Kosovo and Serbia have been engaging in various contacts through the mediation of the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) to resolve their longstanding disputes. In these contacts, the EU’s “Western Balkans Enlargement” is particularly significant. The EU aims to establish a common approach among its member states regarding security policies. However, the problems between the two actors, both aspiring for membership, are not easily resolvable due to historical issues. In particular, the Serbs’ perception of Kosovo as part of “Greater Serbia” throughout the historical process triggers crises between the two actors. The main issue to be emphasized here is Serbia’s relations with Russia. Despite Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s attempt to pursue a balancing policy, the influence of pan-Slavism on the Serbian people, rather than adopting a joint approach with the West, plays a decisive role in the regional dynamics.
Although the contacts between Pristina and Belgrade along the line have occasionally been promising, they contradict the grand strategies of the two capitals. Indeed, the escalation of the crisis since April 2022 between the parties can be attributed to the recent protests by Serbs against the Kosovo Force (KFOR) of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
To further elaborate on the situation at hand, the arrest of Milun Milenkovic-Lune, the leader of the Civil Protection group, on suspicion of organizing the attack against KFOR on May 29, 2023, has led to Serb attacks on the Kosovo police. As a result, there has been an increase in Serbian protests. These protests primarily revolve around the demand for the release of the detainees.
Ultimately, the fragile nature of the Kosovo-Serbia relationship poses a risk of turning into chaos. The unstable structure of relations between the two countries has become prone to conflict after three Kosovo police officers were abducted and detained by the Serbian side. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has described this situation as revenge for the arrest of a Serbian citizen, allegedly involved in organizing the events of May 29, 2023. This tension between Belgrade and Pristina administrations has been perceived as a danger by the international community. In order to prevent a potential conflict, there has been an increase in the presence of police in all municipalities in northern Kosovo.
At this point, efforts to alleviate tensions have gained momentum. It is well known that the EU and the US are displaying a united front in the region. In this context, Gabriel Escobar, the US Special Envoy for the Balkans, has called for the immediate release of the Kosovo police officers and the reduction of tension. This call can be understood as an effort by the Washington administration to ensure the security of the region. In fact, when looking at the US Balkans policy, it is evident that the US is taking proactive measures against Russia and perceives Moscow’s influence in the region as a threat.
Undoubtedly, Serbia holds a significant position in Russia’s pan-Slavism policy. With the influence of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia seeks to strengthen its hand against the West, and the Balkans are the region it turns to. Considering the EU’s enlargement towards the region and the connection of Balkan states with Europe, the importance of the Serbian factor in Russia’s Balkans policy becomes better understood.
As it is known, the states in the Balkans have a heterogeneous demographic structure. Therefore, any crisis in the region would affect the entire area and ultimately Europe. It would be incomplete to say that Russia is the sole actor formulating policies based on this demographic structure. It should be noted that the EU, on one hand, seeks to become a center of attraction for the parties in order to address concerns in the region, and on the other hand, puts pressure on Kosovo and Serbia on various issues to bring Pristina and Belgrade together on a common ground. The statement by Peter Stano, the European Commission spokesperson, expressing the expectation of a reasonable stance from countries aspiring to join the EU, confirms this.
In short, the EU’s interest in the Balkans has increased in recent times. One of the noteworthy points is that Brussels aims to prevent potential turmoil in the region and implement an inclusive policy. In this regard, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has invited Vucic and Kurti to a crisis meeting.
The tensions in question have a determining impact not only on Brussels and Washington but also on the foreign policies of the states in the region. In particular, the Albanian presence in northern Kosovo prevents the government in Tirana from remaining silent about the developments. Considering Albania’s irredentist approach, this possibility is further weakened. Based on this, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has stated that serious problems will occur in bilateral relations with Serbia if the three Kosovo police officers are not released.
In conclusion, it can be said that the tension between Kosovo and Serbia affects the region, especially with the Serbs influenced by pan-Slavism being seen by the West as a political maneuvering tool for Russia. Therefore, it can be argued that the West is united in its approach to end the tensions in northern Kosovo. It is also expected that the parties will remain distant from the normalization process for some time. Another important issue to consider is that the US and the EU are likely to increase pressure on Pristina and Belgrade within the framework of shared interests. The cosmopolitan nature of the region invites tensions to escalate into a regional conflict. In this context, one of the important factors is the ideals of the states in the region. Therefore, it would not be surprising if Albania joins the Kosovo-Serbia tension in the future.
“Serbs Attack Kosovo Police After Arrest, Kurti Calls for Rule of Law”, Euractiv, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/serbs-attack-kosovo-police-after-arrest-kurti-calls-for-rule-of-law/, (Date of Accession: 14.06.2023).
“Snage KFOR-a na svim prilazima Leposaviću”, Al Jazeera, https://balkans.aljazeera.net/videos/2023/6/19/snage-kfor-a-na-svim-prilazima-leposavicu, (Date of Accession: 19.06.2023).
 “US Demands Release of Kosovo Police from Serbia, MEP Blames it on Vucic’s Domestic Issues”, Euractiv, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/us-demands-release-of-kosovo-police-from-serbia-mep-blames-it-on-vucics-domestic-issues/, (Date of Accession: 16.06.2023).
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