Kosovo attack: Who benefits?

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

The European Union and the United States have been trying to persuade Serbia and Kosovo to end their enmity and normalize relations for more than a decade.

There were finally signs of promise in April, when Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti finally gave tacit, if begrudging, approval to an EU-brokered plan that would see the two finally sprinkle some soil over the hatchet.

But despite all the cajoling and coaxing, it wasn’t to be.

U.S. and European officials have insinuated that Kurti was more to blame here, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell drawing attention to the failure to establish an association of municipalities in northern Kosovo, which would have allowed Kosovo’s Serbs some autonomy in an enclave where they’re a majority.

Behind the scenes, U.S. and European officials have also quietly praised Vučić for a slow and halting tilt toward the West, secretly supplying some arms to Ukraine and moving to reduce Serbia’s dependency on Russian energy supplies.

This is why last week’s astonishing clash between armed Serbs and police in the village of Banjska, in northern Kosovo’s Zvečan municipality, is especially perplexing — and it’s worth asking whose interests it serves.

Kosovo’s leaders quickly blamed Vučić for the attack, which also involved a siege of an Orthodox monastery. A Kosovan policeman and three Serb gunmen were killed in the clash. And Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani said Friday that “the (armed) group simply exercised the intentions and the motives of Serbia as a country and Vučić as the leader.”

Osmani maintains Belgrade was trying to copy Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which began with so-called little green men infiltrating the Ukrainian peninsula. “They are trying to carry out a Crimea model in the Republic of Kosovo, but we will absolutely not let that happen,” she added.

Kurti has called for sanctions to be imposed on Serbia for what he describes as a state-sponsored terrorist attack, warning that if the crime goes unpunished, Belgrade will repeat it. Vučić planned and ordered an attack in northern Kosovo “to destabilize” the country with the goal of starting a war, he said.

In response, Vučić has angrily denied these allegations but has noticeably hardened his rhetoric, possibly as a sop to Serbian ultra-nationalists. More alarmingly, however, Serbia has been building up its forces near the border with Kosovo since the deadly clashes, which the White House has described as “unprecedented.” And according to U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, on a phone call with Vučić, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged an “immediate de-escalation and a return to dialogue.”

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, however, it would appear to pull against the caution Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hedging his bets between the West and Serbia’s traditional Slavic ally. Vučić didn’t join in on Western sanctions against Russia but has condemned the invasion, and says he’s keen to pursue Serbia’s bid for EU membership.

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, it would appear to pull against the caution Aleksandar Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine | Andrej Cukic/EFE via EPA

Marko Đurić, the Serbian ambassador to the U.S., echoes Vučić’s argument that planning or approving an attack in Kosovo at this juncture would make no sense and potentially ruin Belgrade’s improving relations with the West. “We have a lot to lose by any kind of escalation in Kosovo,” he told POLITICO — including harming the country commercially.

Đurić also said the attack has complicated the country’s domestic politics, noting that “the far right in Serbia is going to try and exploit this to the greatest extent possible.”

But Kosovo’s leaders have a case against Belgrade that needs answering.

To support the allegation that Vučić endorsed the attack, they highlight the role of Milan Radoičić, the deputy leader of the Serb List — a party that dominates Serb politics in northern Kosovo and has close links with Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party.

Nicknamed the “boss of the north,” Radoičić admitted to organizing and leading the attack in a statement issued by his lawyer, saying he was solely responsible. “I didn’t inform anyone from the government structures of the Republic of Serbia about this, nor from the local political structures from the north of Kosovo and Metohija, nor did I get any help from them, because we already had had different views on the previous methods of resisting Kurti’s terror,” he said.

But Kurti dismisses the idea that Radoičić would have gone ahead without Vučić’s approval. “I have no doubt that Radiočić was only the executor. The one who planned and ordered this terrorist, criminal attack on our state, in order to violate our territorial integrity, national safety and state security, is none other than President Vučić,” he told reporters.

Other officials in Pristina also say it would be stretching credulity to think Aleksandar Vulin, the head of Serbia’s BIA intelligence agency, would have been unaware of a planned attack.

