The spat over car number plates has deeper geopolitical significance, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Serbia’s decision in the last few days to put its army and police on high alert once again has led to much speculation about the latest round of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. This has happened several times in recent years, and makes for good headlines. The Western media has tended to blame Serbia for the situation, explaining that the rise in tensions relates to the refusal of Kosovo’s Serbs – encouraged by the Serbian government in Belgrade – to implement a variety of measures passed by the Kosovo authorities.

The most recent example that has led to major tensions is the authorities in Priština’s demand that Serbs resident in Kosovo stop using car license plates issued by Serbia, which local Serbs have refused to do. This is leading to major stand-offs, including the erection of barricades by Serbs, shots fired, and significant political fall-out. The issue of license plates on the surface seems minor, but it is an expression of deeper problems.

From Brussels to Ukraine

To understand what is going on, we need to go back to 2013. It was in that year that relations between Serbia and Kosovo appeared to have reached a breakthrough: an-EU sponsored agreement was signed between the two sides in Brussels (the Brussels Agreement) envisaging the normalisation of relations.

Normalisation has since been elusive, however. Despite agreeing to a series of measures to ease tensions, the two sides failed to implement the agreement. The Association of Serb Municipalities, which would have granted Serbs a degree of autonomy in Kosovo, has remained a major bone of contention. The formation of the ASM was agreed upon yet again by both sides in 2015, but yet again not implemented.

For Priština, the fear was that Serbia would use the ASM to undermine Kosovo’s independence, declared by Kosovo in 2008, and never recognised by Belgrade, or by a number of other countries. For Belgrade, the lack of establishment of the ASM is proof of the bad faith of Priština’s rulers and an excuse not to implement their side of the deal. Relations between Belgrade and Priština have remained volatile ever since.

But the Ukraine War has had a major effect on the Balkans, has strengthened Priština’s hand, and plays a major part in the timing of the latest round of crisis.

Following the outbreak of the war, Kosovo has taken a strongly pro-Western stance in the conflict, drawing parallels between Russia’s war on Ukraine and Serbia’s repression of Kosovo. By contrast, Serbia has taken an ambivalent stance, condemning Russia’s invasion, and reportedly refusing to station a Russian military base in Serbia, but not implementing EU sanctions on Russia.

Balkans between NATO and Russia

The reasons for the contrasting stances are easily explained. Kosovo’s Albanian majority was long repressed by Serbia in the 20th century but its campaign for separation from Serbia was achieved only when NATO militarily intervened against Serbia in 1999 and set up a NATO protectorate over Kosovo. Priština’s rulers have since been beholden to Washington.

But NATO was never primarily interested in the Kosovo Albanians. Its aerial war on Serbia was part and parcel of NATO’s enlargement, which started in the late 1990s. It was fundamentally about legitimising NATO’s existence following the end of the Cold War: humanitarian intervention was a convenient excuse for not dissolving, and indeed extending, the most powerful military pact in history. Furthermore, eastward enlargement was about encircling Russia while it was still weak. Securing the Balkans in particular related to geopolitical competition with Russia surrounding the routes and security of oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea.

Military intervention in the Balkans provided a useful base for NATO: literally. Kosovo became the home to Bondsteel, the largest US military base built by the US in Europe since the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly, Russia opposed the bombing and its security establishment supported a change to a more hawkish approach to the West, which is part of the reason for Putin’s rise to power months after the end of the bombing of Serbia.

Unsurprisingly, too, public opinion in Serbia has tended to be hostile to NATO following the 1999 bombing, which saw the alliance hit not just military targets, but also bridges, power plants, TV broadcasters and other civilian infrastructure. In recent times, Belgrade has sought to balance between West and East. Belgrade pursues EU, but not NATO, accession, and it has also relied on Russia to maintain a hold on Kosovo through Moscow’s veto in the UN Security Council. Belgrade has thus tended to be the thorn in NATO’s side in the Balkans, and thus beholden to Russia to retain a degree of room for manoeuvre.

The Proxy War in Ukraine comes to the Balkans

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the West sensed a strategic opportunity to wage a proxy war on Russia, and bleed its weak rival. The last 10 months have witnessed a major revival of Washington’s hegemony in Europe, with Sweden and Finland announcing their intention to join NATO, the marshalling of major resources in the West to aid Ukraine, and a punishing economic war with Russia by way of sanctions.

