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Serbian soldiers. Photo: Public Domain

Miloš Jakovljević explains that the changing context of war in Ukraine has drastically increased the stakes in every nationalist crapshoot in the Balkans, including Kosovo

On 29 June, the Kosovo government decided to stop recognising official documents issued by Serbia, including licence plates still in use since the nineties in the Serb majority municipalities in the north. This led to a spike in tensions which has since subsided, but not before interventions from several Western actors, notably the American ambassador in Kosovo, and the subsequent decision by the authorities to postpone enforcing these measures.

Citizens keep noticing the prices going up despite Kosovo tensions.’ On Tuesday, August 2, this was the trending headline on Serbia's favourite satirical news website. Despite its editors often lamenting that the absurdities of Serbian politics threaten to make their work redundant, Njuz.net's mixture of independence and comedy makes it a platform from which such a message can strongly resonate. Indeed, over the last half-decade, events and scandals with a potential to destabilise the regime have been coinciding with flair-ups of nationalist tensions involving Serbia's neighbours so regularly that even the manoeuvres around the sacrosanct Kosovo problem are now largely regarded as a smokescreen that the government routinely uses to divert attention from social issues.

The role of frozen conflicts

No matter how used we might have become to these kinds of theatrics, I feel I must supplement this view with an anecdote that hints at a changing context. As I was sipping coffee with my mother soon after the tensions subsided and the (pro)government media celebrated its ‘victory’, she started, with a note of slight wonder:

“Did I tell you that a Ukrainian ex-colleague wrote me a message a couple of days ago, saying something along the lines of ‘You and your family are in our thoughts and prayers tonight’? To which I replied, ‘Thank you very much, but why?’ – ‘Well, the Kosovo situation. We do hope it will not turn into open conflict again.’”

One might be tempted to dismiss the Ukrainian colleague’s comment as simply a product of the trauma of war, especially if one lives in the Balkans with its myriad unsolved national questions, and the central role frozen conflicts play for the elites in all of its countries. After all, 4 August gave a new opportunity for putting on a show, this time playing up the enmity between Croatia and Serbia. This was the date of Operation Storm in 1995, when Croatia was effectively ethnically cleansed through the exodus of 150,000-200,000 Serbs. The Croatian establishment celebrates it as a bank holiday. Their Serbian counterparts use it as an excuse to show their nationalist indignation. However, the promptness with which the latest Kosovo crisis was resolved, and the attitude that several international actors demonstrated towards it, somewhat deviate from the standard screenplay.

First of all, it is important to note that this is the third crisis around the exact same issue since 2019. In every situation, the outcome was a return to the status quo: Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo plates or documents on its territory, neither officially, nor in practice, Kosovo is unable to enforce reciprocal measures, especially in the Serb majority north, which maintains strong ties to Belgrade. Secondly, the Kurti government of Kosovo finds itself in a tight spot for multiple reasons. Kurti, whose first six-month premiership was cut short by a parliamentary coup backed by the US, came to power on a ticket of relatively ambitious social reform. Since he returned to office in March 2021, his position has been even more precarious, and buckled under the pressure of the predominant political logic in the Balkans. Without any mass movement from below to provide pressure towards a social programme, he focused on the issue of relations with Serbia, taking a somewhat harder line than his ex-KLA predecessors.

This stance was, of course, to a significant degree more to the liking of the US establishment. Indeed, even though the Biden administration officially keeps talking up the good relations it maintains with its protectorate in Kosovo, Richard Grenell, Trump’s Special Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations from 2019 to 2021, described Kurti as a ‘far left radical and experienced fascist’ on 31 July, at the height of tensions around the issue. This statement was lapped up and widely disseminated by the nationalist media in Serbia, a section of whom are still implicitly clinging to their illusions that Trump was more pro-Serbian on this issue.

Balancing between imperialisms

And what of the Serbian side? Ironically enough, it also came under criticism from a supposed ally. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, publicly denounced Belgrade’s policy of ‘sitting on three chairs’, saying that ‘Serbia will have to choose’. Serbia’s unique position of neutrality vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine, a neutrality of the ‘both Washington and Moscow’ variety rather than a ‘neither, nor’ flavour, has placed it in a relatively favourable position. Furthermore, while Belgrade has denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly, it refuses to impose any sanctions on Moscow. The West, it seems, has opted for the carrot and not the stick, and the swift resolution of the Kosovo situation in favour of the status quo can be seen as another attempt at wooing the Serbian president, Vučić.

Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo are the last countries in the Balkans outside of Nato. Ever since the start of the war in Ukraine, voices in Priština (Kosovo) and Sarajevo (Bosnia) have been calling for accession to the alliance. Similar developments in Montenegro and Macedonia in the last half-decade led to a worsening of ethnic relations and gave a boost to the most reactionary nationalist forces in the region. While masses of ordinary people are more concerned with the worsening of social conditions, and have shown their preparedness to rise up around issues which directly affect their quality of life, the risk becomes even greater that one nationalist regime or another will be forced into channelling class fury into nationalist strife to ensure its own survival.

The war in Ukraine is an open flame, and the Balkan powder keg is dangerously close to the sparks flying off of it. So long as no alternative is presented to the logic of a pathetic competition between nationalist client states for the favour of this imperialism or the other, a conflagration remains an alarming possibility.

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