In the wake of heavy clashes between Kosovo police and armed Kosovo Serbs on September 24, followed by Serbian and NATO troop movements, the EU-brokered, US-supported Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue is at a standstill. Time to reinvest or time to rethink?
Anthony Godfrey, former US Ambassador to Serbia: First, some history. When NATO intervened in 1999 to stop Serbian atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, it stopped a conflict but resolved little.
Since then, ethnonationalist politicians on both sides of the border have won elections by leading populist campaigns with pledges (for Pristina) to assert full control over all of Kosovo or (for Belgrade) to carve out an ethnic Serbian enclave in Kosovo where they can ignore the country’s laws, provided they show slavish loyalty to Belgrade. For more than 20 years, the presence of KFOR and development incentives for both sides largely prevented this conflict from again spreading to the broader region.
But Ukraine’s war to defeat Russia’s aggression changed perceptions of Moscow’s influence in the Balkans and — more recently — Azerbaijan’s effective expulsion of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, mean the shaky equilibrium is quickly eroding, and the status quo sustained by the deterrent of KFOR and the increasingly distant incentive of EU accession is no longer holding.
Philip Kosnett, former US Ambassador to Kosovo: Which brings us to this year. Eight months ago, the EU-brokered, US-supported effort to negotiate a comprehensive peace between Serbia and Kosovo seemed to be progressing. In February, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovan prime minister Albin Kurti approved an agreement that called for, inter alia, limited self-governance for Kosovo Serbs through an Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM — first agreed in principle in 2013); and mutual recognition of national symbols, documents, and territorial integrity — what Kurti called “de facto” Serbian recognition of Kosovo.
Nobody expected implementation to be easy. Vučić flew home and immediately disavowed the deal before his local audience; Kurti (like most of Kosovo’s majority Albanian community) was profoundly skeptical of ASM. But follow-up talks on implementation were convened and the train was on the tracks.
It didn’t take long to derail. In April, Kosovo Serbs boycotted mayoral elections in the four Serb-majority municipalities in a bid to increase Western pressure on Kosovo to implement ASM, resulting in the election of ethnic Albanian mayors. In May, Kurti deployed police over Western objections to seat the new mayors in their offices. Serb demonstrators injured dozens of NATO KFOR peacekeepers.
Then on Sunday September 24, around 30 heavily armed Serbs attacked Kosovo police near the northern town of Banjska, killing one officer before retreating to a Serbian Orthodox monastery. In a daylong battle, Kosovo police killed four and arrested several armed Serbs (others escaped) and captured a cache of weapons secreted at the monastery, as well as vehicles Pristina’s interior minister claimed could be traced to the Serbian army. Kosovo demanded extradition of gunmen who had fled to Serbia.
The US initially responded with placeholder language defending the police while urging both sides to “refrain from any actions or rhetoric which could further inflame tensions” and resume negotiations. (Pro tip: if you want to stir up trouble without a decisive response from Washington, do it on a Sunday when the Pentagon is at church and the State Department is at spin class.)
Serbia’s response was classic Vučić — playing to nationalist sentiment by declaring a day of mourning for the martyred Serb fighters, coupled with efforts to portray himself to the West as a moderating influence, pledging an investigation. The Kosovo Serb politician and alleged gangster Milan Radoicic — photographed on scene during the monastery fight — turned up in Belgrade to take the fall, saying he had stockpiled arms and built a militia without Belgrade’s support or knowledge. (If anyone actually believes this, please step forward.)
Vučić then began deploying armored units to Kosovo’s border. With this Washington and its allies seem finally to have run out of patience with Belgrade. On September 29, NSC spokesman Kirby called the Serbian deployment “very destabilizing” while NATO deployed a British battalion to reinforce KFOR, and later a Romanian company. At the same time, the EU and US continue to call for the implementation of all Dialogue commitments.
Anthony, how do you see the current situation? And where does Russia fit in?
Anthony Godfrey: Phil, we see things mostly the same way; facts are facts, after all. From Belgrade’s perspective, Kurti’s increasing challenges to the status quo seem to be forcing Vučić either to direct or to allow others to take steps to push back on behalf of Serb autonomy in Kosovo.
Vučić is in a political bind; the firm grip he has had for years on the right-wing/ethnonationalist voting bloc is eroding. Serbia joined international criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly, allowing his governing coalition partner to pick up the pro-Russia standard in Serbian internal politics, and this may be whittling away at Vučić’s ethnonationalist base. Serbs living in Kosovo (and in both Bosnia and Montenegro) get to vote in Serbia’s elections, and these votes are increasingly important. This does not in any way justify Serbs illegally stockpiling arms in Kosovo, but this context is essential to understand the problem.
Vučić has repeatedly complained that KFOR isn’t holding up what he perceives to be their end of the bargain. Rather than keeping a lid on things (Vučić has argued), KFOR is helping the Kosovo police to professionalize, to gain expertise, to equip with lethal equipment and transition to become a military organization (US policy supports this goal).
The presence of the KFOR security backstop means Kurti is able to carry out increasingly provocative moves against Serb autonomy in Kosovo without real fear that Serbia would respond. Most of the Serb ethnonationalist voters still subscribe to the toxic view held by Slobodan Milošević: Serbia is wherever there are Serbs, and it is both Belgrade’s duty and responsibility to defend their rights. While Vučić claims to reject this policy, it has many proponents.
