Threat of war in Balkans remains, but diplomacy has a chance — expert


MOSCOW. The risk of a military standoff between Kosovo and Serbia remains, but Pristina’s decision, made as a result of international efforts, to postpone till September 1 the procedure of enforcing a ban on Serbian documents opens a window of opportunity to step up diplomatic efforts capable of preventing a direct military confrontation. A sensible agenda of Belgrade’s and Pristina’s integration with the EU and the development of a corresponding roadmap might be one of the possible solutions on this track, the head of the Russian International Affairs Council, Andrey Kortunov, told TASS.

“For now, it is premature to say that the crisis has been resolved. It’s just a postponement, and not some fundamental change in Pristina’s position,” Kortunov said. “It is very important to use this window of opportunity in order to step up diplomatic attempts to somehow settle this crisis. The threat [of a military clash] is still there.”

The expert drew attention to a statement by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, who welcomed the delay and the timely prevention of the conflict’s active phase. The chief European diplomat stressed that “open issues should be addressed through EU-facilitated dialogue and focus on comprehensive normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia,” which is necessary for their integration into the EU. Kortunov believes that on this integration track certain success can be achieved in persuading the conflicting parties to refrain from direct hostilities if “a convincing prospect of integration into the European Union” is offered.

“Both Serbia and Kosovo would be offered some specific, preferably well-defined roadmaps for their integration,” he speculated. “We know that there were precedents in the European Union of countries that spent many decades on the waiting list but have not joined the union to this day. This, of course, undermines the credibility of the proposals that come from Brussels. Certain questions are addressed to the European Union as well. How ready is the European Union to consider the issue of Kosovo’s and Serbia’s admission in practical terms? There are other countries nearby that are probably more ready to join, but their membership prospects are rather vague. This, of course, undermines the credibility of talks about integration somewhat.”

To a certain extent Kortunov agreed with the Russian Foreign Ministry that at the moment it was not possible to consider the European Union’s activity on the track of settling the Balkan crisis as “unequivocally successful”.

“The main mission of the European Union was to try to build strong institutions, help form a civil society and create prerequisites for Kosovo’s democratic development and for the sustainable economic development of that territory,” Kortunov said. “We now see that these efforts have continued for almost a quarter of a century, but the results are not very impressive. And, of course, this affects security in the Balkans and beyond the Balkan Peninsula in Europe as a whole.”

European integration issue

Serbia’s foreign policy envisages accession to the European Union while maintaining friendly relations with Moscow and Beijing, as well as developing ties with Washington. Belgrade intends to maintain military neutrality and avoid joining NATO and other military and political blocs. This position draws objections from the West. Serbia has been repeatedly told that European integration will be possible only on two conditions: the recognition of Kosovo’s independence and termination of friendly relations with Russia.

The autonomous Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohija declared independence unilaterally in February 2008. Lately, it has been actively trying to join international organizations, including UNESCO and Interpol. More than 60 countries, including Russia, India and China, as well as five EU member states are against Kosovo’s recognition. Earlier, the prime minister of unrecognized Kosovo, Albin Kurti, said at an Atlantic Council seminar in the Washington that Pristina wished to join NATO and the EU. On May 12, unrecognized Kosovo applied for the Council of Europe’s membership.

New spiral of tensions

On Sunday evening, the situation in Kosovo and Metohija worsened sharply after the police of the unrecognized entity closed the checkpoint on the administrative line with Serbia. In response, Serbs in the northern part of Kosovo took to the streets to demonstrate and block the main roads. Sirens were heard in a number of cities in the north of the region. Police and personnel of the international security force in Kosovo KFOR, operating under the auspices of NATO, were moved to the bridge across the Ibar River, which connects the north and south of Kosovska-Mitrovica.

As a result of international efforts Pristina postponed the procedure of enforcing the ban on Serbian documents till 1 September.

Pristina’s previous attempt to ban vehicles with Serbian license plates from entering the territory resulted in a serious escalation of the conflict. On September 20, 2021, hundreds of Kosovo police officers, including snipers, occupied the Jarinje and Brnjak checkpoints. Kosovar Albanians began to forcibly remove license plates from Serbian cars, replacing them with Kosovo’s plates and charging a “fee” of 5 euros. In response, Serbs blocked the checkpoints and staged mass protests. Ten days later, Belgrade and Pristina reached an agreement to de-escalate tensions in northern Kosovo and agreed to set up a working group to deal with the long-term problem of license plates on vehicles belonging to the residents of this predominantly Serb region.

However, Pristina blocks any negotiations with Belgrade and it has refused to discuss the issue in question, too. Moreover, on June 29, 2022, the Kurti-led Cabinet adopted two acts, which this time concerned not only license plates, but also Serbs’ personal documents issued by Belgrade. In early July, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic warned that Pristina’s initiative might entail dire consequences. He urged the international community to get involved in resolving the issue, but his call fell on the deaf ears of the Kosovar Albanians’ Western patrons. / TASS