Where: Serbia - Kosovo
Who’s involved: Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Kosovar police
On 02/10/2023, Serbian military officials announced that they reduced Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo following reports of an unprecedented increase in Serbian troops including advanced Serbian military equipment such as artillery, tanks and mechanized infantry units. The Serbian president Vucic claimed that this was a normal military activity, and didn’t result in an escalation.
This comes after an attack in the north of Kosovo which has inflamed an already tense political situation. On 24/09/2023, 30 ethnic Serb armed gunmen with heavy weapons and grenades attacked two patrolling Kosovar police near Banjska, on the Kosovo-Serbian border.
Albin Kurti, prime minister of Kosovo, called it a terrorist attack and accused the Serbian state of sponsoring the gunmen, citing the discovery of advanced military equipment in police searches. Belgrade has denied this allegation. Vucic condemned the terrorist attack and blamed it on Albin Kurti’s policies in the north of Kosovo, as Kurti refused to form an association of Serb municipalities in north Kosovo. Following the attack and ramping up of tensions, Vucic stated “Serbia will never recognize independent Kosovo, you can kill us all.”
On 02/10/2023, the Belgrade police arrested Kosovo Serb politician Milan Radoicic who admitted responsibility for organizing the terrorist attack. However, on 04/10/2023, a Belgrade court released him once again, but banned Radoicic from leaving the country.
The Serbian mobilization on the border with Kosovo has been reduced, but tensions still remain high between Serbia and Kosovo. Vucic and the Serb military likely increased the border forces to see the reaction from the international community. Warnings from the US to back down eventually convinced the Serb military to reduce its troop numbers.
With an upcoming election by the end of this year, Vucic could heighten tensions with Kosovo to build domestic support for his own re-election. Within Serbia, weekly protests against mass shootings and growing criticisms over authoritarian leadership has led to calls for him to step down.
Kosovo also started an investigation into a possible involvement of Russia in the attack. There are fears in Europe and the U.S. that Russia is attempting to push its allies to open a new front in the center of Europe, to distract NATO from the conflict in Ukraine. Whether the attack was actively coordinated with Vucic is disputed however. The U.S. has also pointed to the co-ordinated and sophisticated planning of the attack in the north of Kosovo, noting that ethnic armed Serbs groups remain a destabilizing force in the Balkans.
The EU's approach to Serbia-Kosovo peace talks is being reconsidered following an investigation into the attack on 24/09/2023. The EU has attempted to bring Serbia into the western fold and away from its historical ally Russia. However, critics say this has been too lenient on Vucic. The EU is facing calls to sanction Serbia, though this approach would have to be voted on by a unanimous vote by the European Council. With Hungary ruling out further sanctions against Serbia, this is unlikely to pass. However, if the attack was not ordered by Vucic, it seems that Vucic has lost control of ethnic Serb proxies in northern Kosovo, which would raise concerns for EU policy that relies on Vucic for controlling the situation in the north of Kosovo.
Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence after succeeding from Serbia in 2008. The majority of Kosovo is ethnic Albanian, though 5 percent of Kosovo’s 1.8 million people are ethnic Serbs and concentrated in the north of the country. Today, it is recognized as an independent state by the U.S. and EU, and more than 100 countries. Russia and China are diplomatic, economic and military supporters of Serbia and do not recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.
Further attacks in the north of Kosovo would be a direct threat for Kosovo and European security. Following the attack in the north, both Kurti and Vucic requested that NATO take over policing in that region. NATO has rejected the call, saying it is not a policing organization, but it has sent another 300 troops to the KFOR peacekeeping mission there.
The tensions between Kosovo and Serbia remain heightened following the increase in Serb armed forces on the border. NATO is actively increasing troop presence in the north of Kosovo in an attempt to deter Serbian military build-ups. The latest actions present a serious threat to the EU-led political normalization of ties between Serbia and Kosovo, with both sides accusing each other of inciting the violence. Both Pristina and Belgrade need to normalize ties to gain access to the EU but without a breakthrough in talks, there will be further instability and the potential for violent clashes. The large presence of advanced weaponry and the scale of the attack in the north of Kosovo, while disputed, demonstrates that armed groups are still active in the region. Moreover, with an upcoming election for Vucic in December 2023, he could use the Kosovo issue to distract from his domestic unpopularity in Serbia. Whether the EU changes its approach to the issue remains to be seen, though Hungarian opposition to sanctions constrains the EU’s economic pressure on Vucic.