Images of pipe-wielding and stone-throwing Serb militant nationalists attacking NATO peacekeepers in the northern Kosovo town of Jevekan in late May have thrust the Balkan nation back into the international spotlight. Violence erupted in the country’s Serb-majority north after Kosovo police escorted elected mayors to local elections, which ethnic Serb residents boycotted.
News that Serbia has contemporaneously put its military on high alert has many unfamiliar with Balkan affairs asking whether another armed conflict is about to break out in Europe.
The answer is no, we are not on the brink of another Balkan war. But that does not mean that the situation in Kosovo is not worrying.
In addition to the violence, the concern in the region is that the United States and the European Union have played a role in encouraging a dangerous new phase of Serb nationalist militancy in Kosovo and in the Western Balkans more broadly.
Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy, also known as the Quint.
It came after nearly a decade of international supervision under the UN Interim Administration, which was established at the end of the Kosovo War. During this interim period, Kosovo was nominally part of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as an “autonomous province”, but Belgrade exercised no real authority over any aspect of the territory’s governance, thanks to the limited presence of a handful of Serb-majority municipalities. On the north side.
Kosovo also enjoyed a significant degree of self-rule during the socialist period, although its ethnic Albanian majority was a frequent target of persecution. In 1989, as Slobodan Milosevic seized power in Belgrade, he imposed a new constitutional regime on Kosovo and turned the region into a de facto police state, stripping ethnic Albanians of virtually all civil liberties. This harsh regime eventually led to armed resistance by the Albanian community and ultimately NATO’s military intervention.
Over the past 15 years, the US and the EU have tried to secure a normalization agreement between Pristina and Belgrade. Despite continued high-level talks, the two sides remain as far away from a settlement as ever – as the clash in Xevekan beautifully illustrates.
But here the question of equal guilt does not arise. The problem remained almost entirely on the Serbian side.
The increasingly authoritarian rule of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is evident in his refusal to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty. At the last round of talks held in Ohrid, North Macedonia, in March, Vušić refused to even sign the supposedly “agreed” agreement, saying in a subsequent address to Serbian citizens that he did not “want to enter into an international legal agreement with the Republic of Kosovo”.
In Serbia’s regime-aligned media, the ethnic Albanian community, which comprises 92 percent of Kosovo’s population, is regularly referred to by ethnic slurs, while Pristina’s government is characterized as the “provisional” local authority. And in Kosovo’s Serb-majority north, Belgrade maintains a sort of secret grip, run through a network of local ultra-nationalists and gangsters, as The New York Times recently detailed.
But Serbia’s reactionary posture is not limited to Kosovo.
The Serbian leadership and large sections of the public, immersed in revisionist state propaganda for more than three decades, exist in a world of their own. Neither Belgrade nor a large part of the Serbian public acknowledges that the Milosevic regime – in whose last cabinet Vušić served as information minister – was the main architect of the breakup of Yugoslavia or the decades of conflict that engulfed the region.
They falsely claim that Serbia did not wage wars of aggression against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo between 1991 and 1999. They also falsely claim that Serbia has not waged a systematic, genocidal campaign of extermination, terror and expulsion against them. Bosnia’s non-Serb population between 1992 and 1995, which disproportionately affected the Bosniak community.
Indeed, the genocidal violence perpetrated against Bosniaks by Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb proxies was so severe that almost half of all casualties during the Yugoslav Wars and 82 percent of all civilian deaths during the Bosnian War were ethnic Bosniaks.
Post-war Bosnia remains dysfunctional and strife-torn due to the US-brokered Dayton Peace Accords and the extreme degree of autonomy granted to ethnic restive elements under the country’s new constitution. In the Republika Srpska entity, which Milosevic’s genocidal purge carved out as a Serb-majority region and which is loyal to Belgrade, the separatist regime of Milorad Dodić undermined even the most modest reforms, while clearly pushing for the secession of Russian and Bosnian, Serbian aid.
In light of Russia’s full-scale aggression in Ukraine, one would think that close ties with the Kremlin and their own expansionist strategy in the Western Balkans could lead to serious political and diplomatic repercussions for Serbia and its proxies. But the opposite happened.
For example, in the case of clashes between Serb nationalists and NATO peacekeepers in Zavecan, Quint condemned the country’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti for sending police to escort newly elected mayors to their offices in the north.
The United States has pulled Kosovo out of NATO-led Defender 23 military exercises and threatened sanctions against local officials. Washington’s ambassador to Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, also said his country would no longer help Kosovo gain international recognition. In contrast, Serbia and Vucic suffered no consequences.
Republika Srpska Dodik has also faced no backlash for regularly meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom US and European officials have repeatedly called a “war criminal.” The company is still receiving funding from the EU for various development projects, and although Dodik is under US and UK sanctions, he continues to openly lobby US officials in Washington.
Nor is the Bosnian Serb leader the only anti-state actor in Bosnia to benefit from a curiously high degree of Western appeasement. Dragan Kovic, leader of the staunch Croat nationalist HDZ party, who also enjoys Kremlin patronage, appears to have his interests directly protected by the internationally appointed Office of the High Representative (OHR).
Last October, the OHR used its broad executive powers to rewrite Bosnia’s electoral laws in its favor and then amended the federation entity’s constitution to install an HDZ-led government in April this year.
In Bosnia, as in Kosovo, the US and EU are not interested in curbing Russian influence; Instead, they sought to accommodate Moscow-backed militant nationalists. Why? Because the West has concluded that it is not worth the time or effort to deal with people like Vucic, Dodik or Kovic in areas peripheral to its interests, such as the Western Balkans.
The US and the EU have instead opted for a kind of kabuki policy, maintaining a functional posture of opposition to militant nationalists but expending political and diplomatic capital to help them achieve their goals in the fleeting hope that this will appease them.
The result, of course, has been bolder forms of nationalist extremism in the Balkans – much of it sponsored by the West.
Unfortunately, both the US and the EU seem fully committed to this course, as evidenced by their surreal response to the violence in Xevekan. This is likely to remain unless internal populations and their legislative allies, including the Bosnian and Kosovar diaspora in the West, can effectively demonstrate why Western duplicity in the Balkans is dangerous to Europe’s stability and security.
But until then, Belgrade will continue to cause chaos, safe in the knowledge that Washington and Brussels will look the other way.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.