Barricades, shootings and attacks on police and journalists in the northern part of Kosovo, where Serbian minority lives, are part of the elements of the heightened tensions between Kosovo and Serbia since the beginning of April 2022. This situation undermined ongoing diplomatic EU and US efforts to resolve open issues between the two countries.
The Serbian president, Mr. Vucic, has put the troops on “highest level of combat readiness”. “All measures will be taken to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo” – said Vucic on December 26. That statement comes a few days after Serbian Prime Minister, Ms. Ana Brnabic, declared that tensions were “on the brink of armed conflict”.
At the end of the week of tensions and threats with military intervention, barricades are removed, and the situation seems to be normalized. But the long-going dispute between the two countries in the tumultuous Balkans remains. Putin’s Russia is certainly an actor that works on maintaining the tensions, or even escalating them, for well-known reasons. Should we worry?
Civil.Today spoke to Mr. Astrit Istrefi, the Executive Director of The Balkan Forum, a prominent civil society organization and a think tank based in Prishtina. His analysis are a valuable contribution to understanding the current situation, and the possible developments in the near future.
CIVIL.TODAY: I will start with the last question: Are we running into a situation of a war between Serbia and Kosovo right now?
ISTREFI: Thank you Xhabir. Let me say, why there cannot be a war between Kosovo and Serbia. There are at least four reasons. One is that wars in the Western Balkans region, have ended in the 90’s, war of Croatia, the 1995 war of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1999 war in Kosovo, 2001 conflict-war in Serbia and the same year in Macedonia. So, the wars ended, let’s say, last century.
Second thing is that, as you know, Kosovo is not a NATO member state, but a NATO-led force is based in Kosovo. It has roughly some 3,700 troops, from 27 or 28 contributing nations. Among them are Albania, North Macedonia, Canada, United States and so many other countries. Even those who are perceived to sometimes have a neutral policy when it comes to security related matters outside of the European Union. So, that is the second thing – NATO is in Kosovo, NATO troops are here. So, there cannot be a war between Kosovo and Serbia.
The third reason is that, you know, the involvement itself from Josep Borell, the high representative of the EU, to Miroslav Lajcak, who is facilitating the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, to special advisors to President Macron of France and Chancellor Scholz of Germany, and to US Envoy for the Western Balkans, says a lot on the high geo-strategic significance that Western Balkans have, in particular the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. So, that is the third reason.
And the fourth one I think, if we haven’t learned any lessons from the bloody wars of 30 years ago, of 25 years ago that took place in our region, that left hundreds of thousands killed, and raped, and properties destroyed, then that means that something is wrong. Those would be people who may have a war mentality even today, and live in the past, and would like to demonstrate force, or perhaps even attempt to use force. But they are going to bear the consequences of what we have seen in our recent history. So, I think that would be a scenario for those who are adventurers more than politicians, and those open-minded politicians that look into the future, and do whatever they can to build a different vision for the Western Balkans.
That is why I strongly believe that there is no war anymore, wars have ended, but there are tensions between the two countries.
CIVIL.TODAY: So, what we are seeing here is not flexing the military muscles, but the propaganda and political muscles… Am I right there?
ISTREFI: What we are seeing nowadays is nothing dissimilar from what we have seen since the end of the war in Kosovo. So, then and now, there are tensions. You have even, let’s say, the Minister of Defense of Serbia last year, accompanied by the Russian Ambassador to Serbia, who brought the military to the border with Kosovo. We had the fighter jets cruising in the Serbia – Kosovo airspace. So, it’s nothing that we are seeing for the first time. These are, how to say, the déjà vu of the past.
CIVIL.TODAY: I see that. Well, your first response is relatively assuring that at least we are not running a risk to see a war or an armed conflict in the region. So, you believe that the situation is not as dangerous as it seems, or are the media actually pumping up the atmosphere?
ISTREFI: The situation… I don’t think that we should underestimate that the situation is quite serious. You know, Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, or attempts to reach a legally binding agreement between the two countries, is not only a matter of Kosovo and Serbia. It is a European matter, it is a NATO matter. So, it’s a matter that not only concerns the two countries, but other allies and partners that include EU and NATO.
So, the situation is serious, but I think that the situation is serious more because any threat to peace and security in the Western Balkans is not only a threat to the region, but a threat to Europe, to our continent, and more broadly to the world.
We have seen such situations with the Russian aggression against Ukraine. I think, Putin was quite clear before the aggression started there, that you know, ‘Ukraine may be a matter that we can sort of try to deal with, but NATO is the most powerful military on the planet, so we are not going to fight with NATO’.
