The End of Kosovo's Utility
Is America Ready to Drop Its Favorite Client Statelet?
“These are men who have been granted a state…because they enjoy the favour of him who grants it…
Such men depend solely upon two very uncertain and unstable things: the will and the Fortune of him who granted him the state. But they do not know how, and are unable, to maintain their position.”
- Machiavelli [The Prince, VII]
“Politics in Yugoslavia perfectly mirrors the process of history and is thus more predictable than most people think.”
- Robert Kaplan [Balkan Ghosts, I]
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Note: I refer to Kosovo as a country throughout this article for ease and readability, not as an expression of any specific beliefs I hold about this topic. If you wish to leave death threats about how Kosovo is Serbia [or, not to exclude Albanians, about my criticisms of Kosovo] please do so in the comments.
Introduction: Bigger Problems Than the Balkans
The EU-led Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue appears to have broken down. There are two separate major sources of instability in Serbia and Kosovo [or just in Serbia, depending on if you recognize Kosovo.] The first is that Serbia has been rocked by enormous protests, both pro- and anti-government, following two mass shootings a day apart in early May. More importantly, things have boiled over between Kosovo’s government and its Serb minority in the north, following boycotted elections which saw Kosovo place ethnic Albanian mayors in Serb-majority cities. Serbs blocked the newly elected mayors from entering government buildings, and the Kosovo police responded with violence. As the situation escalated, NATO’s Kosovo Force [KFOR] “Peacekeepers” were injured in large numbers by Serb rock-throwers. After almost 30 years of Western governments and media promoting hatred against the Serbia and the Serb ethnicity, many are blaming Serbs, Serbia, and Russia; some do this out of ignorance, others are professional crude anti-Serb propagandists. At the same time, Serbia did put its border troops on the highest alert and has long threatened to send troops to northern Kosovo to protect ethnic Serbs if KFOR fails to do so. The general instability in Serbia has left people all the more concerned about what the country may do, on top of which many were promoting bizarre conspiracy theories about Serbian President Vucic [under Putin’s control of course] as the puppet master of the whole situation, something for which there is no evidence. However, incredibly, Kosovo’s long-time sponsors in the United States and the European Union are publicly placing the blame squarely on Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, penalizing the country and ending a policy of this Western protectorate having functional immunity.
As I have written previously, NATO’s purpose in the Balkans was always to demonstrate themselves as the global guarantors of war and peace and all of their actions should be seen in this context. Unfortunately for Kosovo, the Russian invasion of Ukraine shattered the Post-WW2 Peace and the alliance is left with much more pressing concerns, even as hatred of Serbia has grown along with hatred of Russia among Ukraine supporters. Though it was already my read that this conflict had ran out of utility for the West and they wanted a permanent settlement, it is still a shocking turn of events that Kosovo, not Serbia, is being blamed for the violence. While it is unlikely NATO would let Serbia reconquer its erstwhile province, and anything could happen, it seems most likely that the desire is to draw Serbia closer to the EU and thus farther from Russia. It is probably a bad time for Kurti to defy his country’s longtime patrons.
Background: Dashed Hopes for Peace
In early April I wrote a lengthy article on the history of the former Yugoslavia and the Serbia-Kosovo peace process which you can find below if you want a deep background on this topic. For this article, I will stick to the immediate causes of the current round of conflict.
When the United States forced Serbia to accept a peace deal which ended the Kosovo War of Independence, a small Serb minority was left behind in northern Kosovo [though many had already fled to other parts of Serbia.] This group has always resisted the rule of Kosovo’s capital Pristina and have been a frequent source of tensions. Most feel political loyalty only to their own community and Belgrade. Further, the Serbian government actually spends quite a lot more money on providing services to their cities; according to Serbia-based American journalist Lily Lynch, the municipalities receive around four times as much funding from Serbia as from Kosovo. Outside of both countries agreeing to not lobby against the other attempting to join international organizations, these Serbs have been a primary sticking point to lasting peace. One dispute has been that most Kosovar Serbs had been using Serbian driver’s licenses and license plates, thus wholly rejecting Pristina’s authority to perform the basic functions of a state. One solution to reduce tension was to allow the creation of an Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities which would coordinate things like education and healthcare. There was a great deal of concern about it becoming a “state within a state” like Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina- a terrible arrangement which causes constant dissension within that state.
The negotiations seemed to have been mostly successful after a decade of work, despite that neither side would sign an agreement. However, Kosovo pushed forward with already-delayed municipal elections which were boycotted by Serbs at the encouragement of Belgrade, causing Vucic to lash out at both Kosovo and the West and decry the foreign occupation of Kosovo. Still, Vucic and Kurti were able to hold what was considered a productive meeting in Brussels in early May, and there was hope this issue would finally be put to rest after so many years. Unfortunately, that is when Serbia was destabilized by two mass shootings, and then Kurti decided to try and place the ethnic Albanians who won the boycotted elections into office. Now that blood has flowed a lasting peace is farther away than it has been in some time.
