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Caught in Limbo: The Struggle for Kosovan Autonomy

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

By Alfie Fairlie

Guest Feature

Soldiers patrol Kosovo in 2001 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Balkans: A Region of Conflicting Identities

It is likely that the Balkans will continue to be a hotbed of conflict and tension in the heart of an already politically tense Europe. From the campaign of Alexander the Great in 335 BC all the way up to the present day, conflict has been an inevitability in this turbulent part of the world. The fresh clashes within Kosovo - a region which is not immune to overspilling tensions - have once again drawn global attention to that instability left behind following the collapse of the idyllic, multiculturally united Yugoslavia. Certainly, it must be said that the recent clashes between Albanian-backed police officers and ethnic Serbs are a far cry from the decade of guerrilla warfare experienced throughout the region beginning in 1991. Nevertheless, they are a sobering reminder of the extremes of nationalism and jingoism which overflow in the political outlook of the Balkans.

It is important to remember that the spontaneous acts of violence often experienced in this region should never be the sole focus when discussing Balkan politics. It would be dangerous for the Balkans to themselves be Balkanized, as was the common trend during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. The definition of ‘Balkanize’ is to divide something into smaller, hostile (a huge emphasis needed on this word) states. To Balkanize the Balkans has the potential to dismiss the continuous struggle for identity in former Yugoslav territories. Considering that the name ‘Kosovo’ is already synonymous with warfare expanding over centuries, it is important to shine a light on exactly what the struggle is within this troubled nation.

Flare Up

Why has Kosovo suddenly attracted more attention and interest from news outlets despite there being relative peace since 2004? Putting it bluntly, licence plates. Of course, there is the deeper, fundamental issue of national identity. However, the latest flare up in tensions has surrounded the controversy of car documentation. Upon the self-declaration of Kosovo independence, licence plates have established themselves as a bone of contention between Belgrade and Pristina. Initially, a 2011 agreement stated that any Serbian vehicle entering Kosovo would have to swap their Serbian-issued licence plate for neutral one to avoid any tensions. However, 2021 saw the expiration of this agreement which subsequently plunged the system into chaos. In the summer of 2022, with Europe already reeling from the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Kosovo government inadvertently raised nerves within NATO by announcing that Serbian licence plates would now have to be replaced by ones issued by Kosovo. The result: the northern borders being barricaded by ethnic Serbs and shots being exchanged on both sides. The intensity of the situation got to the point where the dedicated NATO division for Kosovo - KFor - had to put its troops on high alert in what was feared to be a repeat of the 1999 conflict.

Thankfully, intervention from Europe meant that negotiations on this issue were heavily encouraged, with talks continuing this year. But, a crisis still is not completely off the cards. Ongoing fears of an overspill of tensions has forced Belgrade into requesting more NATO troops to be stationed on the Serbia-Kosovo border, and far-right groups in Serbia have become increasingly hostile towards Kosovo on the position of ethnic Serbs. To further place the two nations at odds with each other, Kosovo’s December 2022 application to the European Union was always set to stir controversy; potential Serbian membership is under intense scrutiny following criticism of their human rights record. The Serbian president Aleksandar Vuĉić has made his feelings very clear that Kosovo’s independence will never be recognised by Serbia, so what must the stance of Serbia be when a country they don’t see as autonomous applies to be a member nation of the EU? Again, this is another source of volatility which clearly highlights the desperation of Kosovo to break free from Serbia’s remaining sphere of influence.

This is what brings us into the clashes of 2023. In April, elections were held in Kosovo which cemented Albanian influence in the region. The elections had already been marred with controversy, with the biggest Serb political party demanding an outright boycott from the Serb population. Even with a 4% voter turnout, pro-Albanian groups continued with the count. As such, an Albanian victory was announced, much to the anger of the ethnic Serbs. So much anger that the newly elected mayors had to be escorted by armed police to the municipal government offices. This pinpoints when the clashes started, and fundamentally highlights what really is serving as the lynchpin to violence in Kosovo. The fact that these clashes took place in a completely political context, and between two conflicted ethnic identities, is evidence enough to show that it is not simply a case often made by Balkanization. It is not mere aggression and anarchy which results in ‘heat of the moment’ clashes. Rather, the symbolism of ethnic conflict transcends onto the streets of North Kosovo, in a manifestation of Albanians fighting Serbs face-to-face with little weaponry. A rivalry which shows two groups caught in limbo, in a country whose status is not totally defined.