Bojan Pajtić, a Serbian law professor and former president of the autonomous province of Vojvodina within Serbia, agrees the Banjska provocation wouldn’t have gone ahead without the security agency’s knowledge, saying it is improbable that the BIA would have failed to notice an operation being prepared by a heavily armed formation consisting of dozens of people in such a small area. “The BIA normally knows who drank coffee with whom yesterday in Zvečan,” he said.

“When an incident occurs that is not accidental, but the result of someone’s efforts, you always wonder whose interests it is in,” Paltić said. “In this case, it is certainly not in the interest of Aleksandar Vučić, because after the last attempt at dialogue in Brussels, in the eyes of the West, in relation to Kurti, he still looked like a constructive partner.”

Pajtić isn’t alone in querying who’s interest the attack was in, and so far, both Washington and Brussels have been extremely cautious in their comments. European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the EU will wait for the completion of the investigation before coming to any conclusions on what he described as a terrorist attack. Washington, careful to keep its language neutral, hasn’t been specific about who it blames either.

This, of course, stands in sharp contrast to Moscow, which predictably grandstanded as Serbia’s traditional protector, accusing Pristina of ethnic cleansing in northern Kosovo — the very same lie used to try to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“This incident, the most serious example of violence in Kosovo for years, turned the tables on Vučić,” said Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. And he, too, questioned whether the attack was a rogue operation by Serbian ultra-nationalists and Kosovo’s Serb leaders.

“Should the story of Radoičić freelancing be corroborated, it would appear that Vučić has lost control over his erstwhile proxies,” he said.

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NATO peacekeepers injured in clashes with ethnic Serb protesters in Kosovo

Over 30 peacekeepers deployed in a NATO-led mission in Kosovo were injured Monday in clashes with Serb protesters who demanded the removal of recently elected ethnic Albanian mayors, as tensions flare in the Balkan nation.

The KFOR mission said it had faced “unprovoked attacks” while countering a hostile crowd, after demonstrators clashed with police and tried to force their way into a government building in the northern town of Zvecan.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said 52 Serbs were hurt, three seriously, while one was “wounded with two gunshots by (ethnic) Albanian special forces”.

Hungary‘s defence minister said on Facebook that “more than 20 Hungarian soldiers” were among the wounded, with seven in a serious but stable condition.

Italy‘s foreign minister said three of its soldiers were seriously wounded, and the country’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni joined NATO in calling for “all parties to take a step back to lower tensions”.

Kosovo‘s Serbs had boycotted last month’s elections in northern towns, which allowed ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a minuscule turnout of under 3.5 percent of voters.

Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government officially installed the mayors last week, defying calls to ease the tensions by the European Union and the United States, which have both championed the territory’s 2008 independence from Serbia.

Many Serbs are demanding the withdrawal of Kosovo police forces — whose presence in northern Kosovo has long sparked resistance — as well as the ethnic Albanian mayors they do not consider their true representatives.

Fractures and burns

Early Monday, groups of Serbs clashed with Kosovo police in front of the municipal building in Serb-majority Zvecan and tried to enter, after which law enforcers responded by firing tear gas, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.kf

NATO-led peacekeepers in the KFOR mission at first tried to separate protesters from the police, but later started to disperse the crowd using shields and batons, an AFP journalist saw.

Several protesters responded by hurling rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers, but were quickly repelled a few hundred meters away from the Zvecan municipal building.

“While countering the most active fringes of the crowd, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices,” KFOR said in a statement.

Eleven Italian soldiers were injured with “three in a serious condition”, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said.

“We will not tolerate further attacks against KFOR,” said Meloni. “It is essential to avoid further unilateral actions by the Kosovo authorities and for all parties to take a step back to lower tensions”. 

NATO strongly condemned the “unprovoked” attacks against KFOR troops, adding that such actions were “totally unacceptable”.

“Violence must stop immediately. We call on all sides to refrain from actions that further inflame tensions, and to engage in dialogue,” NATO said in a statement.

The Commander of the KFOR Mission, Division General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, slammed the “unacceptable” attacks and underlined that KFOR will “continue to fulfil its mandate impartially”.

Kosovo police said “organised” demonstrators rallied in northern Kosovo towns, home to many ethnic Serbs who reject Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.

