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Conflict Escalations Between Kosovo and Serbia: More Than Just A Matter Of Borders

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

International Affairs Analyst

Protest in Belgrade against Kosovo, 2022 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On the 30th of September, Kosovo demanded that Serbia withdraw its troops from their common border. Officials in Pristina announced that; “We call on Serbia to immediately withdraw all troops from the border with Kosovo,” with a further warning that Belgrade “demilitarise” 48 forward military bases that pose harm to their state.


Recently, there has been an escalation of conflict between Kosovo and Serbia, occurring after an incident at a north Kosovan checkpoint where pro-Serbian paramilitaries attacked Kosovan Police officers. With one policeman killed and three ethnic Serbian gunmen killed it represents one of the worst escalations of violence in the last decade. Kosovan President, Vjosa Osmani has claimed that: “The (armed) group simply exercised the intentions and the motives of Serbia as a country and Vučić as the leader.” The Kosovo-Serbian conflict dates back to the 1990s when former Yugoslavia broke up, this led to conflict sparking between Serbia and Kosovo where ethnic Albanians suffered. The conflict ended in 1999, the same year that NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia occurred. It is important to note that the declaration of Kosovo's independence plays a significant role in 21st-century international relations. This is a matter of human rights, sovereignty, and power as well as regional and international security.


Since 2008, when the Republic of Kosovo declared independence, there have been tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. This is because, to date, Serbia refuses to recognise the independence of Kosovo, instead claiming that the declaration was illegal according to national law categorizing it as a ‘breakaway province’. The International Court of Justice, however, declared in 2010 that the 2008 declaration of independence did not violate international law and norms. Clearly, this violence is not something recent and it is important to recognize the key issues around this topic. The recent attack may be one headline, but it is the bigger picture that is significant. So, who is behind this incident? The armed attack was led by paramilitaries that are both financed and trained by Serbia. Serbia was warned by both Kosovo and the international community to withdraw its forces at the border.


On Monday, the military officials announced that troops were reduced from 8350 to 4500. The heavy presence of troops at the border highlights the national security concerns of Serbia. Kosovo claims that the deployment of Serbian troops at the borders threatens their territorial integrity. If we view international politics as anarchical, then it may be said that Serbia attempts to maximize its power in the region. Here, we must note that NATO peacekeepers have been present in the region since 1999 to maintain international peace and security. This further brings the argument that states seem to be the ruling authority as Serbia still refuses to accept the independence of Kosovo whilst maintaining a strong military presence. Military capabilities are a method for states to defend or offend themselves from their rival - in this case Serbia from Kosovo. It is also a way to maximize national security effectively, thus there seems to be a lack of faith between the two states although Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vučić, states that he “does not want war”. This has resulted in a fear-like situation concerning national security which may explain Serbia’s intentions on keeping forces at the border.


It is clearly a national and regional conflict however it equally concerns the international community. Kosovo has been in constant contact with international powers including the US and European Union (EU) concerning perceived Serbian threats to Kosovan sovereignty. The armed attack last week has sparked international concern about stability and international security. Consequently, after violence escalated, the UK sent another 500 troops to the KFOR area to join the NATO peacekeepers. The US has strictly urged Serbia to withdraw troops with the White House stating that Serbian troops represent destabilizing military presence. To be specific, it is destabilizing because of the “unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, and merchandised infantry units”. The US fully supports the territorial integrity of Kosovo which Serbia has been refusing to recognize for decades now. Additionally, Serbia blames Kosovo for mistreatment of the ethnic Serbs although Kosovo denies this charge, arguing that no evidence has been presented.


Since its 2008 independence, the US has played a fundamental role in advocating Kosovo’s recognition as an independent state due to which 114 diplomatic states have recognized its sovereignty. Hence, the US’s role has predominantly strengthened Kosovo’s stance in the international community developing its relations with other states. In the globalized world we live in, it may be said that the US involvement and central role is for several reasons. Firstly, the military intervention and diplomatic efforts ever since 1999 have prevented further atrocities and violence in the region. Moreover, the US has proven its commitment and dedication to promoting stability, democracy and human rights in the Balkans. Yet, it would be naïve to ignore the international impact of regional insecurity. The region itself has always been considered volatile due to its potential to escalate conflicts across Europe. This relates to the wider European security structure which is threatened if conflict sparks.


Furthermore, it is understood that conflict was prevented for a long time due to international involvement, especially the NATO mission. The recent violence is directly related to the rise in rivalry between the ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo. To be specific, in 2022 Kosovo attempted to force ethnic Serbs to use Kosovan license plates in their cars. The Kosovan government acted this way because they eagerly seek territorial integrity to change their defacto sovereignty situation. As this was a ‘forced’ action, it was seen as undemocratic and threatening peace between the ethnicities because of which the EU intervened and condemned Kosovo. Simultaneously, ethnic Serbs boycotted Kosovan elections early this year in April protesting that there was an absence of autonomy. Serbians also protested that the local elections undermined the peace deal signed between the two states.


