Most observers of Balkan developments will agree that a Kosovo crisis of various flavors seems to emerge with some regularity around the holiday season as if to remind the world that the Kosovo situation remains unresolved. The mini-crisis scenario does not apply in every year but occurs in many.
In recent years, the crisis situation has generally emerged from a single violent incident between Kosovo’s Serbs and the majority Albanian population, but it can also be a direct result of Kosovo’s Serbs refusing to accept a decision taken by the country’s central government in Pristina, usually resisting Pristina’s latest new policy initiative at Belgrade’s urging.
The longstanding strategy applied by Belgrade is to resist any form of political agreement or new administrative policy that provides evidence of what it sees as “accommodation” to the realities on the ground, meaning anything that hints at the fact that Kosovo’s independent nation status is irreversible. In fact, Belgrade has long worked to build parallel structures within Kosovo to maintain its influence over the Kosovo Serbs.
With this historical pattern in mind, it is somewhat easier to understand this season’s small-scale crisis. It is not a precise replay of previous years, but all the key players are involved.
Political unrest in northern Kosovo energizes Belgrade
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic announced on December 10 that he hoped to deploy Serbian troops and police units to Serbian-populated areas of northern Kosovo to protect Serbian residents from a series of violent incidents in the area over the last few days, focused primarily against Kosovo police and foreign civilian authorities, which then resulted in the local Serbian residents erecting barricades on key highways in their region.
The arrest of one recently resigned Kosovo police officer, of Serbian nationality, also helped to raise the temperature. Vucic later denied that the barricades were erected at Belgrade’s suggestion.
This happened against the backdrop of a political crisis in the Kosovo Serbian community, since the bulk of the local politicians had decided in mid-November to boycott upcoming municipal elections and a group of mayors, judges and police officers had resigned in connection with the long-running license plate crisis.
The cause of the latest wave of disturbances fits the pattern of earlier problems, but this year the matter has a tighter connection to the political status of the minority Serbian community in Kosovo and was not triggered by attacks on Serbian civilians as has been claimed in many other incidents. Elections in several Serbian majority municipalities were due to be held on December 18, but diplomats working with the central government in Pristina managed to reschedule them for April 2023, as announced by President Vjosa Osmani. The hope is that this will serve to relieve some of the current political pressure.
NATO approval is needed, but not likely
In order to make Serbian security force deployments across Kosovo’s accepted international border, the permission of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force is required. In view of the ongoing unrest, NATO is unlikely to consider the request favorably and everyone involved knows that.
Most assume Vucic’s request was made for the historical record since the status-setting UN Security Council Resolution 1244 permits the return of Serbian troops to specific sites in Kosovo under certain conditions. German and American public responses were immediately negative to Vucic’s request.
It should not be forgotten that Vucic’s stock has traded at near record lows across the EU as well as in Washington since Serbia is still refusing to align with EU sanctions policy against Russia. In addition, NATO members almost completely encircle Serbia’s territory, with the exception of Bosnia and Kosovo, meaning the possibility of Belgrade defying NATO on the Kosovo question is essentially non-existent, regardless of Russian moral support in the UN.
Well timed travel
With the declared purpose of “underscoring the enduring U.S. commitment to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the region,” the US Department of State announced it was sending Counselor Derek Chollet to the Balkan region from December 12-16. Unfortunately that plan was modified when Chollet tested positive for Covid.
Filling in for Chollet was US Special Envoy to the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar, who was undoubtedly the key US Balkans expert in Chollet’s entourage had he made the trip as scheduled.
In Pristina, Escobar met with President Vjosa Osmani and Prime Minister Albin Kurti. According to Osmani’s office, the US called for the removal of blockades on roads in the north and an end to intimidation and threats of violence.
Chollet’s regional travel plans announced last week would have included Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia and North Macedonia before stopping in Brussels for consultations with EU counterparts. It is likely Escobar will follow most of that program, but especially the Brussels stop since both the US and EU need to consult quickly on the situation and whether to deploy reinforcements to the region.
Kosovo applies for EU candidate status
Trying to obtain the same EU candidate status that Ukraine and Bosnia attained so far this year, Kosovo’s leaders signed December 13 a formal application seeking the status of candidate for membership in the European Union. If approved, the multiphased negotiating process will undoubtedly be long and difficult until tensions with Serbia are finally resolved.
EU candidate country (but EU Russia sanctions defying) Serbia reacted with anger to Kosovo’s EU application and Serbian officials indicated they will ask the five EU states that have not recognized Kosovo, plus Hungary, to block the initiative in Brussels. The five are Greece, Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus.