Written by Julius Birch
In the final months of 2022, concerning articles of instability in northern Kosovo and heightened tensions between Serbia and Kosovo made the news. Reports of barricades and troop movements were matched by fiery and bellicose statements by the nations’ presidents. Before long, however, the war in Ukraine took the front seat again, and the matter drifted out of the public eye. In light of the history of the Balkans, a deterioration in Serbia-Kosovo relations may have consequences for the stability and security of one the most volatile areas in Europe. However, when placed in the broader context of tensions between the two countries, it appears that whilst incidents such as the events of late 2022 may reoccur in the near future, a flare-up of the frozen Balkan conflict is unlikely. Due to interests in future EU membership, Serbia and Kosovo are probably going to be drawn together under the umbrella of European cooperation.
Car Plates, Walkouts, and Gunfire
The flashpoint for this diplomatic spat was almost comically minor. In November of 2022, a recently-enacted law requiring Serbs living in Kosovo to use licence plates issued by the Kosovo government raised tensions in the Balkans once more. Reports of Serbian troops being deployed to the border raised fears that the bloody conflict may be reignited in some form. Within the first week, an estimated 10,000 Serbian state employees in Kosovo resigned en masse in protest, refusing to enforce the law, as the Kosovar president accused Serbia of trying to destabilize his country. A series of high-level talks, mediated by the EU, eventually led to an agreement between the two countries that was hoped would cool down flaring tempers and prevent an outburst of violence.
In early December, however, things took a turn for the worse. An attack by unidentified gunmen wounded a police officer in the north of Kosovo, and the Serbian government officially requested NATO to let 1,000 Serbian troops into the country in defence of the Serbian community. Following the arrest of a former Kosovo Serb policeman who had resigned in November, violence erupted, with Kosovo Serbs building barricades and engaging in shootouts with police. Elections were delayed, and as the year drew to a close conflict it seemed to some that the Balkans were on the brink of conflict once more. Serbian troops were put on high alert, and Kosovo closed the largest border crossing between the two countries.
Behind the scenes, however, European diplomats scrambling to prevent the conflict from escalating met with success. Almost in tandem, Kosovo and Serbia each took action to back down as barricades were dismantled, Kosovo reopened the border crossing, and Serbian troops’ state of high alert was ended. The conflict simmered on throughout January, with the Serbian president warning that failure to resolve the conflict would lead to international isolation, and scupper Serbia’s chances of entering the EU. Throughout early February Kosovo’s and Serbia’s acquiescence with EU demands made headlines, as did the arrest of a group of Serbian ultranationalists allegedly preparing to overthrow President Vucic for betraying his country. On the 17th of February came the anniversary of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, and while tensions have not gone away, the news chose to concentrate on the ongoing diplomatic efforts rather than discuss any renewed violence.
Ever since the end of the Yugoslav wars, NATO and the West have kept a wary eye on the Balkan region. Perceived Serbian dominance and over-representation in the government of other Balkan nations was an important reason for the initial breakup of former Yugoslavia. The majority ethnically Albanian region of Kosovo declared independence in 2008 for similar reasons, and until now Serbia has refused to recognise its statehood despite its de facto autonomy. Peace has been enforced by the presence of NATO’s KFOR mission of around 4.000 troops, effectively rendering the region as the site of a frozen conflict because Serbia has neither been able to reassert control nor is it willing to acknowledge Kosovo as an independent nation.
Thus, it is not surprising that reports of raised tensions and sporadic violence in post-Yugoslav states raise concerns among the Western public. Many people remember it as a chaotic and bloody residuum to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the last significant case of internecine violence in mainland Europe. With the war in Ukraine still ongoing, a second conflict in Europe would be an unwelcome military and political distraction. For the Netherlands in particular, the prospect of another Balkan conflict is especially alarming due to its role in the failure to prevent infamous massacres of the late ‘90s, which damaged its international reputation. After all, post-war tribunals of war criminals of the Yugoslav Wars are still being held in The Hague.
Prospects for the future
If the events of late 2022 are placed in the wider context of Kosovo-Serbia relations, then news of this specific row become considerably less alarming. A similar spike in tensions occurred during the previous year, when Kosovan police began to remove Serbian licence plates from vehicles crossing the border, sparking protests by ethnic Serbians living in the breakaway republic. In fact, political leaders on both sides of the border have an interest in making clashes and tensions seem much more volatile and high-risk than they really are. Hence, they use the conflict as an excuse to scapegoat the other side, fling vitriol, and present their governments as strong and decisive for confronting its adversaries. The Serbian request for NATO to allow their troops into the country is an example of this strategy; a rejection was entirely expected – and duly granted – but it helped to present the sitting Serbian government as “the little man”, struggling to protect Serbs everywhere despite international tyranny.
Indeed, reports of barricades, gunfire, and closed borders raised eyebrows in Europe, as they would have if the action had taken place in any other European region with high separatist tensions or risk of conflict. But this conflict is not new, nor is it likely to escalate since Serbians in Kosovo have overwhelmingly rejected its independence for the past fifteen years yet no significant armed clashes have occurred. It would seem that sabre-rattling is a strategy employed by both sides to maintain domestic support for the government as well as keeping the international community’s attention drawn to their case. Putting on a tough act towards a national adversary is popular with voters, and forces international mediators to take the interests of a country’s demands seriously.
But armed conflict is in no one’s interest for Pristina and Belgrade both have more to gain from peace. As Kosovo and Serbia both wish to move closer to the EU, pursuing an open armed conflict would practically shatter their ambitions of European Union membership. A recently-signed deal made strides in formalizing the relationship between the two former belligerents, having the full support of EU member states. The EU could therefore facilitate the amelioration of relations between Serbia and Kosovo by emphasising that their future in the EU is dependent on their commitment to the reconciliation process. By asserting its role as a geopolitical actor in the Balkans, the EU could offer a roadmap to regional stability through incentivising a future of prosperity based on European values of compromise and cooperation.
Furthermore, the presence of KFOR in Kosovo makes an all-out war practically impossible. With a combined strength of 4000 military and civilian personnel, the NATO-led peacekeeping contingent should be enough to act as a deterrent against renewed hostilities. KFOR has acted as a military stabilisation force for over 2 decades, resulting in most of the regional security architecture between Kosovo and Serbia being based on its presence. In 2009, KFOR was downsized as the security situation had substantially improved, thus confirming the success of its complex and extensive mission as an authoritative security provider. Therefore, KFOR’s activities in the region should have altered the local security environment making direct armed confrontation unpropitious.
In conclusion: a reignition of the conflict proper is highly unlikely. Whilst similar disputes may occur in the future, any belligerent actions are probably just sabre-rattling for political gain. As Serbia and Kosovo both have ambitions of ascension to European Union membership, both countries have vested interests against letting emotions run too high and spilling over into a full-scale conflict. Real security threats may, however, come from negative developments concerning the main stabilising forces in the region, namely KFOR and the EU. There may be serious repercussions for the Balkans if democratic backsliding in Serbia renders joining the EU an undesirable prospect or if NATO’s ability to restrain the warring parties is weakened because of an escalation in the war in Ukraine.
About the author: Julius Birch
Julius studied History at Utrecht University. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on shifting US attitudes towards Indonesia during the 1964-1965 genocide, and is currently taking a gap year in preparation for his Master's. His academic interests include such topics as the developing character of Information Age warfare and geopolitics in a historical perspective.