“The protesters, using violence and throwing tear gas, tried to cross the security cordons and make a forced entry into the municipality facility” in Zvecan, Kosovo police said in a statement.

“Police were forced to use legal means, such as (pepper) spray, to stop the protesters and bring the situation under control.”

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and Belgrade and its key allies Russia and China have refused to recognise it, effectively preventing Kosovo from having a seat at the United Nations.

Serbs in Kosovo remained largely loyal to Belgrade, especially in the north, where they make up a majority and reject every move by Pristina to consolidate its control over the region.

International concern

KFOR said it had bolstered its presence in northern Kosovo following the latest developments and urged Belgrade and Pristina to engage in an EU-led dialogue to reduce tensions.

“We call on all sides to refrain from actions that could inflame tensions or cause escalation,” KFOR said in a statement.

Police had already used tear gas Friday to disperse Serbs in northern Kosovo who protested the installation of the mayors.

Belgrade responded by placing its army on high alert and ordered forces towards the Serbian border with Kosovo.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on a visit to Kenya, said that “Serbs are fighting for their rights in northern Kosovo”.

“A big explosion is looming in the heart of Europe, where NATO in 1999 carried out an aggression against Yugoslavia,” Lavrov said, referring to the 1999 NATO intervention against Belgrade that effectively ended the war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

The US ambassador and European Union envoy have summoned the ethnic Albanian mayors to a meeting in Pristina in a bid to ease tensions.

Two media teams from Pristina reported that protesters had slashed their tyres and spray-painted their vehicles, while a local journalists’ association called on law enforcers to provide a safe working environment for the media.

After his first-round victory at the French Open on Monday, Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic penned the message “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence” on a television camera.

“Kosovo is our cradle, our stronghold, centre of the most important things for our country,” Djokovic told reporters.

“I am against war, violence and conflict of any kind and I have always publicly shown that. Of course I have sympathy for all people but what is happening with Kosovo is a precedent in international law.”


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Serbia’s far right seizes on Putin’s war to push retaking Kosovo

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BELGRADE — Serbia’s ultra-nationalists are using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to galvanize their campaign against Kosovo’s independence — and anti-war activists are getting caught in the crossfire.

Politicians on Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s right flank have sniffed out an opportunity to tie Russia’s war on Ukraine to their desire to swallow up Kosovo, even as Vučić engages in EU-brokered negotiations to partially normalize relations with Kosovo, the independence of which neither Belgrade nor Moscow recognize.

A victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine is a stepping stone to Serbia regaining Kosovo, according to Miša Vacić, the leader of the highly nationalistic, pro-Kremlin Serbian Right political party.

“We must be patient and must wait to finish in Ukraine, and after that we will have enough time,” he told POLITICO.

More than 200,000 Russians have arrived in Serbia since the beginning of the invasion. As one of just a handful of European countries offering visa-free entry to Russian passport-holders, it provides safe harbor for those seeking an exit for reasons ranging from economic to ideological.

Vacić, who in September traveled to Russian-occupied Donetsk to observe the so-called referendum to join Russia that was widely slammed by Western governments as a sham, claims Russian liberal activists in Serbia are a threat to realizing his ideal society, if they join forces with their local counterparts. 

“It is a real revolution of liberals,” Vacić said, adding that even if only 10 percent of the new Russian arrivals were committed liberal activists, Serbia would still be flooded with at least 20,000 of his political enemies. “They think they must liberate Serbia from Serbs, from traditional Serbian values.”

Violent threats

Among the Russians who have arrived in Belgrade since Putin launched his full-scale invasion last year is Ilya Zernov. The 19-year-old political activist from Tolyatti in southwestern Russia sought sanctuary in Belgrade last March — his anti-war protests prompted a police search of his student dormitory in Kazan.

“I realized that I would not be able to continue my studies, and would not be able to be in Russia for a long time,” Zernov told POLITICOadding that the police who searched his dorm threatened him with violence and imprisonment.

Zernov is an active participant in the Russian Democratic Society (RDS), an anti-war organization founded last year in Belgrade with the stated goal of supporting Ukrainian victory. It has since emerged as one of the most visible pro-Ukraine advocacy groups in Serbia, regularly organizing protests in the streets.