Mass Shootings, Mass Protests
Though Serbia has serious problems with organized crime, mass shootings in the country are uncommon, and thus the public was shocked when it had its first school shooting on May 3rd, with a 13 year old killing eight children and a security guard. Then, the very next day, a 21 year old committed a drive-by shooting which left eight more dead. The public’s initial reaction was to blame Serbia’s “culture of violence,” which does not make a huge amount of sense if such a thing had not happened before. There was much concern about crime on television, which they say regularly shows women beaten and threats made at gunpoint. Most of all, reality TV was targeted, as it has turned real-life mafia members in celebrities in Serbia. The government also went after illegal gun ownership; Serbia has a high rate of illegal firearm ownership both due to organized crime and because many never turned their guns in following the various ethnic conflicts. According to a claim made by Vucic, which The Atlantic uncritically repeated, 90% of illegal firearms were turned in at the government’s request [this is clearly nonsense, though I don’t doubt many were turned in.] Still, despite the mass shootings having no obvious connection to the current government, enormous anti-violence protests erupted, which ultimately called for Vucic’s resignation. For his part, Vucic called the protests a “stunt” intended to discredit him and said, “We are ready to talk about reality shows... But they want my head. They never wanted anything other than that.” I suppose this discourse is new in Serbia; in America, we have these arguments constantly.
Vucic and his supporters responded to the anti-government protests by organizing their own pro-government protests. Vucic is an unusual political leader in that he doesn’t have an obvious support base yet has managed to consolidate a great deal of power. In fact, the Presidency is supposed to be a largely ceremonial position, but he has placed a Prime Minister who is viewed as his puppet and taken control of the country’s political process through personal influence.
It has been widely reported that Vucic bussed pro-government protestors into Belgrade from all over the country. There are many questions about if these are genuine supporters, if they were coerced, or if they were simply people who accepted a free bus ride to spend a day in Belgrade. Writing from Belgrade, Lily Lynch made some key observations about the demonstrations. She notes Vucic’s supporters are prominently poor and rural, and that all the ones she spoke to were bussed in from a long distance. She also reports that government workers were “effectively forced to attend” and that others were made to go to receive government benefits. Further, it was said that many Serbs were brought in from neighboring countries. I’m uncomfortable with aspects of this reporting as it seems that some of it could be rumors going through the crowd, though that is still valuable information about public attitudes. I am less skeptical of government employees being “effectively forced to attend,” as it’s easy to imagine bosses being directed to tell everyone in the office to be at the rally, but I find the welfare recipients part more difficult to believe. Regardless, she did observe one particularly notable thing,
“There were no Russian symbols present. I have never been to a Serbian rally (and especially not a nationalist-tinged one) without at least a few visible Russian flags, Donetsk People’s Republic Flags, St. George’s ribbons, Putin t-shirts, etc. They were so ostentatiously absent that it seemed clear that there had been some kind of directive from Vucic not to display any Russian paraphernalia.”
Though she notes that Republika Srpksa leader Milorad Dodik, a loud Putin supporter, did praise Russia [to no response from the crowd,] this absence of Russian symbols is indeed incredible. In and of itself this gives credence to the idea Vucic had a great deal of control over the rally and is specifically trying to avoid upsetting the West; I agree with Lynch that the absence of Russian symbols is surely the result of a central directive.
Overall, both rallies for both sides have been peaceful, though large enough they took the entire nation’s focus. The peacefulness is especially notable as Vucic has been subject of a recent New York Times Magazine feature connecting him to grisly organized crime and football hooligans, who are believed to be used as provocateurs. Both are possible as Serbia has a high level of mafia penetration and football hooligans regularly act as low-level political operatives and petty thugs in Europe [for Americans unfamiliar with such things, this features heavily into the Netflix political drama Marseille.] According to Lynch, either these provocations were reduced or stopped working because the public wised up. She writes,
“Everyone expects government provocations. And while they may have worked before…now that everyone knows exactly what they are, they are considerably less effective. It seemed that Vucic recognized that the sheer size of last night’s protest necessitated a different kind of response.”
For his part, Vucic stepped down as the head of his political party. However, he remains President of Serbia and placed his current Defence Minister as the new party leader. He further announced he would be the head of a new coalition political movement he will be starting on June 28th for his party and its allies, meaning this is not even a symbolic resignation so much as promoting himself to a higher level position that didn’t previously exist. I have to credit the man’s audacity. In and of itself this would all have been unlikely to change anything in Serbia, but it seems Kurti noticed they were distracted.
