whilst Serbia, who tends to spend more in the area, runs educational institutions and hospitals.

It was believed that the independence of both Kosovo and Serbia was the best chance for a sustainable relationship between the two. Yet in 2004, nineteen people were killed in clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Mitrovica.

The Ahtisaari Plan in 2007 provided a path to Kosovo’s independence, and it was accepted by Pristina. Yet, a year later, Serbia dismissed Kosovo’s declaration of independence as illegal.

My source explains why Serbs still dismiss Kosovo’s declaration of independence to this day.

“Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence violates the foundations of international law. It is a challenge to the authority of the United Nations and a challenge to international legal order based on sovereignty and territorial integrity,” they stated.

Initiated by the EU under leadership of former Slovak PM Miroslav Lajcak, the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue provided new hope in 2020. The EU-facilitated dialogue set out its aims to achieve a comprehensive, legally-binding agreement between Kosovo and Serbia in order for both parties to progress on their respective European path and above all, improve the lives of citizens.

The dialogue states that an agreement between the parties is beneficial also to the security, stability and prosperity of the entire region. However, it has not produced intended results due to lack of dominant authority and also exploitation by local and international leaders.

Albin Kurti rose to power in 2021 and began to increase patrolling by Kosovo armed police, fighting to end this overlapping sovereignty. Prime Minister Kurti’s policies have not had the intended effect as Kosovo Serbs feel that the government are pushing them out rather than heading towards unity. Ultimately it makes Kosovo Serbs feel unsafe in the region.

My source explains that the problem with the conflict today lies with the opposing governments.

“Both Serbian and Albanian sides have politicians in power who are doing nothing but dividing people further. For example, Serbs in Kosovo are facing a lot of discrimination right now. Their businesses are being closed, churches are being destroyed or occupied by Albanian forces.

“There have been several attacks on Serbian adults and even children on the street, simply for being Serbian. Many Serbs have been forced to leave their homes, either back to Serbia or to Northern Kosovo, where they remain the majority,” they said.

“It is the result of both our government and the West (namely NATO and the EU) who have created serious tensions and hardship in the south Serbian province.”

Graffiti wall in Mitrovica
Mitrovica, is a city divided into two municipalities which lies to the north of Kosovo [Marko Risovic]

Alongside NATO, the EU supports Kosovo’s independence. However, there is the exception of some countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain, who withhold their recognition of from Kosovo. Spain won’t even accept its passports.

Kosovo alone received a total of 1.5 billion euros from 2007 to 2020 in the framework of IPA I, IPA II and other EU instruments. This investment went towards infrastructure, education, social development, and media. Whilst Serbia has also received funding from the EU, it appears the situation can be more one-sided when it comes to EU support for both parties.

“A lot of anti-Serbian propaganda and hate has been spread by the EU in recent years, and it’s still going on today. So, while we do receive funding from them, it is necessary to say that the EU has also pushed us back, and it almost feels like they do not want us to succeed on purpose,” my source revealed.

“Serbia is a candidate for the EU, but they want us to recognise Kosovo as an independent country before joining, which simply won’t happen. It’s not fair to force a country to give up one of the holiest and most important part of their heritage, history, and culture. Meanwhile countries like Spain are allowed to keep their separatist regions such as Catalonia.”

A new US-EU proposal to normalise relations was centre stage at Brussels in October, when prime minister Kurti and president Vucic met separately with senior European leaders to discuss the plan.

Once again, Serbia has been asked to recognise Kosovo as independent with the promise of financial aid in return.

Featured image by Marko Risovic.

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