Images of Serbian nationalist activists brandishing pipes and throwing stones attack NATO peacekeepers at the end of May, in the town of Zvecan, in northern Kosovo, once again placed this Balkan country in the international spotlight. Violence erupted in the predominantly Serb north of the country after Kosovo police escorted recently elected mayors to work in local elections that ethnic Serb residents had boycotted.
The news that Serbia had simultaneously placed its army in high alert Many people, unfamiliar with Balkan affairs, wondered whether another armed conflict was about to break out in Europe.
The answer is no, we are not on the verge of a new Balkan war. But that doesn’t mean the situation in Kosovo isn’t alarming.
Besides the violence, what is causing concern in the region is the role played by the United States and the European Union in encouraging a dangerous new phase of Serbian nationalist militancy in Kosovo and the Western Balkans more generally.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, supported by the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy, also known as Quint.
This follows nearly a decade of international supervision under the United Nations Interim Administration established at the end of the Kosovo War. During this interim period, Kosovo remained nominally part of what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as an “autonomous province”, but Belgrade exercised no real authority over any aspect of the territory’s governance, except for a limited presence in a handful of Serbian-majority municipalities. in the north.
Kosovo also enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy during the socialist period, although its ethnic Albanian majority was a frequent target of repression. In 1989, as Slobodan Milosevic took power in Belgrade, he imposed a new constitutional regime on Kosovo and transformed the region into a veritable police state with ethnic Albanians deprived of virtually all civil liberties. This draconian regime ultimately resulted in armed resistance from the Albanian community and, ultimately, military intervention by NATO.
Over the past 15 years, the United States and the EU have sought to reach a normalization agreement between Pristina and Belgrade. Despite successive rounds of high-level talks, the two sides remain as far apart as ever on a settlement – as the clashes in Zvecan perfectly illustrate.
But this is not a question of equal guilt. The problem remains almost entirely on the Serbian side.
The increasingly autocratic regime of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic categorically refuses to accept Kosovo’s sovereignty. At last round of negotiations held in Ohrid, North Macedonia in March, Vucic even refused to sign the so-called agreement he had “accepted”, telling Serbian citizens in a subsequent speech that he did not want to “conclude an international legal agreement with the Republic of Kosovo”.
In regime-aligned Serbian media, the ethnic Albanian community, which makes up 92 percent of Kosovo’s population, is regularly referred to with ethnic slurs, while the Pristina government is referred to as “temporary” local authorities. And in northern Kosovo, with a Serb majority, Belgrade maintains a sort of clandestine occupation, administered by a network of ultranationalists and local gangsters, as the New York Times recently detailed.
But Serbia’s reactionary posture is not limited to Kosovo.
Serbian leaders and large segments of public opinion, inundated by more than three decades of revisionist state propaganda, exist in a world of their own. Neither Belgrade nor much of Serbian public opinion accepts that the Milosevic regime – in whose last cabinet Vucic was Minister of Information – was the main architect of the dissolution of Yugoslavia or the decade of conflict that engulfed the region.
They falsely claim that Serbia did not wage aggressive wars against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo between 1991 and 1999. They also falsely claim that Serbia did not orchestrate a systematic and genocidal campaign of extermination, terror and expulsion against Serbia. Bosnia’s non-Serb population between 1992 and 1995, which disproportionately affected the Bosnian community.
In fact, the genocidal violence directed against Bosnians by Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb proxies was so severe that approximately half of all casualties in the Yugoslav Wars and 82 percent of all civilian deaths during the Bosnian War were Bosnians. of stock.
Postwar Bosnia remained riven with dysfunction and conflict due to the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Accords and the extreme degree of autonomy granted to ethnic chauvinistic elements in the country’s new constitution. In the entity of Republika Srpska, which Milosevic’s genocidal purge transformed into a Serb-majority region loyal to Belgrade, Milorad Dodik’s secessionist regime is undermining even the most modest reforms, while explicitly pushing for reform. The breakup of Bosnia, with Russia and the Soviet Union. Serbian aid.
In light of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one would think that there would have been serious political and diplomatic repercussions for Serbia and its proxies due to their close ties to the Kremlin and their own expansionist machinations in the Western Balkans. But precisely the opposite happened.
For example, in the case of clashes between Serbian nationalists and NATO peacekeepers in Zvecan, the Quint condemned the country’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, for sending police to escort the newly elected mayors to ‘at their offices in the north.
The United States also excluded Kosovo from NATO-led Defender 23 military exercises and threatened local officials with sanctions. Washington’s ambassador to Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, also said his country would no longer help Kosovo seek international recognition. On the other hand, Serbia and Vucic suffered no consequences.
Republika Srpska’s Dodik also did not face retaliation for meeting regularly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom U.S. and European officials have repeatedly called a “war criminal.” The entity still receives EU funding for various development projects and although Dodik is under American and British sanctionshe continues to openly pressure American 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 Covic, the leader of the radical Croatian nationalist party HDZ which also benefits from the patronage of the Kremlin, seems to see his interests defended directly by the internationally designated Office of the High Representative (OHR).
Last October, the OHR used its broad executive powers to rewrite Bosnia’s electoral laws. in his favour then, in April this year, it amended the constitution of the Federation entity to install a government dominated by the HDZ.
In Bosnia, as in Kosovo, the United States and the EU do not seem interested in curbing Russian influence; instead, they sought to accommodate Moscow-backed nationalist activists. For what? Because the West has concluded that it is not worth spending time or effort confronting people like Vucic, Dodik or Covic in a region as peripheral to its interests as the Western Balkans.
The US and EU have instead opted for a kind of Kabuki politics, maintaining a performative posture of opposition to nationalist activists but spending their political and diplomatic capital to help them achieve their goals in the fleeting hope that this will pacify them.
The result, of course, has only been a bolder form of nationalist extremism in the Balkans – much of it sponsored by the West.
Unfortunately, the US and EU seem fully committed to this path, as evidenced by their surreal reactions to the violence in Zvecan. This will likely remain the case until national publics, including the Bosnian and Kosovar diasporas in the West, and their legislative allies, are able to effectively demonstrate why Western double-dealing in the Balkans is dangerous for stability and the security of Europe.
But until then, Belgrade will likely continue fomenting chaos, knowing that Washington and Brussels will look the other way.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.