The Ongoing Fight for Kosovo

Yugoslavia was a unique country largely down to its image of being a socialist paradise. It was viewed by the West as one of the few examples of where Communism seemed to work. A major factor in this opinion was how fiercely embedded national pride and independence was in a Yugoslav identity, as highlighted by its distancing from Stalin when he was establishing Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s. In addition, Yugoslavia was also celebrated as being somewhat of a cultural conglomerate. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, travel agents were inundated with bookings for the coastal resorts, with travellers being impressed by how the federation seemed to be a crossroads for cultures to mingle. Even beyond the days of Tito, the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo exemplified that Yugoslav spirit of a multicultural community.

This does not necessarily mean that the Yugoslav identity of multiculturalism was a fundamental aspect of life. In the case of Kosovo, there was plenty of confusion which seemed to arise from the aftermath of Tito’s rule. Tito had failed to select a clear successor, and having created what seemed to be a utopian state, there was no way Yugoslav political officials could have predicted how to ensure the longevity of it, meaning any planning for the future was lacklustre. Any decisions made regarding the futures of the different Yugoslav states had seemingly been misunderstood. For example, in 1974, Belgrade recognised that Kosovo was a de facto self-governing region. There had been relative peace surrounding this issue until 1981 - a year after Tito’s death - which saw a rise in separatist rioting which was suppressed by Yugoslav troops. That dream of unity in Yugoslavia collapsed along with the nation at the end of the 1980s, and in 1990 Slobodan Milošević (now known as a notorious war criminal) stripped Kosovo of its autonomy. The response from Albanians - who make up the majority of the population - was that of protests against the fact that they were living under Serbian administration, and therefore trapped in a cultural and political sphere of influence.

1996 laid the foundation for the future Kosovan fight. In the midst of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was established, and this was the year that they launched their first major attacks which would bring attention to their cause. Their indiscriminate targeting of ethnic Serbs and potential Albanian collaborators brings to mind the atrocities seen in the witch-hunts of the Terror of revolutionary France and the political purges in Stalin’s Russia. Their role as a fighting force was highlighted in 1999 in the year which is seen as the last great European conflict of the twentieth century; a campaign of urban warfare against Serb forces. It would seem that this campaign was somewhat successful in asserting the Kosovar identity. The aerial bombardment of Serbia carried out by NATO forces in response to Serbian war crimes against Kosovar Albanians showed that there was international support and recognition of this ethnic identity.

Where does Kosovo stand now?

It is difficult to fully clarify where this region stands in the geopolitical realm of the Balkans and the world. Of course, it is referred to as its own territory of Kosovo by media outlets worldwide, yet this makes it harder to believe that only 51% of the countries in the UN recognise its independence. Two of the major players on the UN Security Council - China and Russia - have refused to accept the fact that it declared independence in 2008. The fact that Serbia has an ally in Russia does not help this tension, as even Serbia classing it as the ‘Autonomous Province’ shows that it is still unwilling to recognise the Kosovar identity which has been viciously fought for since the Hellenic era.

Yet, it is important to consider the demographics of Kosovo. What is quite clear here is a power struggle between two dominant ethnicities; the Albanian Kosovars and the ethnic Serbs. Serbia still considers the ethnic Serbs to be under their control , and this belief is bolstered by how the majority of the Serb population live in the north of the country bordering Serbia. Even an agreement in 2013 between the Serbian and Kosovar governments declared that the northern provinces with a Serb majority are autonomous. There is most definitely a recognition of how the overall identity of the Kosovar population can potentially lead to peaceful coexistence between Albanians and Serbs. However, every time a positive development seems to be made in the diplomatic relations between these two countries, at least three steps seem to be taken back towards the echoes of the 1990s. It is clear to see that the future of Kosovo on the Balkan political spectrum, as well as the world stage, is still very much hanging in the balance. Only time will tell whether the next clash proves to be the straw on the camel’s already fractured back.


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