As the international community’s attention remains fixated on Russia’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine, another potential war in Europe is brewing as tensions between two longtime foes in the Balkans approach dangerous heights.
Last week, a Kosovo Albanian police sergeant and three heavily armed Serb attackers were killed in a deadly North Kosovo gun battle in which at least one leading Serbian politician acknowledged he took part. Days later, the United States issued a stark warning over the weekend in response to Serbian military movements observed near the country’s de facto border with mostly ethnically Albanian and religiously Muslim Kosovo, whose independence from majority-Serb and Christian Serbia is disputed among members of the international community.
While a number of Serbian troops have reportedly been recalled from the frontier and Serbian President Aleksandar Vuvic has declared he “does not want a war,” envoys on both sides of the long-running rivalry have expressed to Newsweek the potential for further escalation if underlying tensions are not addressed.
“The security of the whole region is at stake,” Ilir Dugoli, who serves as Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States, told Newsweek. “Vucic cannot be trusted as he once again tries to manipulate in the face of irrefutable evidence of Serbia’s direct involvement in training and planning of a military aggression.”
But Marko Duric, Serbia’s ambassador to the U.S., cast the blame for worsening frictions on Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, whom Duric said has pursued “efforts to persecute the Kosovo Serb population and to provoke a conflict with Serbia.”
“In the two years since Kurti came to power, he has promoted the most extreme and violent approach to dealing with the Serb community in Kosovo,” Duric told Newsweek, “which has resulted in over 275 violent attacks on innocent civilians.”
Though the threat of new violence erupting is a very present danger, the Serbia-Kosovo feud is rooted in tensions that linger in the Balkans after the breakup of the former socialist state of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The collapse of the multiethnic union first forged in the aftermath of World War I fueled a decade of conflicts along ethnic, nationalistic and religious lines, and drew in NATO‘s first-ever combat intervention.
Emerging from the turmoil were the modern states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia, with the status of Kosovo remaining a matter of international dispute since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Countries that recognize Kosovo’s independence include the U.S. and much of NATO and the European Union, with the notable exceptions of Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Spain. Others that do not recognize Kosovo’s independence are Serbia, both Russia and Ukraine, and the influential core BRICS members, which, in addition to Russia, include China, Brazil, India and South Africa.
While the international community may be split nearly exactly in half over the issue, instances of violence such as that which struck late last month have drawn universal concern. And yet, two diverging narratives have emerged.
Duric stated that “the Serbian government sincerely regrets and deplores the tragic violence that took place on September 24th.” At the same time, he said “it is telling that Kurti has not allowed the European Union’s mission in Kosovo (EULEX) to participate in the post-violence investigation.”
“As President Vucic has said, we have considerable evidence that unarmed prisoners were denied medical attention, and in at least one case, shot to death while lying on the ground,” Duric affirmed. “We need a full international investigation to get to the bottom of what happened.”
The Serbian envoy also questioned why Kosovo security personnel were in the ethnic Serb-dominated North Kosovo in the first place, something he argued was only permissible with NATO’s approval, based on a decade-old agreement. He pointed to what he alleged to be a long line of abuses that could cultivate the conditions for such an incident to occur.
“We have been warning for years though that the human rights situation in Kosovo is unbearable,” Duric said, “and that sooner or later someone will—out of pure frustration and desperation—take matters into their own hands, simply to ensure their basic safety and survival and the security of their homes and families.”
Dugoli, for his part, however, said Kosovo had “concrete evidence” that the operation was a result of “Serbia’s hybrid warfare.”
“This terrorist attack, planned and supported both financially and politically by Serbia, represents a grave threat to Kosovo’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national security,” the Kosovo ambassador said.
Tempers between Serbia and Kosovo have been flaring at crisis levels since at least July of last year, as an 11-year period allowing for ethnic Serbs in Northern Kosovo to continue using Serbia-issued license plates for their vehicles expired. Protests, mass resignations of Kosovo Serbs and occasional outbreaks of violence simmered for about a year until local elections this April served as a new flashpoint, with Kosovo police deploying to North Kosovo to install ethnic Albanian mayoral candidates who won a low-turnout vote largely boycotted by ethnic Serbs.
Clashes erupted, injuring dozens, including members of NATO’s peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR) attempting to quell the violence. Serbian and Kosovo officials blame one another for deliberately instigating the unrest.
Now, in the wake of the latest deadly clash, Kosovo is calling for the international community to take action against Serbia.
“We are grateful to our partners for their quick reaction,” Dugoli said, “and hope that this is a time when we will not be going back to business as usual with a country that sponsors terrorism, seeks to destabilize the region, that consistently threatens its neighbors, and a country that has made it clear it is awaiting for the moment to try and complete the project of Greater Serbia, now euphemistically referred to as ‘Serbian world.'”
“This is a time that asks for condemnation and concrete sanctions against a regime that feeds on tension and promotes violence,” he added, calling on the international community to “ensure that Serbia recognizes and respects the independence and sovereignty of its neighbors.”
Yet his Serbian counterpart asserted that “Serbia has no incentive, either politically or economically, to escalate military conflict.” Rather, Duric argued, “the Serbian government is currently doing everything in its power to de-escalate tensions.”
“We are mobilizing to hold any Serb citizen involved in the violence fully accountable,” Duric said, “we are asking our international partners in Washington and in Brussels to authorize NATO’s KFOR mission to take over policing and security duties in Serb-populated regions, and we are calling for the establishment of an international investigation into what happened in Banjska on September 24th.”
“We just wish Kurti would do the same,” he added.