But in a country where Putin enjoys significant support amid an increasingly assertive ultra-nationalist movement, anti-war activists are a target.

A Russian Democratic Society (RDS) event on February 24, 2023 | Bennett Murray for POLITICO

Zernov reported to the police last month that Vacić had assaulted him. The attack, which Zernov said occurred after he attempted to paint over anti-Ukrainian graffiti on the side of a Belgrade apartment block, left him with a perforated eardrum. Vacić denies assaulting Zernov.

Threats of violence also overshadowed plans to hold two anti-war rallies on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

“The police warned us that they had information that some kind of violent provocations were being planned by these extreme-right people,” said RDS co-founder Peter Nikitin, whose group organized one of the protests.

Nikitin also rejected Vacić’s claims that his group, and those like it, are seeking to campaign on social issues in Serbia.

“Our only purpose is to show the world and the Serbian public what is happening, and to mobilize public opinion for Ukraine,” he said, adding that it is Vacić who wants to make Serbia subservient to foreign interests. “[Vacić] is pushing Russian interests and Putin’s interests in Serbia very directly, and he’s the one trying to turn Serbia into Russia.”

Rallying around ‘Z’

As the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approached last month, tensions simmered in Belgrade.

A far-right rally in mid-February ended with participants attempting to break into President Vučić’s office. Damjan Knezevic, the leader of the People’s Patrol far-right network, gave a fiery speech to a crowd of around 1,000 calling for Vučić to be overthrown, amid a heated national debate over the proposal to resolve the Serbia-Kosovo dispute.

Many in attendance waved Russian flags or sported pro-war symbols, including the letter “Z” used by the Russian military to mark its vehicles in Ukraine, and the skull and crosshairs logo of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary force that has been backing Moscow’s military in the war.

Police arrested Knezevic and two other associates the following day on charges of inciting violence. On the day of the rally, another People’s Patrol member was also arrested in Serbia’s second city Novi Sad on weapons charges after being discovered with a rifle, optic sight and ammunition. 

The arrests spurred yet more outrage among People’s Patrol followers, who doubled down on plans to hold a pro-war rally on February 24, adjacent to RDS’ anti-war protest. While authorities refused to issue a permit for the People’s Patrol rally, officials feared riots would ensue.

When the first year anniversary of the invasion arrived, RDS held a scaled-back version of its planned events, per police advice. It proceeded without incident.

A man wearing a patch with a “Z” on it at a rally on February 15, 2023 | Bennett Murray for POLITICO

Natalia Taranushchenko, an organizer for Belgrade-based Ukrainian association Cini Dobro who is originally from Ukraine’s Vinnytsia region, told POLITICO that while Serbia is generally welcoming, “There are still symbols of Russian aggression, letter Z on the streets of Belgrade, and we still hear that Ukrainians are ‘Nazis’ and a lot of other Russian propaganda.”

Still, there’s some hope for the Ukrainians and anti-war Russians seeking safety in Serbia: Putin’s stalled offensive has also deflated the ultra-nationalists here.

“Serbs were very passionate because they were expecting that Putin would overthrow Ukraine in three days, and after that they thought he would say that we need to get back Kosovo for Serbia,” said Čedomir Stojković, a Belgrade-based lawyer who investigates covert Russian influence in his country. 

“But over time, as the war did not happen the way people expected, those expectations started to change, and now because there is cognitive dissonance, there is no passion,” he said.

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Albin Kurti willing to calm tensions at upcoming meeting with Serbia

Ahead of highly anticipated talks between Serbia and Kosovo on the 18th March in North Macedonia, Euronews reporter Sergio Cantone met with Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti for the latest episode of The Global Conversation.

The European Union expects the former wartime foes to reach a deal on how to normalise their relationship, after both countries endorsed an 11-point plan at the end of February.

But Kurti told Euronews he is sceptical that the agreement will be signed next week: “We were supposed to sign the agreement on the 27th of February. Unfortunately, President of Serbia did not want to, and to this end, this basic treaty which has been proposed by EU 27, is a solid ground to move forward, and we hope to finally achieve it on the 18th of March.”

Background: a long conflict

Kosovo has changed hands throughout history, being absorbed into Yugoslavia after the second world war, however in 1963 it became an autonomous province.

