- Three decades after the Kosovo War, lingering hostilities between ethnic Serbs and Albanians reignited in November 2022 - protests sparked in response to Kosovo’s controversial move to ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using Belgrade-issued vehicle licence plates, as announced in July 2022.
- On 29 December 2022, recently elevated tension between Serbia and Kosovo culminated in Serbia reducing the combat readiness of its troops on the border and starting to remove the roadblocks set up in the north of the state during previous weeks.
- The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia has added a new dimension to the conflict in the Balkans region, allowing Putin, an outspoken supporter of Serbia, to draw parallels between Kosovo and the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts - the two regions in Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. The current conflict in Ukraine has also enabled the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to intensify their rhetoric.
- The Serbian far right - allegedly linked to Serbia’s President Vučić and his party – is reported to be deepening its connections with the Russian Wagner group, a Private Military Contractor.
- Russian disinformation campaigns in Serbian-language Russian State Media and social media have been launched to exacerbate conflict between ethnic groups and to influence the population in Serbia whilst also providing the Serbian far-right with a platform to express alignment with Moscow (de-Nazification).
- Serbian Journalists critical of the President and Government will likely continue to face harassment and threats over their reporting.
- The Serbian Government is believed to be establishing firmer relationships with Iran.
- The situation in Kosovo is expected to remain “intense” for the near future, but direct interference from US and EU countries is unlikely, as neither can afford or want another large-scale conflict or peace-keeping operation in Europe.
Three decades after the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, the ethnic hostilities that ignited the conflict linger on. Nearly 50.000 Serbs who live in northern Kosovo are hostile towards the government in Pristina and Kosovo’s status as a separate state; they are supported by many Serbs living in Serbia and its government. The long-standing disagreement between the West (pro- Kosovan independence) and Russia, which supports Serbia's efforts to block Kosovo from joining global organisations (including the United Nations) persists. Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has added a new dimension/complexity to the standoff.
The latest escalation in tension between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo began in November 2022, when Kosovo controversially moved to ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using Belgrade-issued vehicle license plates. The policy was subsequently discarded by Pristina in response to protests from the country's Serb community as well as the government coming under pressure from the European Union (EU). The protests saw hundreds of ethnic Serb workers in the Kosovo police and judiciary, including judges and prosecutors, walk off the job. The mass walkouts created a security vacuum in Kosovo, which Pristina tried to fill by deploying ethnic Albanian police officers in the region. On 10 Dec 2022, clashes between EULEX representatives (European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo) and ethnic Serbs in northern Kosmet escalated tensions between the governments of Kosovo and Serbia.
Animosity between the Kosovans and Sebs increased further following the arrest of former Kosovo Serb policeman, Dejan Pantić (who had stepped down from his position in the Kosovar police force over Pristina's license plates plans) for allegedly assaulting Kosovar police officers on December 10. In response, militants from the Serb-majority north of Kosovo continued to protest with the support of Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić; demanding the man’s release and erecting barricades blocking roads connecting Serbia and Kosovo. After the roadblocks were erected, Kosovar police and international peacekeepers were attacked in several shooting incidents, while the Serbian armed forces were put on heightened alert. In an attempt to defuse tensions, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani decided to postpone local elections in four municipalities with a predominantly ethnic Serb population from 18 December 2022 until 23 April 2023. On 28 December last year, Pantić’s custody was downgraded to house arrest by a Pristina court and Serbian President Vucic said that the barricades would be taken down. As of 29 December, Serbs began dismantling barricades in northern Kosovo after Kosovo reopened its main border with Serbia, de-escalating the tensions.
On 1 January 2023, German newspaper Die Welt published an article in which Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo should be enlarged to boost security in the region. Kurti also alleged that men wearing insignia from the Russian mercenary group Wagner and the nationalist Russian motorbike club Night Wolves were involved in building barricades during the protests on the Serbian side of the border. On its part, Russia has openly voiced support for its ally Serbia: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters "We support Belgrade in all the actions that are being taken".
