The Russian invasion of Ukraine, now approaching the six-month mark, seems to have produced an increased alertness to risks of war around the world. The debate over Taiwan is one example; we might have another look at that later in the week. But it also showed up this month in a war scare in the Balkans.
As Una Hajdari at Politico explains, for several days there was agitated talk of a drift to war between Kosovo and Serbia. Things have now quietened down; the Kosovo government has deferred the implementation of some controversial measures and the two countries’ leaders are to meet this week, but the underlying issues remain unresolved.
The problem centres on a section of northern Kosovo, generally north of the river Ibar, which is inhabited mostly by ethnic Serbs who still consider themselves part of Serbia. The Kosovo government has been trying to extend its control over this area, with new measures that include a requirement to use Kosovo licence plates and controls on crossing the border with Serbia. The local Serbs responded by erecting barricades; in one case, a Kosovo patrol boat was fired upon.
Incidents like these have been reasonably common ever since Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 (a move not recognised by Serbia). The writ of the central government runs only fitfully if at all in the north, and repeated efforts at mediation by the European Union and other actors have failed to advance matters.
While social media, aided by the Ukraine example, may well be over-dramatising the recent trouble, even small outbreaks have the potential to flare into something bigger. As a local expert is quoted: “This shows how much we have normalized incidents — which is very bad. You’re playing with fire, because one day these incidents might just escalate more than we think they will.”
This is one of those occasions where it’s impossible to resist the temptation to say “I told you so!” Back in 2013, the media were full of optimism on the Kosovo question after a “landmark accord” between the two governments. I was the one who pointed out that the agreement was only superficial, and that “the fundamental political problem has been postponed, not solved.” And so it has proved.
There are differing views, however, on exactly what that fundamental problem is. On one view, it’s the fact that Serbia has never reconciled itself to the loss of Kosovo or renounced the ambitions for regional hegemony that led to a series of wars in the 1990s. On the other, it’s the more mundane fact that the Serbia-Kosovo boundary is in the wrong place and should be redrawn along the Ibar to put most of the Serbs back into Serbia.
It seems to me that, even if the first view should turn out to be correct, there’s nothing to be lost – and a lot potentially to be gained – by dealing with the more limited problem first. But border revision, which had a brief vogue a couple of years ago, seems to have slipped right off the agenda.
As I put it last November:
Opponents of border revision talk darkly about precedents like partition in Northern Ireland and the Munich agreement of 1938, just as [Kosovar prime minister Albin] Kurti last week likened Serbia’s behavior to that of Germany between the two world wars. But Serbia is not a great power; it is not about to embark on a program of European conquest. The relevance of Munich is that it involved a real geopolitical grievance that had been papered over as a short-term measure … and therefore was ripe for exploitation by a power-mad demagogue.
The Ukraine war has provided a whole new set of analogies. Serbian aggression over Kosovo, it’s said, is on a par with Russia’s behavior in Ukraine; just as the failure by the west to stand up to Russia over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 made full-scale war more likely, so would giving in to Serbia now lead to worse problems in future. In each case, self-determination is claimed to be a mere cloak for imperialist ambitions.
There’s an element of truth in this, but not much. Crimea was strategically important to Ukraine, like the Sudetenland in 1938; northern Kosovo has no such significance (if anything, a border along the Ibar would be strategically more defensible). And even in relation to Crimea, the Ukrainian government has left open the possibility of settling for something less than the full restoration of its sovereignty.
At some point, a genuine act of self-determination, rather than the bogus exercise the Russians implemented in 2014, would be appropriate for Crimea, although the Ukrainians are surely right to avoid making such concessions in advance when they are actually under attack. But there is no such consideration in Kosovo: Serbia is not bombing Kosovo’s cities, and there is no reason why its legitimate claims should not be addressed.
It probably won’t solve the whole problem, but it’s well worth a try.