The large Albanian community in Kosovo repeatedly resisted incorporation into Serbia and Yugoslavia, given their status as a large non-Slav minority in the “land of the Slavs”, so in 1974, Yugoslavia granted six republics, including Kosovo, theoretical autonomy.

However, throughout the 1980s, tensions grew between the Albanian and Serbian communities in the province, with the Albanians favouring greater autonomy for Kosovo, while the Serbs favoured closer ties with the rest of Serbia.

In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic, then head of the Serbian community party’s central community, reimposed Serbian rule in Kosovo, prompting strikes and violence.

The conflict in Kosovo erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians launched a rebellion against Serbia’s rule and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown that prompted the NATO intervention.

Some 13,000 people died in the conflict, mostly ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after a guerrilla uprising brought an end to repressive Serbian rule, however Belgrade does not recognise Kosovo’s independence, instead considering it a breakaway province.

Recent flare-ups between Belgrade-backed minority, the Kosovo Serbs, and the central government have sparked concern about a return to conflict.

EU intervention

So, after decades of conflict and tension, the EU hopes that upcoming talks will help relax the taught relationship between Serbia and Kosovo.

The European Union’s 11-point plan to pave the way for peace was begrudgingly accepted by both nations at the end of February, and does not commit Serbia to acknowledging an independent Kosovo, but it would recognise documents like passports, degrees and license plates.

A key point is that Serbia would not block Kosovo’s membership of international bodies.

The Global Conversation

What are your expectations for the 18th of March when a resumed talk with Serbia will take place?

Albin Kurti said: “We were supposed to sign the agreement on the 27th of February. Unfortunately, President of Serbia did not want to. To this end, this basic treaty which has been proposed by the EU 27, is solid ground to move forward, and we hope to finally achieve it on the 18th of March.”

He added: “I’m going again to North Macedonia in good faith with goodwill, to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo is a normal country, but it doesn’t have normal relations with Serbia. In these last two years, we have had an unprecedented economic and democratic progress in our country, which puts us in terms of rule of law and human rights and the growth at the top of the Western Balkans.

“However, I admit that we have to normalize relations, and to this end, this basic treaty which has been proposed by EU 27, is a solid ground to move forward, and we hope to finally achieve it on the 18th of March.”

Serbia is asking, for instance, for Kosovo to comply with the obligations of creating the community of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo. Do you think that this part of the EU-brokered agreement is acceptable for you?

Albin Kurti said: “When Kosovo was declared an independent country 15 years ago, it was also declared a multi-ethnic society, even though 93% are Albanians, 4% Serbs, and 3% are Turks, Bosnians, Roma, and Gorani.

“Our constitution, which was basically written by the former president of Finland, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martii Ahtisari, cannot sustain a mono-ethnic entity like association of Serb majority municipalities. So, this would not pass in our constitutional court, just as it didn’t in the past, and it would not pass in the Strasbourg court of human rights.”

He added: “I’m here as Prime Minister of all citizens, no matter what their nationality, national identity or ethnicity or religious background. So, I want to satisfy all the citizens according to their rights and needs and requests. But mono-ethnic solutions are not possible due to the laws of our democratic republic.”

Self-determination is excluded, we are talking about autonomy.

Albin Kurti said: “That’s why we are talking about the self-management of the Serbian community. [It’s in] Article 7 of the Basic Treaty, which we endorsed, and the self-management of the Serbian community also refers to the Council of Europe as an organization, which means that we have to refer to the Framework Convention on the Protection of the Rights of the National Minorities.

“I think that we can do the same in Kosovo, where we would not fall into territorial ethno-nationalism like it was in Bosnia.”

Here, the Kosovan President made reference to the Republika Srpsa, a contentious entity which was formed in 1992 at the outset of the Bosnian War to safeguard the interests of the Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

He continued: “But we could move forward towards EU integration by respecting each individual in spite of our backgrounds, also taking into consideration the peculiarities of ethnicity and culture. [We need to consider this] self-management, as a protection of rights, not as a territorial position on rights, which would separate and segregate communities.

Self-management means organization and a network of different representatives of this minority, like the Serbian one, openly interacting together.

Albin Kurti’s response was brief: “I see self-management in terms of full functionality, not in terms of a territorial position.”