In the Balkans, the West has duly taken a stronger pro-Kosovo stance in recent months. A leak in November confirmed that there was a new Franco-German plan, with US backing, that would supplement existing agreements to ease tensions, but one that would require Serbia’s effective recognition of the independence of Kosovo and greater alignment with EU foreign policy. The Franco-German plan was hailed by Kosovo’s PM Albin Kurti, while Belgrade has not officially responded, though it is clear that Serbia is not favourable.

Meanwhile, the EU has tried to sweeten the pill for Serbia since November. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has been more openly critical of Priština, saying that the EU has put concrete proposals to ease tensions, and that Serbia has agreed, but that Kosovo has not agreed, to implement these. More recently, Borrell has also called for Kosovo to respect the 2013/5 agreement to create the ASM, which Priština has continued to refuse.

Clearly, we have two different visions. For Belgrade, the solution is to go one step at a time, meaning implement the 2013/5 agreement on the ASM, but for Priština, it is to have nothing agreed until everything is agreed, meaning an ASM can only result from Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Both sides look to the imperialist powers as brokers, and neither side will trust the other to fulfil their side of the bargain. We therefore have a stand-off. Both Belgrade and Priština have resorted to fighting talk in terms of resolving the dispute: Kurti has publicly stated that Priština will ultimately use force to implement Kosovo law on the Serbs of Kosovo, esp in northern Kosovo, where they form a majority. Meanwhile, Serbia has called for Serbian troops to be allowed back to Kosovo to protect the Serb minority and placed its armed forces on high alert.

A Socialist Alternative for the Balkans

It is clear that inter-imperialist rivalry has fed nationalist competition and brought the Balkans back to talk of war. Is there an alternative, and what should socialists in the region say in the current concrete set of circumstances? We must begin from the premise that there should be no resort to force, and that both sides should de-escalate before the situation deteriorates.

Socialists in Kosovo should say: Priština should not resort to force on its Serb minority – that is not the way to treat minorities, it  invites Belgrade’s intervention, strengthens Western presence in Kosovo, and gives Russia a hand in Serbia. Socialists in Serbia should say: Serbia should not be threatening incursion on its weaker  neighbour, which it oppressed for the best part of the 20th century – that is not the way to build good neighbourly relations, strengthens Russia’s hand in Serbia, and cements NATO presence in Kosovo.

The trouble with leaving it there is that it does not really deal with how to solve the underlying problem: what is the way forward? The answer is not easy because, in the Balkans, the demand for national self-determination has always been complicated, partly because of overlapping national demands that remain as a legacy of the multinational empires that ruled the region until the early 20th century, and partly because of the danger that imperialist forces would manipulate these demands for their own ends, as they have done and continue to do today.

Socialists have to find a way forward which can maintain the independence of their country’s labour movement from their own ruling class and state, while simultaneously pushing for imperialist forces to leave the Balkans. They have to be simultaneously anti-nationalist and anti-imperialist, while looking for ways to raise the issues of democracy and international class unity to the fore. Historically, socialists in the region have been careful about supporting the exercise of the right to self-determination and have emphasised a Balkan federation as the ultimate solution to the national question.

This means concretely that socialists in Kosovo and Serbia should go beyond calling for de-escalation by making demands that can create an atmosphere of mutual trust. These in turn are necessarily tied to the wider geopolitics of the national question. The anti-nationalist component of any solution makes it logical to demand that there is mutual recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, and of the ASM by Kosovo. Simultaneously, the anti-imperialist component of any solution requires that any such mutual recognition by each side is coupled with an agreement that both will commit to neutrality between East and West. That means the departure of Western forces from Kosovo, the closure of Russia’s ‘humanitarian centre’ in the Serbian city of Niš, and the end of NATO (and EU) accession.

We should understand, of course, that demands made by socialists in Serbia and Kosovo will not affect official politics – socialists in both countries are too small to affect high politics. Nevertheless, arguing for such a solution opens the space for discussion with wider forces in the labour movement in both countries, showing that there is a solution to the question that can go beyond what the ruling classes of either state wish, and that there are forces that can see the future of the Balkans being decided by the peoples of the Balkans rather than the Great Powers. This would be a small step to building a left pole in both countries and a contribution in the spirit of Balkan Federation.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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