Background / History
In the 1920s Yugoslavia (meaning “Land of the South Slavs”) included the modern countries of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Montenegro.
In 1918 these nations that had been long ruled by the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary combined to form an independent federation known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, formally becoming Yugoslavia in 1929.
Serbia was the dominant area of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. After World War II, the non-aligned Communist government of Josip Broz Tito accorded some measure of autonomy to the constituent republics and attempted to balance contending interests by dividing national administrative responsibilities along ethnic lines. In 1981 protests erupted in Kosovo following the death of Yugoslavia’s long-ruling Communist dictator Tito. An initial demand by ethnic Albanians that Kosovo be upgraded from a province within Serbia to a federal republic within Yugoslavia triggered Serbian nationalism and helped propel Slobodan Milošević to power in Serbia in 1987 as he vowed to stem the separatism. Milošević attempted to craft a “Greater Serbia” from the former union, but his policies led to the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia and civil war in the early 1990s instead.
The Breakup of Yugoslavia
At the beginning of the 1990s, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a large federation of ethnic groups and religions, with Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and Islam being the main religions. It comprised of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. In addition, the two separate regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina held the status of autonomous provinces within the Republic of Serbia.
Yugoslavia experienced a period of intense political and economic crisis during the late 1980s and early 1990s: the Central government was weakened, there was a proliferation of political parties which either advocated the independence of republics or demanded greater powers for certain republics within the federation, and militant nationalism kept growing. Political leaders used nationalist rhetoric to erode a common Yugoslav identity and fuel fear and mistrust among different ethnic groups. By 1991 Slovenia and Croatia had blamed Serbia of unjustly dominating Yugoslavia’s government, military and finances; Serbia in turn accused the two republics of separatism.
- The first of the six republics to formally leave Yugoslavia was Slovenia, declaring independence on 25 June 1991. This triggered an intervention of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) which turned into a brief military conflict, generally referred to as the Ten-Day War. It ended in a victory of the Slovenian forces.
- Croatia declared independence on the same day as Slovenia, however the large ethnic Serb minority in Croatia openly rejected the authority of the newly proclaimed Croatian state citing the right to remain within Yugoslavia. With the help of the JNA and Serbia, Croatian Serbs rebelled, and declared the area of Croatia’s territory under their control to be an independent Serb state. A violent campaign of ethnic cleansing ensued, through which Croats and other non-Serbs were expelled from the area known as Eastern Slavonia. The war finished effectively in 1995, but it took until January 1998 for Croatia to re-assert its authority over the entire territory, with Eastern Slavonia being the last province to acquiesce following a peaceful transition under UN-administration.
- The conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina is considered to be one of the deadliest in the disintegration of the Yugoslav Federation. The republic had a population made up of roughly 43 per cent Bosnian Muslims, 33 per cent Bosnian Serbs, 17 per cent Bosnian Croats and around 7 percent of other nationalities. The republic’s location made it subject to both Serbia and Croatia attempting to assert dominance over large chunks of its territory. Following a boycotted referendum by Bosnian Serbs in March 1992, in which more than 60 percent of Bosnian citizens voted for independence, Bosnian Serbs immediately rebelled with the support of the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbia in April 1992, declaring the territories under their control to be a Serb republic in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is estimated that more than 100 000 people were killed and 2 million people, more than half the population, were forced to flee their homes. In early July 1995 the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, a UN-declared safe area, came under attack by forces lead by the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić, killing more than 8.000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in an act of genocide.
- In 1998, violence flared in Kosovo when the Albanian-Muslim-dominated Serbian province of Kosovo declared independence. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) came out in open rebellion against Serbian rule, and police and army reinforcements were sent in to crush the insurgents, heavily targeting civilians and villages. In early 1999 NATO carried out a 78-day-long campaign of air strikes against targets in Kosovo and Serbia. In response, Serb forces further intensified the persecution of the Kosovo Albanian civilians. Eventually, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević agreed to withdraw his troops and police from the province. In June 1999, Serbia agreed to the international administration of Kosovo with the final status of the province still unresolved; nonetheless, Serbia has refused to ever agree to the secession of what it considers its “historic heartland” - Russia, China, Iran, Brazil, India and five members of the European Union (Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece) support the decision.