Did you have any sign by the members of the Council of Europe that you can get the green light soon to join it?

“A vast majority of the members of the Council of Europe are positive regarding the application of Kosovo, and I hope that we are now going to speed up the procedures in order to have final voting there, to become members of Council of Europe. For us, it is very important because it would be beneficial for the citizens themselves even more than for the country.

“For us, it is very important because it would be beneficial for the citizens themselves, even more than for the country, because also in this dialogue with President of Serbia in Brussels, I always emphasize that the normalisation of relations should have citizens as their end beneficiaries.”

After the Russian aggression against Ukraine, we have seen the tensions growing in this part of Europe. What is the relation, according to you with the war in Ukraine?

Albin Kurti said: “The Russian invasion and military aggression in Ukraine was shocking, yet not surprising, because we have seen the despotic President Putin in recent years moving from a politician who used to lament the fall of Soviet Union, into a politician who is nostalgic about the Russian empire.”

“When you also add the amassing of troops around Ukraine, it was clear that the assaults will arrive. In my view, the war in Ukraine will define not just the security of our continent, but the future of the world in this century.

“So, in Ukraine, it is not only a national liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people, it is also a frontline where democracy, freedom, human rights are being defended. There have been several effects in Kosovo; the immediate effect was that it triggered the trauma of the people from the genocide of Milosevic’s Yugoslavia.”

It was not recognized as a genocide by the court. If I am not wrong, they recognized war crimes, they recognize violence in the population, ethnic cleansing. But genocide was about Bosnia.

“The genocide in Srebrenica has been recognised. I think it was not only in 77, but also, I was here. And what we were suffering was a genocide; indiscriminately women, children, pregnant women were killed and burnt down.”

Those responsible have been have been tried.

“A trial has still not been held for Kosovo. But what we suffered was a genocide.”

But this is not the point of view of the international tribunal.

Albin Kurti responded: “The day will come where also international tribunals will speak of this. Unfortunately, Milosevic died in The Hague in prison, without seeing the day when he would have been sentenced.”

But why are you connecting this episode to the war in Ukraine? Is that from a moral ethic point of view, or there is a political continuity?

When pressed on the significance of Russia’s invasion for his nation, Kurti said: “There are two important elements here. The first element is that in 2022, every week the Kremlin was talking about Kosovo. If not Putin, then Medvedev or Zakharova, or Lavrov.”

Don’t you feel protected by the KFOR, the NATO troops that are present in Kosovo?

“There are 48 forward operational bases of Serbia in the so-called ground safety zone around the border of Kosovo, 28 are military and 20 are general, where they have increased the combat readiness of their units. And they also invited the Russian ambassador to Belgrade to inspect the regrouping of troops with MiG 29 in the air when we had problems in the north.”

This Russian visit is concerning for Kosovo: “Imagine if your biggest neighbour (Serbia) does not recognize your country? Your neighbour then does not distance themselves from Milosevic, or Putin. They allocate 3% of their GDP for military equipment and make sure their troops around the border are combat-ready. This cannot be neglected.

“Of course, Kosovo is not in NATO. NATO is in Kosovo. We feel safe. We are not afraid, but we are very vigilant.”

Do you expect some positive outcome in terms of mutual concessions by the two sides?

Albin Kurti told Euronews: “We want normal relations. We understand that full normalisation of relations must have, as its centrepiece, mutual recognition. I’m not saying that mutual recognition should be the only thing on the table. I am ready to discuss all the issues patiently.

“I don’t want any kind of rush, any kind of quick fix to the detriment of our long-term security, peace and stability. And again, in good faith, with goodwill and intentions, I am ready to make this agreement, which does not have only two factors, Kosovo and Serbia, but also the European Union, which is the frame within which we negotiate and towards which we want to adhere.”

The EU needs a big political gain. Do you realize that you are the one who could give them this?

To this, Kurti replied: “Well, I cannot make agreement with myself. I have to make an agreement with Serbia, with EU. And on 27th of February, I was ready to sign.”

You could get a fast track, right, to join the European Union, don’t you think so?

