If Putin is trying to stoke conflict in the Balkans, he’s going to have to contend with the influence of NATO, the US and the EU in the region, reports Nicola Mikovic
While the war in Ukraine rages on, certain global actors seems to attempt to artificially create another crisis in Europe. In the Balkans, where wounds from the brutal wars in the 1990s are still fresh, a small spark can start a great fire.
Tensions in the region started to rise on 31 July after the local Serbs in northern Kosovo blocked roads in protest at an order to replace Serbian-issued car license plates and identifications cards with Kosovo registrations and documents. The ethnically Albanian-dominated government in Pristina responded by deploying special police forces to the region where the Serbs make the majority of the population, but no serious incidents were reported.
Since Belgrade does not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence – recognized by most Western countries but not by the European Union members Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and Slovakia – citizens of Kosovo need special temporary documents while residing in Serbia. Pristina, for its part, intended to reciprocate by demanding the same from Serbian citizens. Thus, what happened in northern Kosovo on 31 July was a local crisis, rather than a “spillover of the Ukraine war” to the Balkans.
Even though Ukraine itself does not recognize Kosovo, some hardliners in Kyiv said that if Serbia invades Kosovo, the Eastern European country “should send its troops there”. Given that Kosovo hosts a large American military base, it is extremely improbable that Belgrade would ever launch an attack on what it still sees as its southern province. That is why Serbian Defense Ministry announced that “the Serbian Army has so far not crossed the administrative line and did not enter the territory of Kosovo and Metohija in any way."
But does that mean that the Serbian Army could enter Kosovo in the future?
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Despite dramatic announcements from the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s that the new registration policy was “part of an effort to force remaining Serbs out of Kosovo”, the situation in the region remains calm. NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR) missions said that it was prepared to intervene if stability is jeopardized in the North of Kosovo.
“'The overall security situation in the northern municipalities of Kosovo is tense. The NATO-led KFOR mission is closely monitoring and is prepared to intervene if stability is threatened, in accordance with its mandate, which emerges from UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999”, said the statement.
More importantly, the US embassy in Pristina announced that the full implementation of the deal on entry documents and license plates should be delayed for 30 days. As a result, Kosovo’s authorities, shortly before midnight, decided to postpone for one month the implementation of the decision on reciprocity measures related to identification documents and the use of license plates.
Such a move perfectly illustrates that the United States still plays the major role in both Pristina and Belgrade. Days before the road blockades, Kosovo’s President and Prime Minister, Vjosa Osmani and Albin Kurti, travelled to Washington to meet with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while Richard Grenell, former Special Envoy to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, visited Serbia. On 31 July he accused Kurti of “acting foolishly and recklessly”, pointing out that the White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “needs to call Kurti and tell him to stop his unilateral moves immediately.”
Although the former US diplomat is not part of the new American administration, he still seems to be a very influential political figure in the Balkans. Grenell often travels to the region to meet with Serbian and Albanian officials. In 2020, he played the crucial role during the so-called process of normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, which led to the “historic” Serbia-Kosovo deal signed in Washington. He is also believed to be one of major architects of the “mini-Schengen” initiative, later rebranded to the Open Balkan Initiative – an economic and political zone of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia.
The Biden administration is now strongly pushing other regional actors, including Kosovo, to join the Open Balkan Initiative, which many see as a replacement for the EU membership since none of the Western Balkan nations are expected to join the European Union any time soon, if it all.
Moreover, all the countries in the region – except Serbia – are either NATO members, or host NATO troops, which means that the West is unlikely interested in a potential escalation in the Balkans. Serbia, completely surrounded by NATO and the EU, and economically heavily linked with the European Union, will almost certainly not risk a confrontation with the United States-dominated Alliance over Kosovo.
Under the current geopolitical circumstances, the only foreign power that could potentially benefit from a major crisis in the Balkans is Russia. Any hostilities in the region would, at least to a certain extent, switch the Western attention from Ukraine to the southeastern Europe, which could give the Kremlin an opportunity to consolidate its positions and achieve its strategic goals in the neighboring country. But it is rather questionable if Moscow, faced with a military debacle in Ukraine, has capacity to destabilize the region that is deeply in the Western geopolitical orbit.
Thus, despite much speculation, any conflicts in the Balkans seem very improbable at this point. Instead, the US and its European partners will likely tend to increase their influence in the region and preserve some form of “stabilitocracy”.
In the next 30 days, Washington and Brussels will push Belgrade and Pristina to reach the final deal on the license plates and IDs. Given that Kosovo is firmly backed by the US, it is Vucic, rather than Kurti, that will have to make serious concessions.
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