After serving as Serbia’s party leader and president from 1989 to 1997 Slobodan Milošević served as president of the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - it had been inaugurated in 1992 and consisted of only Serbia and Montenegro - from 1997 to 2000. Milošević was later defeated in presidential elections and arrested and tried before the International Court of Justice for war crimes committed during the Kosovo conflict. Yugoslavia remained unstable: in 2003, the renamed Serbia and Montenegro replaced Yugoslavia on the European map, and in 2006 Montenegro and Serbia became recognized as independent nations. In the meantime, multilateral talks to determine Kosovo’s future status failed to yield a solution acceptable to both Serbs and Kosovars: despite Serbia’s opposition, Kosovo formally seceded in February 2008 and ever since, the diplomats and political leaders have been unable or unwilling to agree on a final framework for peaceful coexistence.
Today, 1.8 million of Kosovo’s population (around 100.000-120.000) are Serbs. More than half live in central and south Kosovo, while the rest live in the north, a compact area abutting Serbia. It is a landlocked country situated at the crossroads of the Pannonian Basin and the Balkans and it shares land borders with:
- Hungary to the north
- Romania to the northeast
- Bulgaria to the southeast
- North Macedonia to the south
- Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the west
- Montenegro to the southwest
Serbia also claims a border with Albania through the disputed territory of Kosovo. Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, is a cosmopolitan city at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.
Geopolitical divisions over Kosovo have become more acute since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia under President Vladimir Putin, an outspoken Serbia supporter.
Putin has criticised the West for what he says are double standards. He has compared the cause of Kosovo — which has been recognized by most of the Western world — to that of two regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014, Donbass and Luhansk. In turn, the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo have used the war in Ukraine to intensify their rhetoric. There’s a risk that an escalation could spill over to other parts of the volatile Western Balkans, including Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Serbian far-right appears to have deepened its relationship with Russia.
The Serbian ultranationalist Damjan Knezevic, head of the group People's Patrol organisation, has targeted immigrants in high-profile activities and has organized demonstrations in Belgrade in support of Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
In December 2022, Knezevic visited the new Wagner Group HQ in St. Petersburg. It is believed that the aim of the visit was to promote the cultural and political affinities between Russia and Serbia, while also re-affirming Russia's opposition to Kosovo's independence and Serbia's refusal to join Western sanctions on Russia despite the risks to Belgrade's EU membership bid.
Using its state-run Serbian-language channels Sputnik and Russia Today to spread disinformation throughout the Western Balkans, the Kremlin influences public opinion on the question of Kosovo, as well as on the question of the EU’s and overall Western role in the region. A report by the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development (KIPRED) revealed that 17.2% of 458 stories published in Serbia over the course of 3 months were disinformation shared by Russia Today, Sputnik Serbia, and other websites such as Russia Insider. Their aim is mainly to attack the legitimacy of Kosovo’s statehood, but also to fuel ethnic tensions by portraying the Serb community in Kosovo as victims of an abusive central government (similar to the rhetoric used by Russia to justify its invasion of Ukraine). On December 28, First Deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo Besnik Bislimi told British program Times Radio that the Kremlin is stoking Serbia-Kosovo tensions to distract from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “There is recorded evidence that people in paramilitary groups are being supported by the Humanitarian Centre, a Russian centre. So, I think nobody is denying the presence of Russia and the influence of Russia”, Besnik added.
Serbian journalists critical of the Government are facing harassment, attacks and threats over their media reporting, from unknown entities, government officials and tabloids.
In December 2022, the IJAS (Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia) reported that Serbian state officials and media platforms were targeting journalists critical of the current government by accusing them of being enemies of Serbia and by making allegations that they are working against Serbia. In turn, this has resulted in death threats being made to several journalists:
- On 7 December 2022, Serbian broadcasters N1 Srbija and Nova, targeted for criticising “the increasingly autocratic President Aleksandar Vučić and his government”, stopped broadcasting for 24 hours to denounce the worsening of freedom of the media in Serbia.