Albin Kurti said: “When I handled the application in Prague in Czech Republic last December for membership of the EU, I said I don’t want a fast-track nor back-door track for membership… I believe the EU should be homegrown, not self-made. We need help from the EU, but we should build [wanting to join the] European Union as a value ourselves… So, I am not very much in favour of back doors and fast tracks.”

He added: “I believe the European Union is the most important political project of peace and prosperity. And likewise, historical process since the Second World War. I want to join, to benefit, but also to contribute. The EU is helping us on all fronts, but at the same time I want also to help the EU, keeping in mind the contrary progress reports of European Commission for Kosovo from last October, which is the best one so far without any backsliding or without progress.”

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Uneasy neighbours: Serbia and Kosovo need to mend fences after EU deal

For once, Kosovo’s Serb and Albanian communities — historically found on disparate ends of any political issue — seem to agree on something.

The mood in their respective countries after Monday’s meeting in Brussels between Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti was notedly sour.

“There were protests both in Pristina and Mitrovica ahead of the agreement. Everyone seems to be confused and let down by the process,” explains Donika Emini, a political analyst who has followed the developments between the two countries for years.

“The actual impact this document but also the negotiating process is going to have, the ways it could improve their lives, is unclear to the wider population so people are not sure how they should react to it at the moment,”  Emini tells Euronews.

Why is the relationship so fraught?

Kosovo and Serbia were wartime belligerents at the tail end of the bloody conflicts marking the disintegration of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and have been locked in an often-contentious dialogue masterminded by the European Union to resolve their differences.

Chief among the disputes is Serbia’s refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence, declared in 2008. Serbia’s official line is that Kosovo is part of its territory — as it was for most of the 20th century — despite the country having its separate government and institutions for more than two decades.

“There was no scenario where Kosovo and Serbia would sit down and solve these otherwise fundamental issues. Even the most basic exchanges could not have taken place without international mediation,” says Vjosa Musliu, assistant professor of political science at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Yugoslavia breaks up

The countries that gained independence after the fall of Yugoslavia, such as EU members Croatia and Slovenia, and candidate countries like North Macedonia, were also republics within the socialist federation. Kosovo was not.

“The war and the decade before it can not be decoupled from the anti-Albanian bigotry that has been present in Serbia for a long time,” explains Musliu. 

Ethnic Albanians were stripped of political and civic rights starting in 1989, as former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević gained in power, which lasted for a decade until the conflict erupted.

Then, in an unprecedented move that continues to spark debate to this day, NATO decided to launch an aerial bombing campaign on what was left of Yugoslavia at the time — Serbia and Montenegro — and Kosovo as Serbia’s province, too.

“The NATO bombing in 1999 removed Serbia’s control from Kosovo and installed an overarching international presence. It became clear that Kosovo was going to become an ethnic Albanian-run state, and this created further animosities and a sense of disbelief in Serbia,” Musliu continues.

“Second-class citizens would be granted rule over what Serbia considered the cradle of its nation,” she emphasised.

Deal brokered by Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Kosovo officially became a UN protectorate, and while it was allowed to have its own government and hold elections, the UN had the final say. They also tried to facilitate a precursor to the ongoing dialogue and come up with some sort of framework for Kosovo to become fully independent, which was eventually brokered by former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari.

The UN then passed the baton on to the European Union, who took over the dialogue and the facilitation of the Kosovo-Serbia relationship. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence — and the Ahtisaari agreement was embedded in its constitution.

“Once Kosovo declared independence, Serbia saw it as government policy to obstruct Kosovo’s existence as a state since it claimed it violated its constitution. This is how the frozen conflict we have today ensued,” Vrije Universiteit’s Vjosa Musliu says.

Bulldozer diplomacy returns to the Balkans

Monday’s meeting in Brussels was the culmination of months of negotiations, paired with not-so-subtle arm twisting from the United States and NATO, meant to produce an agreement that would bring the two closer to establishing diplomatic and formal bilateral relations than ever before.

“The ongoing war in Ukraine has made the unresolved issues in the Balkans a security priority for the US, and the US always reacts swiftly and strongly when they sense a major security issue,” explains Musliu.

Senior American diplomats focused on Balkan issues made several visits to the region. The EU’s Special Envoy Miroslav Lajčák has made at least 10 trips to Kosovo since September.