CIVIL.TODAY: Can you tell us, why now? Okay, we heard that this has been a long-going situation between Kosovo and Serbia, but then, again, why now? Can we see some resemblance, or maybe some “coincidence” with the aggression against Ukraine; maybe Putin needs a second, or a third conflict zone, to disperse the attention of Europe and NATO?
ISTREFI: I think there may be three reasons why, and these are my analyses. One is that Russian aggression against Ukraine is kind of proven that it’s going to be the biggest defeat in Russia’s recent history.
Second is that in this sort of scenario, when we see that Russia is getting a lot of losses, financial, military, economic and so on, and is being largely isolated by the rest of the world, that another conflict in a different region, where Russia has significant influence, could serve Putin’s purpose and Russia’s purpose.
And the third one, which I don’t think is not distinct, but goes hand in hand, is that a dialogue that Kosovo and Serbia began in 2011, has been going up and down, it has seen progress. But it has seen also steps back.
Now, there is a proposal, Franco-German proposal, that has the support of the European Union, of the NATO member states and NATO in general, and of the United States and UK. And it’s a plan, it’s not an agreement, but a plan on how we can get to an agreement. And the more that becomes real, the more tensions there are. And the more tensions there may be, before Kosovo and Serbia come to an agreement that this, or a revised plan, is something that both countries do to put an end to the hostilities that are taking place. And this plan has an end goal.
The dialogue that started in 2011 did not have a clear end goal on what is going to happen. This one has, and it has to be a legally binding agreement, a comprehensive agreement that leads to full normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, and then, on the Kosovo side, there is the demand that there cannot be any agreement without explicit recognition of the Kosovo statehood. On the side of the Serbian government there is that we want autonomy for Kosovo Serbs and that there cannot be ever recognition of Kosovo statehood by Serbia.
CIVIL.TODAY: So, positive development of the Kosovo-Serbian relations is not going in favor of Putin’s politics?
CIVIL.TODAY: Right. Well, looking at the Kosovo government, is there something that the Kosovo government is doing wrong, or should do and is not doing, or is it doing something more than it should? Can we briefly analyze the behavior of Mr. Albin Kurti’s government?
ISTREFI: I think, the government of Kosovo should do more, you know, coordinate more its efforts with the NATO presence in Kosovo, and with the EU presence in Kosovo, both military and civilian. And I think it should also demand from the European Union – a more prominent role in bringing together both Kosovo and Serbia, to at least agree on a way forward, to reach an agreement.
Personally, I think an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is something that we have to, kind of, look like a long-term perspective more than a short-term, more than something that can happen now or in the near future, or medium, for that matter. So, it has to be, it will be – a long-term, I am afraid. But, at least there is some progress, there are some positive steps that are taking place. A final agreement is coming incrementally and building on the solid bases of small agreements that may take place between now and when that final agreement takes place.
CIVIL.TODAY: I appreciate your positive and optimistic approach towards this delicate issue indeed. Are there political and societal players and actors there, in both Kosovo and Serbia, that are pushing toward positive resolution of this crisis? Maybe media or civil society initiatives, and so on, apart of The Balkan Forum, of course?
ISTREFI: That’s a very good question and I think you know – that is what is needed during such a time of a really high tension between the two countries. And you know, we have to also think about the people in the north of Kosovo, because they have a large burden right now. There are civil society organizations that are very vocal, who are basically promoting peace, who are kind of having a dialogue, as much as possible, during these times, with different bits of governments in both Kosovo and Serbia, and with the parliament, and the opposition. There is an opposition as well, I think, in both countries that have a different view on how this kind of tension can be defused. So, there is a lot in that sense.
But, there is a lot of propaganda, there is a lot of disinformation. It’s quite challenging for the citizens in both countries to make sense of what is really going on. And sometimes even for well-informed civil society or political activists and media to understand what is all at play. And, as you know, disinformation nowadays is easy to penetrate and reach out to not only those well-informed parts of society, but also young people, by TikTok, Instagram and so many other forms of social media that may aggravate the situation even further.
CIVIL.TODAY: Thank you very much indeed and I wish you the best of luck to you and all of us and of course thank you for this interview.
ISTREFI: Thank you very much Civil. I really appreciate the interview and I would urge you to continue these kinds of discussions, not only with people who are in Kosovo, but regional conversations on what is happening nowadays and what has to be done, what needs to be done.
Camera: Aleksandar Rizinski
Video editing: Arian Mehmeti
Transcript: Natasha Cvetkovska