Russia’s ability to intervene on Serbia’s side on Kosovo centers around its UN Security Council veto. But state-owned Gazprom still provides most of the natural gas Serbia requires, and a Russian company owns the biggest network of gas stations. It was Gazprom gold (literally) that gilded the dome of the gloriously renewed St. Sava cathedral in downtown Belgrade.
Neither Serbia’s strong economic growth over the past decade nor its economic prospects for the future depend on Russia. Serbia’s future lies with the European Union (EU), even if membership is out of reach for now. Both Europe and Serbia benefit from this growth and many in the EU would be loath to use this relationship as a lever for political reasons. Kosovo’s economic power and therefore value in trade relations pales in comparison to Serbia’s.
Philip Kosnett: The fundamental issue I see is that neither Serbia nor Kosovo feels any urgency to implement an agreement. Three ideas that might increase flexibility on the Kosovo side:
First, after Banjska, the EU and US need to rethink ASM. In the past, Western diplomats (including me) made the case that limited self-government for Serb municipalities could in time lessen distrust between Kosovo Serbs and their Albanian-majority neighbors. Kosovans fear ASM could pose an internal security threat and presage de facto partition. Many compare ASM to Bosnia’s ultranationalist Republika Srpska, seeing both as useful to Russian-backed efforts to destabilize the Balkans. If the EU and US want to sell Kosovo on any version of ASM, they are going to need to muster a compelling argument that it won’t threaten Kosovo’s security. Good luck with that.
Second, Washington and Brussels should press all EU/NATO member countries to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty. Five EU members, four of them in NATO — Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece, Cyprus — do not recognize Kosovo, largely due to concerns about separatism closer to home. This would be a concrete political manifestation of Western solidarity at a time when Russia is actively encouraging Balkan instability. NATO should also maintain a strong KFOR presence — which benefits all ethnic communities in Kosovo — and continue helping Kosovo professionalize its small military.
Third, Washington should formulate and publicize a conditions-based graduation strategy for Kosovo aid. This should embrace not just assistance from USAID and Millennium Challenge Corporation, but also the practice of embedding advisors within Kosovo institutions – which enhances US influence but can be infantilizing.
I am NOT calling for an immediate cessation of assistance (which is what some Kosovans hear when I talk like this). Kosovans need to plan for American and European aid, as well as remittances from the diaspora, to decrease over time. Kosovo’s economy will remain hamstrung so long as potential investors see the region as unstable and Kosovo is not fully integrated into the Balkan economy – which means working with Serbia.
But incentivizing one side alone won’t suffice. Anthony, what can the US and EU do to induce constructive Serbian behavior?
Anthony Godfrey: Phil, here’s where our viewpoints start to diverge, and where my realpolitik underwear might start showing. Just how much political capital should the United States expend on this issue? Is this what we should be leaning on Spain and Slovakia about right now?
You and I agree that Serbia can’t be allowed to foment armed rebellion or use ethnonationalist fellow-travelers to influence election outcomes in Kosovo (or in Bosnia or Montenegro). But I would advocate trying to return to the status quo ante, even if it means endless shuttle diplomacy for our friends Miro Lajčák and Gabe Escobar, the EU and US pointmen. Helping both Serbia and Kosovo grow their economies to a point where interdependence makes conflict less appealing seems more plausible and less costly.
In my view, stronger security guarantees for Kosovo would do little except further empower populist politicians (like Kurti) to try even harder to assert state control over all of what the United States recognizes as the Republic of Kosovo territory. In strictly legal terms, Azeri President Aliyev’s “anti-terrorist” operation in Nagorno-Karabakh — which has just led to tragic ethnic cleansing there — fell within his rights as we have always recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Until Kosovo is more prepared to stand on its own, in both economic and security terms, it should take care not to “poke the bear” to its north.
We should press Serbia to return to the table, to rein in its ethnonationalist clients in Kosovo, and require them to participate in Kosovo government. If we have a smoking gun proving that Belgrade provided the military-grade weapons discovered by the Kosovo police in Banjska, we should show it to Vučić. While we may have more direct influence over what matters to Pristina, it is our EU partners who hold the keys to the incentives that matter most to Belgrade. Serbia began the formal process for EU membership in 2013, but Belgrade has complained that the EU keeps moving the finish line further away, adding more conditions for final accession.
With the EU process knotted up by process in Brussels, individual member states with whom Serbia has the strongest economic relations — like Germany and Italy — may be our best bilateral partners in providing new incentives.
Philip Kosnett (US Ambassador, Ret.) represented the US in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in a career focused on international security and governance, including as Ambassador to Kosovo (2018-21) and Chargé d’Affaires in Turkey and Iceland. Kosnett now writes, comments and consults on global affairs. He is editor of ‘Boots and Suits: Historical Cases and Contemporary Lessons in Military Diplomacy’ (Marine Corps University Press, 2023).
Anthony Godfrey (US Ambassador, Ret.) served for more than 40 years in the State Department and the US Navy, with most of his service focused on the former Soviet Union. His last assignment with the State Department was as Ambassador to Serbia (2019-22). He also served three years in Armenia, including as Chargé d’Affaires. Godfrey has settled in Richmond, Virginia and is teaching both at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.