The European External Action Service, the Union’s foreign policy body, published the official agreement at the end of the day, despite being reserved about its impact in a statement right after the meetings.

“I hope the Agreement can also be the basis to build much-needed trust and overcome the legacy of the past. Much-needed trust,” the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security policy, Josep Borrell — also the official chair of the dialogue — told journalists.

“Further negotiations are needed to determine specific implementation modalities of the provisions,” he continued.

The reason for the muted response was the fact that while both parties accepted the final form of the agreement, they did not proceed with formally signing it as was expected by many ahead of the meeting. Now they will proceed with establishing what is being referred to as an annex to the agreement, or a roadmap that will lay out how its articles will be implemented.

Long-awaited reality check

The agreement includes important precedents, such as the fact that Serbia will not block Kosovo from applying for membership to international organisations such as the EU and the United Nations.

While Serbia has traditionally used its close ties to Moscow — it continues to not participate in sanctions against Russia for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine — for sway in the UN Security Council, Serbian president Vučić confirmed in a TV interview Tuesday night that the agreement does open the path for Kosovo’s entry into the global intergovernmental organisation.

“Yes, it includes it [UN membership]. That’s why I didn’t sign it,” Vučić said during an interview for the national public broadcaster RTS, widely considered to be strongly pro-government.

“I do not know why everyone is being so naïve. Did you wake up yesterday and realise the French and the Germans and the Americans are championing an independent Kosovo?” he asked.

Yet in Serb-majority parts of Kosovo, Belgrade has maintained a strong influence on the local population, including financing and maintaining its education and public health systems.

Many in the north of the country, where most of the ethnic Serbs reside, have called out Vučić for betraying them, including during protests held several times over the past months.

Yet for figures such as Nenad Rašić, a Kosovo Serb who is currently a minister in the Kosovo government and was personally attacked by Vučić for seemingly participating in the institutions of his opponent in the dialogue, this was a long-needed reality check.

“On one hand, we’re really happy it has come to this agreement, as long as it means there will be no more tensions,” Rašić tells Euronews.

Last summer, tensions peaked along the border between Kosovo and Serbia and roadblocks were set up preventing people from accessing the two countries by land. There were several incidents of shootings at police and the NATO peacekeepers, who have been stationed there ever since 1999.

“People who live in places that are more multiethnic in Kosovo or have the opportunity to regularly meet Albanians have not bought into the tensions,” explains Rašić.

While Rašić is careful to highlight that not everyone in Kosovo agrees with him, he says that the time has come for the delusion that both communities have lived in to come to an end.

“The problem is that for over 20 years, due to the fact that so many Serb-majority areas in Kosovo were isolated and functioned as enclaves or even ghettos, local Serbs have been cut off from the rest of Kosovo,” he said.

Since some form of Serbian government control and presence existed in these communities, an illusion was created that Serbia had a much greater role in Kosovo in the last couple of decades than it did, and that it could one day come back.

“Yet the reality is different. Those are the people who will be disappointed by the agreement. Others will breathe a sigh of relief,” he concludes.

For the Albanian majority in Kosovo, the idea that the agreement could lead to the formation of the Association of Serb Municipalities — or a body that caters specifically to the needs of the ethnic Serb population — has been cause for concern.

Some — including Prime Minister Albin Kurti when he was in the opposition and presented the dialogue with Serbia as an attempt for Belgrade to continue to maintain influence over its former province — believe it would be a compromise too far.

“There is this delusion that the Association is not going to be established. So the EU and the US made sure the Association was explicitly mentioned in the agreement to make sure Kosovo can not wrangle itself out of it,” said Emini, the political analyst.

“The lack of readiness from the Kosovo government to have the necessary, sobering discussions with the public about it, try and deconstruct it for people, is worrying,” she emphasises.

Besides fears of a possible spillover of tensions from the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the EU and the US are also aware of the immense popularity of the two leaders in their respective countries.

Also, both countries have been on the receiving end of development funding from the West, and now, it seems that the West wants to cash in on their investment.

“No other leaders are better suited to sign this agreement,” says Enmi. 

“They have an immense electoral mandate and political legitimacy. They have popular support. So they need to be the ones to deliver.”

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