What if They Held an Election and No One Came?
Meanwhile, in Kosovo, the government was determined to hold municipal elections they had hoped would make the Serbs in some way acknowledge their rule. In November, Serbs had mass resigned from government posts over the license plate issue, including police officers and the mayors of four municipalities. This created a need for special elections to choose new mayors. However, due to high tensions the vote was rescheduled for April 23rd hoping time would calm the situation. Kosovo’s leading Serb party, Serbian List, called for a boycott of the April elections. Despite the boycott, Kosovo set up polling stations, which generally had a strong presence of ethnic Albanian Kosovo police [there were mostly ethnic Serb police in the region before the mass resignations] to guard the polling stations from mobs.
According to the publication Balkan Insight, Kurti said of the atmosphere of the elections was tainted by, “fear and blackmail, therefore the participation of citizens in these elections was low. The boycott was imposed by the threatening campaign of official Belgrade and its criminal tools on the field in the north.” Vucic, on the other hand, praised the boycott, saying it represented “a peaceful uprising of Serbian people who will no longer tolerate exclusively imposed solutions, cruelty, mistreatment, wounding, shooting, just to get a sentence of praise from Brussels and Washington.” No one denies that the boycott was effective. The same Balkan Insight article reports that turnout was 3.47%, or 1567 people. According to Vucic, only 13 Serbs in northern Kosovo voted, “two by mistake.” If there is any truth to this, I would love to see an interview with these people who somehow accidentally voted [what would they possibly say, “I go to buy plum brandy, before I know, I vote for filthy Albanian!”?] In the end, there was only one Serb candidate, who received 5 votes. Ethnic Albanians were elected mayor of all four municipalities.
Vucic lashed out at the US and Europe for allowing the vote to happen, calling them “liars and frauds,” and saying Serbs would no longer accept foreign “occupation.” For all his bluster, he was still back at the table in Brussels on May 2nd, and they made progress on working to identify the remains of people who went missing during the wars. All must have known a confrontation was inevitable. And then, as protests raged in Serbia, Kurti decided to attempt to seat the mayors.
Serbs As a Threatened Minority
On May 25th the new Albanian mayors were sworn into office to attempt the tough job of ruling a Serb minority which does not respect their legitimacy. However, when those new mayors tried to enter the buildings the towns put on their defense sirens and the public gathered to block entry to the buildings. Kosovo police helped the mayors force entry to the buildings, leading to violent clashes with protestors where the police used teargas and cars were set on fire. Five Kosovo police officers were reported injured by rocks and other objects, while local hospitals reported 10 people sought treatment for injuries. Vucic said he would respond to any violence against Serbs, but it is known that the Serbian government cannot afford a confrontation with NATO.
The clashes caused KFOR to send its troops to the north to try to pacify the situation. As I have explained before, such peacekeepers function as something like “reverse hostages” where they are there because if one gets killed it can be used to justify a brutal Western response. In one city, Zvecan, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that KFOR ordered Serbs to leave, saying, “You are causing unrest. You are putting yourself and your community at risk. Leave the area and go home -- otherwise KFOR will be forced to intervene” over loudspeakers. Lily Lynch reports that they also tried to get Serb List politician Goran Rakic to have the protestors to leave, but when he spoke the protestors booed him and called him a traitor. The Serbs instead sat down, refusing to go home. Al Jazeera reports that in Mitrovica a Serb politician denied NATO requests to try and calm the crowd, saying it would lead to further escalation. In some cities, NATO forces surrounded buildings with barbed wire in an attempt to secure them from besieging Serbs. Such events played out in the four cities with varying degrees of severity.
Many KFOR soldiers were injured, though fortunately none of them were killed. The number of KFOR injuries, mostly from rocks and clubs, but also from Molotov cocktails and guns, was reported as 30 by official NATO sources. The injured soldiers were primarily Italians and Hungarians. Vucic stated that 52 Serbs were injured in the clashes, 3 of them badly. This is the worst violence between Serbs and KFOR in several years. Lynch reports that Kosovo police used live bullets, writing, “the cousin of a friend…was shot by a member of the Kosovo police with real bullets – in the hip, in the stomach, and in the arm; as I write this now, he is in stable condition.”
NATO announced that it would be adding 700 troops to KFOR’s existing deployment of 3,800. Despite obviously knowing what is wrong with having mayors elected by under 4% of the population, Kurti stated that they, “are the only ones who have the legitimacy to be at the municipal buildings and to the citizens’ service.” He further said, “In Kosovo, power is won through elections, not with violence and crime” which is a real laugh when you know that Kosovo is basically ran by the mafia and attained its independence through brutal NATO airpower. As of publishing time, Kurti continues to insist that these Albanians must be mayors and must work from the municipal buildings.
