A couple of months after the start of the Russian military campaign in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin tried to justify his actions by pointing to the example of the Western Balkans. During a meeting with UN Secretary General António Guterres, Putin raised the topic of NATO intervention in the affairs of the former Yugoslavia in 1999, in particular, he recalled the bombing, during which the alliance’s planes attacked targets in the territories of Serbia and Montenegro in an attempt to stop the offensive Serbian government on the Kosovo Albanians who fought for autonomy. The short war and the peacekeeping operation that followed it ultimately led to the emergence of an independent state of Kosovo.
Putin noted that the actions of the Western alliance in 1999 are no different from what Russian forces are doing now, trying to secure the independence of two pro-Kremlin separatist entities in eastern Ukraine. “Kosovo is recognized by many states as an independent state,” Putin said, addressing Guterres. “We did the same with respect to the republics of Donbass.”
There are plenty of reasons to dismiss this analogy, not least because Russia still hasn’t recognized Kosovo’s independence and continues to strongly condemn NATO’s war against Serbia. <…>
Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani sees a completely different parallel in what is happening. Thanks to NATO support, Kosovo’s fighters were able to defeat the regime of then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and that victory was part of a larger struggle for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles. “23 years ago, these are the values that were at stake in Kosovo and beyond,” Osmani told me during a conversation Thursday in Washington. “23 years later, the situation is repeating itself, and these same values are at stake in Ukraine.”
From Osmani’s point of view, the military campaign in Ukraine is a reflection of the “unhealthy, imperial tendencies” of the Russian president.
Osmani traveled to Washington last week with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti. They met with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and signed a landmark investment deal with the US state-owned Millennium Challenge Corporation, which agreed to provide $237 million to develop the country’s energy infrastructure.
During our conversation with her, Osmani also warned of broader risks that threaten her region, where Russia has historically played a major role.
“Putin’s goal is to expand the boundaries of this conflict to other regions of the world,” she said. “Because he has worked hard to destabilize Europe for a long time, we can expect that one of his targets may be the Western Balkans.”
Tensions flared up again this weekend between Kosovo and Serbia. Ethnic Serbs from Kosovo’s northern municipalities blocked roads and clashed with police in response to the local authorities’ decision to oblige owners of cars entering from Serbian territory to change license plates to Kosovo. Driving from Kosovo into Serbia, drivers will have to change their license plates again.
This bureaucratic dispute exposes a much deeper tension that has been slowly brewing for a long time. High-ranking officials waged a war of words. Kurti accused Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić of fueling the violence. Vučić said the two countries “have never found themselves in a more difficult situation than they are today” but still promised that the Serbs would definitely win. The small NATO mission in Kosovo was even forced to issue a statement that it was “ready to intervene if stability is threatened.”
Equally worrisome is the situation in Bosnia, where the complex political structure to keep the ethnic Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs living there together is looking increasingly shaky. Analysts say Milorad Dodik, leader of the semi-autonomous Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is seeking more apparent autonomy, which in turn could spark unrest in the region. And his efforts find immediate support both in Belgrade and in Moscow.
After all, historically Serbia is a Russian ally and, as Osmani puts it, “fertile ground” for Putin’s influence operations. While most European leaders have cracked down on the Kremlin, Vučić did not. He refused to join the EU sanctions regime against Russia. Earlier in the summer, he signed a highly lucrative gas deal with Moscow, even though every other country on the continent is now seeking to cut Russian energy exports entirely. The policies of the nationalist Vučić regime led to the undermining of Serbian democracy and increased concerns about freedom of the press. In the meantime, Vučić allowed the Russian propaganda channels, which play an important role in increasing the polarization in the region, to continue their work in Serbia.
Analysts point to a more general problem. “In place of the dream of joining a peaceful, prosperous Europe, there has been a growing sense of stagnation that turns country-specific historical grievances and unresolved issues into permanent campaign elements and potential conflict triggers,” says a new report from the International Crisis Group. Leaders are fanning the flames with provocative rhetoric to divert attention from the weak economy, low living standards, corruption and nepotism.”
Osmani sees in Vučić’s actions the behavior of an autocrat who should not be appeased. In addition to Serbian territorial claims in Kosovo, she also points to the role Belgrade played in increasing instability in Bosnia, as well as an alleged attempt to provoke a coup in Montenegro in 2016 to prevent that country from joining NATO. (The attempt failed, and some of the instigators ended up in prison.) Vučić’s movement is fueled by his old dreams of a “greater Serbia.”
On Sunday, a member of the ruling party in the Serbian parliament tweeted that Serbia “may be forced to start the process of denazification of the Balkans.” Vučić “sees in our countries only temporary states, trying to deny us the right to exist,” Osmani said. “That’s how Putin looks at Ukraine, Moldova and other countries. It’s the same strategy,” she added.
Unlike Russia, Serbia is a candidate for EU membership. It occupies a more complex position within Europe. However, the new geopolitical conditions resulting from the Russian military campaign in Ukraine have driven Vučić into a corner.
“They have chosen their path,” Osmani explained. “At the moment, the path of Putin and the path of the European Union are two different roads, they have never been so far from each other before, and it will not work to go both of them at once.”
“If you have a neighbor who chooses the wrong side of history at such a difficult time for Europe, it hurts all of us.”
Meanwhile, Kosovo has firmly decided in which direction it wants to move, but it has a difficult road ahead of it. The UN has not yet recognized it as an independent state. Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council remains a serious obstacle. In addition, a significant part of the world community, including five members of the European Union, has not yet recognized Kosovo as an independent sovereign country.
Osmani believes that in the current environment, everything can change, and the conflict in Ukraine can spur Kosovo’s “Euro-Atlantic integration.” She referred to the fact that recently Finland and Sweden have applied for membership in NATO.
“As we all know, to be safe, you have to be in NATO,” Osmani said, urging alliance members to “accelerate the process of accepting Kosovo and Bosnia” into the alliance.
Earlier this year, the European Union also accelerated the process of granting Ukraine bloc candidate status, a sign of European admiration for Ukraine’s struggles. Some critics in the Western Balkans fear the decision will further delay consideration of their own countries’ bids to join the bloc.
But Osmani disagrees. “We have felt and heard for too long about the fatigue of enlargement within the European Union,” she said. “The openness that the European Union has shown to Ukraine has changed the situation in the sense that it now views its enlargement as a geostrategic rather than a bureaucratic process.”
And what should be this strategic vision?
“A whole, free and peaceful Europe is impossible without the Western Balkans,” Osmani replied.