- On 1 December 2022, Nova-S TV’s journalist Jelena Obucina was threatened via Twitter with death and sexual violence after she was wrongly accused by tabloids of threatening Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on television, and of making anti-state propaganda.
- On 6 November 2022, certain journalists and columnists working for Danas’ daily, a left-wing media outlet, were threatened with “barrages of bullets” through an email titled “Charlie Hebdo of Belgrade” (referring to French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo whose journalists were killed in their offices by Islamic terrorists in 2015). The threat, sent via a proton email address, mentioned that the journalists were “enemy of the Serbian people” and “traitors”.
Serbian Aleksandar Lisov is believed to be the head of the Russian-Serbian Centre Orlovi, based in St. Petersburg. The Centre is behind a pro-war Telegram group known as "Orlovi" which spreads pro-Russian propaganda and misinformation about the war in Ukraine on social networks. Orlovi also allegedly shared some old footage of a group of men burning an Albanian flag and called for the murder of ethnic Albanians.
Aleksandar Lisov was also present at the visit of the Wagner Headquarters in December 2022. He has been accused of threatening anti-Putin Russians that have fled to Serbia.
Anti-war Russian activists residing in Serbia since the beginning of the war in Ukraine have reportedly been harassed and threatened through the Orlovi telegram channel.
Until the invasion of Ukraine, the presence of Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels in Serbia was hardly noticeable. However, Open-Source research suggests that pro-Russian channels have since been publishing in the Serbian language, spreading information without evidence, calling for violence, and even targeting individuals within Serbia who openly oppose the Ukraine invasion. It is believed that the aim is to "militarize the public.”
As of December 2022, Serbia is the only remaining European country that has not imposed sanctions on Russia.
Moscow’s goal – dating back centuries - is to play a balancing role by supporting its Serbian allies. Historically, the Russian Empire developed close cultural, political, and religious ties to the Balkans, and with control of the region contested by the Catholic Western powers and the Islamic Ottoman empire, Russia positioned itself as a patron of the Orthodox Christian Slavs, especially in Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. In the modern era, Moscow has seen Western interventions in Yugoslavia as a sign of Russia’s diminishing influence. Putin, who took power less than a year after the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo on Serbian forces, saw these as a statement of intent that Russian interests would no longer be seriously considered in international decision-making. Consequently, the Kremlin opposed the international war crimes tribunals for Serbian leaders, withdrew its peacekeeping forces from Kosovo in 2003, and blocked UN recognition of Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.
NATO expansion is also at the heart of Putin’s complaints against the West, which maintain that Western leaders are seeking to encircle and destroy Russia. To date, Putin has used his close relations with Balkan countries as a means of forestalling their accession to both NATO and the EU, and a way to project its naval power in the Mediterranean; another long-standing goal of Russian statecraft. For example, Montenegro possessed the last non-NATO ports on the Adriatic Sea before it joined the alliance in 2017.
The Ukraine Conflict
During the recent hostilities between Kosovo and Serbia, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti accused Serbia of serving Russian interests, while Serbia’s President Vučić said that Kosovo officials are trying to exploit alarm over Ukraine for their own purposes.
Some observers argue that the main reasons for the escalation of the situation in Kosovo were the intervention by external forces and the Kosovo authorities' desire to seek "independence" by taking the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a window of opportunity, potentially soliciting greater support from countries and organizations such as the US, the European Union, and NATO.
Following the outbreak of the invasion, Kosovo has taken a strongly pro-Western stance in the conflict, drawing parallels between Russia’s war on Ukraine and Serbia’s repression of Kosovo. By contrast, Serbia has taken an ambivalent stance, condemning Russia’s invasion, and reportedly refusing to station a Russian military base in Serbia, but not implementing EU sanctions on Russia.