The international community condemned Kosovo for these actions despite the Kosovan government attempting to justify local politicians, citing that they were democratically elected. As for the US, Blinken issued a press statement condemning Kosovo for the ‘unilateral’ actions that undermined efforts contributing to normalising the relations between the two states. In addition to this, the US and EU imposed limited – although politically substantial – sanctions on Kosovo and reduced military and economic cooperation. These are very important details to take into account because they highlight the intentions and involvement of the West and Europe in the Balkans. The US’s foreign policy towards the Balkans has always been parallel to Russia’s support of Serbia. Russia and Serbia have been preventing Kosovo from joining the United Nations through which it would achieve international recognition. For this reason, Western involvement in the Balkans has always been viewed as a way to oppose Russian efforts to support Serbia. However, the US and Europe can still condemn the Kosovan government when its actions take an undemocratic approach, potentially preventing peace attempts.


Moving on, this brings us back to the recent attack. Although this took place in Northern Kosovo, the government accused Serbia of supporting the gunmen paramilitaries. While Serbia denies it, former Kosovo-Serb power broker Milan Radoicic has been directly accused of organizing the attack without support from the Serbian government. On the other hand, Kosovo submitted a briefing note to the EU and international leaders emphasizing that this ‘terrorist attack’ was led by the Serbian government. In addition to this, the Kosovan government states that the attack resembled the hybrid techniques used initially by Russia during the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Although Serbia directly denies this, the Kosovan government clearly fears this as a threat to its territorial integrity as well as to the safety of its citizens. This became apparent when Kosovar Foreign Minister Donika Gervalle spoke to German broadcaster, Deutschlandfunk: “There has never been this kind of concentration of troops in recent years”. What may this suggest? Considering Russia’s support to Serbia, this may demonstrate Serbian attitude, intentions, and perhaps future plans.


In contrast to the American and European attitudes, Russia has always taken opposing stances towards the Balkans with Moscow’s steadfast claims of support for Serbian sovereignty. Historically, the two nations maintained strong diplomatic ties due to cultural affinity and shared political interests and thus it has always remained clear that the Kosovo-Serbia conflict reflects the wider rivalry between the US and Russia. Moscow’s involvement has been fundamental in influencing the geopolitical setting of the Balkans. A significant aspect of this is the United Nations' role where Russia – as a permanent member of the Security Council – consistently uses its veto power to prevent Kosovo from becoming a full member. More importantly, there has always been controversy over NATO’s involvement in Kosovo due to the Russia-US rivalry, Moscow views this Western involvement as a challenge to its traditional influence in the Balkans, hence intensifying its support to Serbia over the years.


More specifically, Russia has provided military and economic support to Serbia, both nations participate in joint military drills, and Russia has supplied arms to Serbia, bolstering its defence capabilities. This collaborative military effort has further strengthened their strategic alliance, contributing to Serbia’s maintenance of hard power over Kosovo. Apart from its involvement in Kosovo, Russia has lent diplomatic backing to Serbia in various international forums, championing its interests in the Balkans. Moscow views Serbia as a valuable partner in the region and aims to counterbalance Western influence. Hence, Russian assistance to Serbia has included diplomatic support, military collaboration, and economic aid. These efforts are underpinned by their shared historical connections and Russia’s broader geopolitical goals in the region.


The international impact of Kosovo’s declaration of independence was diverse, reflecting the distinct objectives of the countries involved. The US, for instance, primarily aimed at advancing human rights values, in the form of liberal democracy, not only in Kosovo but also globally. In this context, Kosovo’s independence could have been viewed as a potential precedent, potentially influencing US actions in the Middle East and other regions. Conversely, Russia’s response was tied to its own territorial concerns, given its jurisdiction over 20 autonomous republics that represent ethnic diversity, including the previously separatist Chechnya. Kosovo’s declaration however also provided Russia with a valuable tool to exert influence in regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia in Georgia and subsequently, Ukraine after 2014, with numerous Russian politicians making comparisons to Kosovar independence.


It is now safe to say that this recent spark of violence in Northern Kosovo has been the worst in years, evidently being more than just a border issue. This conflict has taken a leading role in international security and stability since the 1990s. Efforts remain to normalize and stabilize the relations between Kosovo and Serbia by the US and EU, to achieve this normalisation both states must comply with the rules and regulations set by international law and norms. Violence must be prohibited and the ethnic Serbs responsible for this have been warned by international powers. On the one hand, Kosovo is determined to protect its territorial integrity which Serbia threatens with the direct backing of much of the West. On the other hand, this dispute is clear to go beyond borders, becoming a point of contention between US and Russia. Thus this regional dispute is a concern to international security, stability and regional power dynamics, especially being a critical story in light of increasingly heightened US-Russia relations following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.


In conclusion, full-on war is unlikely but it is evident that diplomatic efforts and negotiations have somewhat failed due to the violence sparked. If the relations continue to deteriorate, there is a chance of greater conflict escalation. The international community must remain involved and attentive to prevent further escalation.


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