Tensions in the Balkans should be carefully watched but not exaggerated

Children wave Albanian and Kosovar flags for Kosovo independence day, February 2016. Marko Djurica/Reuters

Tensions have been on the rise again between Serbia and Kosovo, prompting European Union High Representative for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini to visit the Western Balkans last week.

Her visit was timely: on March 2, a French court postponed the extradition of former prime minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj. He was arrested in France in January 2017 on an Interpol warrant issued by Serbia regarding war crimes committed during the Kosovo war (1998-1999).

These recent events have reopened the issue war crimes and the people who committed them – few of whom were ever prosecuted – on both sides.

The Kosovo War

From March to June 1999, NATO intervened in Kosovo and Serbia with air strikes to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Albanian population by the Serbs.

A Kosovo Albanian man stands in the doorway of a house, which was destroyed during the 1998-99 war. Hazir Reka/Reuters

However, after the intervention, other crimes were committed by the Albanian Liberation Army against Serbian and Albanian civilians even though the region was under UN supervision through the UNMIK mission headed then by Bernard Kouchner.

Weeks before, another incident had sparked tensions. A train, provided by Russia, covered with Serbian colours and the inscription “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages, left from Belgrade with the intent of reaching Kosovo. The Kosovan government protested and vowed to send its police forces to stop the train. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic ordered the train to be stopped before the border.

Serbia before Montenegro or Kosovo were included. MGA73bot2/Wikimedia

This incident triggered a lot of belligerent comments. Vucic emphatically claimed that he had just avoided a war, a very questionable statement for which Mogherini surprisingly praised him. Meanwhile, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic pledged to send the army and his own sons to Kosovo should Serbs from the North ever come under threat.

Although nationalist rhetoric is still dominant in the region, such warmongering comments have not been heard since the Milosevic era, which raised misgivings as to whether a new conflict could be looming in the Balkans.

National agendas

This serious series of events should be understood in a context of a clash between different local and international agendas.

They took place just few days before a new round of talks between Belgrade and Pristina in the frame of the EU-sponsored normalisation dialogue, which brought some results including a new telephone code for Kosovo (+383).

But dialogue has been at an impasse on many other issues, including the agreement on the creation of a Community of Serb municipalities in the North. Recent incidents thus enabled each side to strengthen its position at home and towards the EU before the meetings in Brussels.

It is in political leaders’ interest to fall back on nationalist rhetoric. During the presidential campaign in Serbia ahead of an election set for April 2, Kosovo is seen as a fruitful topic for a patriot statesman, which is why both Vucic and Nikolic, from the same party and both hoping to run for president, endorse nationalist rhetoric. Nikolic eventually dropped out after Vucic was designated as his party’s candidate.

A boy stands against a wall decorated with the Serb nationalist sign in an isolated village of Priluzja in Kosovo in 2008. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Yet warmongering statements won’t stop. The press, under close government control, is full of plots and threats of war against Serbia waged by the Albanians, the Croats, the Turks, or NATO. In his effort to win in the first round, Vucic will have to be both serene and strong, European and nationalist.

On the other hand, the Kosovo political scene could soon be deeply changed after the opening of a new tribunal, under Kosovo law but located in The Hague, in charge of prosecuting war crimes committed by former Kosovo Liberation Army leaders.

Many of them, including Haradinaj and Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaçi, have become top politicians who the West have relied on for years. It is crucial for Kosovo’s political leaders to show determination to challenge any move from Serbia.

Kosovo is expected to apply for a new UNESCO bid soon, after the first attempt to join the international organisation as a country member was dismissed last year.

Caught between Russian and US politics?

Tensions can also be found elsewhere in the region. In Bosnia, the Bosniak member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, vowed to appeal the 2007 decision by the International Court of Justice to absolve Serbia from genocide against Bosnia.

This project has sparked outrage among Bosnian Serbs, which will no doubt increase tensions in the weeks and months to come, with a view to strengthen the respective positions before the 2018 Bosnian elections.

Izetbegovic’s statement comes less than two month after Bosnian Serbs held a celebration of a Day of the Serb Republic. Though they may seem irresponsible, these agendas are all very rational as they all make political points.

Prime Minister Vucic and President Putin in Belgrade in 2014. Kremlin, CC BY

But these local agendas clash with a new international configuration. Given uncertainties around the new Trump administration’s foreign policy, expectations and misgivings are high in the region.

Trump’s alleged closeness to Vladimir Putin raises hope for Serbs that US attitudes in the region will be more favourable towards them; the Clintons have long been championed among the Kosovo Albanians. Yet some experts on Russia are already speculating as to whether Moscow might recognise Kosovo in the frame of a broader deal with the US.

It seems very unlikely but that doesn’t mean that Russia is backing away from the region, quite the contrary if the revelations in the British press on Russia’s involvement in a coup attempt in Montenegro last October are correct.

Tensions in the Balkans should be seen as local agendas clashing in a new and volatile international context. Will these tensions turn into an open conflict between Serbia and Kosovo? This remains very unlikely, but nationalist rhetoric will continue to flourish.