The Kosovo Force (KFOR) has been deployed in Kosovo since 1999 when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conducted the aerial bombing campaign against the then-Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. Currently, KFOR has almost 3.800 members, including about 70 German soldiers. The organization has been conducting engineering operations in the north of Kosovo to remove some vehicles blocked on the road and to restore freedom of movement in accordance with its UN mandate. In addition, since the invasion of Ukraine, the EU peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR) has nearly doubled its forces. It is also worth noting that in July 2022, member states reached a deal to unblock long-stalled talks on bringing Albania and North Macedonia into the EU.
On 1st January, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in remarks published in German newspaper Die Welt that the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo should be enlarged to boost security in the region.
On 4-5 December 2022, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Serbia, continuing a series of frequent meetings between the Serbian state leadership and the leaders of the Tehran regime. Media reports pointed out that there was not any kind of commercial or political agreement signed by either party.
Furthermore, Serbia has been criticised for hosting Iranian leadership despite the regime’s continued violent repression of its own population.
On 4 Jan 2023 media sources reported that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced that a US State Department official will visit Belgrade on January 11 or 12 over the ongoing tensions with Kosovo and to encourage Serbia to apply sanctions against Russia.
The heightened tensions over the last couple of months between Kosovo and Serbia are likely the result of years of frozen progress in the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade on normalising relations.
Since discussions started in 2011, the EU-facilitated dialogue has led to the signing of over 30 agreements, including on freedom of movement, the integration of judicial and police structures in Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo, and Kosovo’s participation in regional initiative. Unfortunately, each side has resisted addressing the most sensitive issues: Kosovo has not yet implemented a 2013 EU-sponsored agreement signed between the two countries in Brussels to create an Association of Serb-Majority municipalities (ASM), and the current Kosovar government has taken an inflexible approach to the dialogue, preconditioning a final agreement on “mutual recognition”. For Pristina, the fear is that Serbia would use the ASM to undermine Kosovo’s independence, declared by Kosovo in 2008, and never recognised by Belgrade, or by a number of other countries. Serbia will likely continue to wage a diplomatic war against Kosovo by blocking its international recognition and accession to international organisations and will refuse to commit to a final agreement until the ASM takes place.
In an effort to ease the tensions and avoid a new war in the Balkans, the EU and the US reinforced their support to the negotiation process in 2022. At the end of the year a new Franco-German proposal for a new dialogue framework for Kosovo and Serbia was drafted. In Kosovo, opinion is favourable towards the proposal thanks to Albanian media reports and statements by Kosovar officials. However, for the Serbian government the prerequisite to any progress, including via the Franco-German proposal, remains the establishment of the ASM.
Although many politicians and commentators have deemed Kosovo’s Kurti to be stubborn, his policies seem to have been delivering results. Vučić has had to concede on several issues in the past few months: on 15 December, Kurti applied for EU candidacy and secured a promise that Kosovo’s citizens will no longer require Schengen visas from 2024.
The situation in Kosovo is expected to remain relatively tense in the coming months. New potential confrontations between Serbia and Kosovo are likely to result in raised ethnic tensions in the region – possibly including further barricades, protests and roadblocks in the north of the country, where the ethnic Serbs presence is denser. The Serbian far-right is likely to present an ongoing security challenge in Serbia and increasingly in areas bordering Kosovo. It is a realistic possibility that Serbian ultranationalist personalities will increase their ties with Wagner Group and other Russia-aligned entities, given their recent visits to Russia and endorsements to the Russian state and the war in Ukraine.
It is also likely that the government of Serbia will strengthen its ties with Iran as the latter still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Relationships with Iran are likely to result in the delay of Serbia’s bid for EU membership.
The US and European countries will continue their efforts in convincing both parties to pursue dialogue and further negotiations. Western allies do not want another large-scale conflict in the Balkans, since in conjunction with the invasion of Ukraine, it would consume finances and energy they are unwilling to spend. Direct involvement from the US and the EU will remain unlikely in the Balkan Peninsula in the near future.