The End of Impunity
Violence and instability in the Balkans, generally related to ethnic hatred, is nothing new. What is surprising has been the response: the US and EU immediately condemned Kosovo for its use of violence, publicly and unequivocally. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that Kurti needed to stop the violent measures.
The United States holding Kosovo accountable in this fashion is unprecedented. U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey Hovenier said,
“The decision of Kosovar authorities to forcibly install Albanian mayors in Zvecan and two other Kosovar Serb-majority towns, Leposaviq and Zubin Potok, had had a negative impact on Kosovo's reputation and reversed efforts to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.”
The United States went beyond words: they suspended all efforts to get Kosovo into international organizations, which is substantial as the United States has always been the sponsor of Kosovo statehood. The large ongoing NATO training activity, “Defender Europe 2023,” hosted by Kosovo, was cancelled. Meanwhile, EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell condemned both sides, but his orders were primarily directed at the government of Kosovo, saying, “I expect Kosovo authorities to suspend police operations focusing on the municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo, and the violent protesters to stand down.” He went on to tweet demands that Kosovo hold new elections that ensure the participation of Kosovar Serbs and to implement the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.
Though I was surprised by the Western response, I did also suspect this change was coming for a few different reasons. For one thing, to the United States the Balkans have long been a way to prove various points about international law, and their needs in that regard has changed. This is demonstrated by the ongoing war crimes trial of long-time Kosovo leader Hashim Thaci, which though set up to appear an internal matter, is clearly meant to make a false point that the United States believes in equal accountability. Further, Kosovo was long a sort of fiefdom of Hillary Clinton [and also has the strange, famous statue of her husband on a street bearing his name] and she is now out of influence. More than anything though, victimizing Serbia to show Russia’s impotence doesn’t work in the time of the Ukraine War, and thus the Kosovo project is not producing the returns it once was. Still, even when you are expecting something, it’s a surprise that it should happen all at once.
For now, Kurti is defiant, which is a questionable decision from a man who should know “which side his bread is buttered on.” While it seems unlikely NATO would ever let Serbia attempt to reconquer Kosovo, it is not good for this particular ramshackle narco-state to be held to account by its patron. Further, with KFOR being larger than Kosovo’s entire military, including reserves, if he becomes too problematic it would be no problem to remove him, though Kosovo is supposed to be a model of a young democracy. It appears that the US and EU even think it was reasonable for Serbs to boycott the election due to Kosovo’s refusal to allow the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities that they promoted as a step towards lasting peace.
Unless Kurti has a plan that is not apparent to outsiders, it seems he has grown blind to reality from special treatment and fails to perceive how different things will be if Pristina and Belgrade are treated at all equally by the West- which may be the new policy.
Conclusion: The Flashpoint Nobody Wanted
Supporters of Western policy have been long trained to blame the Serbs for problems in the Balkans. It is true that they were the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia and the ones trying to hold it together so they had a leading role in in the Yugoslav Wars, but there were atrocities on all sides. More importantly, as any adult should at least know in theory, there are not good and bad ethnic groups, though conflict and circumstance can certainly drive the majority of an ethnic group to atrocious behavior. And of course, in the Balkans all of the ethnic groups famously hate each other. But in this instance, the Serbs in Kosovo are a small minority threatened by the ethnic Albanian majority government. This is harder for people to understand than it should be, but the Yugoslav Wars took place when 24-hour news was new and propaganda had ramped up incredibly.
For many years, conflict between Serbia and Kosovo was useful for the Anglo-American Empire. The Balkans are seen as a microcosm of the world at large, and as such make a sort of perverse showcase for policy, in this case the “rules-based world order,” which in reality is just the US as the global guarantor of war and peace. By midwifing the birth of Kosovo, the United States and the European Union were able to show that they held control over statehood itself. They were allowed to pretend they had made a new liberal democracy whole cloth, and that it was a beautiful place. This is to say nothing of any corrupt profits that may have been found in the process. Further, the bombing of the former Yugoslavia was drilled into the heads of liberal internationalists as the ultimate example of the United States as a global force for good. To this day, the mere mention of it unites Boomer liberals and neoconservatives in nostalgia for the early days of unipolarity when our country had what they would consider a clear moral purpose that went largely unopposed. However, those days are long past. The Western leadership class now wants the Kosovo statehood project completed and called a success, something which can only happen with the peace deal they worked so hard for implemented. It seems to me that Vucic understands the nature of the situation while Kurti does not. It remains to be seen if Vucic will be destroyed by his complacency or if Kurti will be destroyed by his recalcitrance, but I suspect this will end with a great disparity in the fortunes of the men- and of their countries.
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