Serbia Is Playing With Matches Again

Brinkmanship over Kosovo, footsie with Moscow, and friction with Brussels are par for the course for Belgrade.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
A pedestrian walks past a partly vandalized mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia, on June 2.
A pedestrian walks past a partly vandalized mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia, on June 2.
A pedestrian walks past a partly vandalized mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia, on June 2. ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

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When tensions rose between the Balkan nations of Kosovo and Serbia on Sunday, fears of serious violence prompted a strong response from the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. 

“The NATO-led [Kosovo Force] mission is monitoring closely and is prepared to intervene if stability is jeopardized,” a hastily issued statement said. The root of the trouble is a dispute between the two countries over reciprocal measures announced by Kosovo regarding licence plates and identity cards, moves that Serbia and ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo regard as a provocation as they don’t recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty. It didn’t take long for Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to fire his standard rhetorical shots at Kosovo’s leaders. “We will pray for peace and seek peace, but there will be no surrender, and Serbia will win,” he said at a news conference.

The situation calmed early in the week after an intervention by the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Jeff Hovenier, who successfully lobbied for Pristina to postpone the measures for 30 days to iron out any misunderstandings. But the incident sparked alarm across Western capitals, which are sensitive to threats of regional violence after Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine in late February. (Serbia went to war with Kosovar separatists in 1998, a conflict that prompted the intervention of NATO and the eventual creation of the young state of Kosovo.)

When tensions rose between the Balkan nations of Kosovo and Serbia on Sunday, fears of serious violence prompted a strong response from the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. 

“The NATO-led [Kosovo Force] mission is monitoring closely and is prepared to intervene if stability is jeopardized,” a hastily issued statement said. The root of the trouble is a dispute between the two countries over reciprocal measures announced by Kosovo regarding licence plates and identity cards, moves that Serbia and ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo regard as a provocation as they don’t recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty. It didn’t take long for Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to fire his standard rhetorical shots at Kosovo’s leaders. “We will pray for peace and seek peace, but there will be no surrender, and Serbia will win,” he said at a news conference.

The situation calmed early in the week after an intervention by the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Jeff Hovenier, who successfully lobbied for Pristina to postpone the measures for 30 days to iron out any misunderstandings. But the incident sparked alarm across Western capitals, which are sensitive to threats of regional violence after Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine in late February. (Serbia went to war with Kosovar separatists in 1998, a conflict that prompted the intervention of NATO and the eventual creation of the young state of Kosovo.)

The tough talk from Vucic also drew renewed attention to Serbia’s curious position on Russia’s war. In his address on Sunday, the Serbian leader accused Kosovo of using Ukraine’s plight to satisfy its own interests, comparing himself to a knockoff version of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kosovo’s leader to a smaller version of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky. 

“Big Putin ordered little Putin, so the new Zelensky in the form of Albin Kurti [Kosovo’s prime minister] will save someone and fight against the great Serbian hegemony,” Vucic said. 

Since Putin’s invasion began, Vucic has treaded a fine line between supporting Western condemnation of Moscow’s military aggression in Ukraine and ensuring Serbian relations with the Kremlin do not take an irrevocable hit. Serbia and Belarus are the only two European countries not to impose sanctions on Russia (though Hungary has done its best to kneecap any European Union response to the conflict). In addition, Belgrade has doubled the number of direct flights to Russia despite the EU’s ban on Russian aircraft. To the ire of Western leaders, Vucic signed up for three more years of Russian gas in May, an agreement that was done over the phone with Putin directly. On the other hand, Belgrade has stressed that Serbia supports Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Vucic, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, argues that he is the leader of a small country and has to meet the needs of the Serbian people, including continuing to rely on Russia for much-needed supplies of energy. “We need to survive, and we need to act rationally,” he has said. But part of Serbia’s response is also rooted in history. Before World War I, Serbia was so much in Moscow’s orbit that it became the direct cause of war between the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires. During the Cold War, Serbia-dominated Yugoslavia played an outsized geopolitical role—one that vanished along with Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. But the memories didn’t.

“Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was the biggest part, was playing above its weight during the Cold War,” said Ivan Vejvoda of the Vienna-based IWM, an institute for advanced studies. “In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Yugoslav government co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement, a third voice between West and East. Then fast-forward to the breakdown of Yugoslavia—some countries still thought that they were somewhat powerful,” he added. “In a sense, Serbia has missing limb syndrome when it comes to being able to balance East and West.”

Serbia says it is still angling for EU membership, where it has been waiting in line with candidate status since 2009. But Belgrade looks west, south, and east and sees pitfalls everywhere. The EU wants Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s statehood, a no-go in Belgrade. When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Serbia in June, Vucic derided him for comments on Serbia recognizing Kosovo. “We do not respond to pressure,” the Serbian president said in a heated exchange.

Russia should be its guarantor, but even there Belgrade finds cause for concern, especially Russia’s veto on Kosovo’s independence at the U.N. Security Council. The Kosovo issue has put Serbs in a tailspin since the first Russian bomb torched Ukrainian soil this spring. In a meeting with the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in April, Putin compared Russia’s claim to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula (which it illegally annexed in 2014) to Kosovars’ moves for independence. “The only difference between the two cases was that in Kosovo this decision on sovereignty was adopted by parliament, whereas Crimea and Sevastopol made it at a [regional] referendum,” Putin said. Although the Russian ambassador to Serbia later walked back the statement, saying Moscow’s position on Kosovo had not changed, the incident rattled Serbia’s state-controlled media, which called Putin’s comments a stab in the back. Now, Russia seems to be back on board. On Sunday, Moscow took a hard line on the regional tensions, calling for Pristina “to stop provocation and observe the Serbs’ rights in Kosovo.”

The current leaders of Russia and Serbia share not just historical affinity but a vision of statehood that promotes strong nationalistic tendencies, said Aleksandra Tomanic, the executive director of the European Fund for the Balkans.

“It’s much more than Serbia being the prolonged hand of Russia. What we actually have here is Serbia and Russia having the same worldview,” she said. “For the current government, Serbia joining the EU is something like a forced marriage, and calls to introduce sanctions against Russia and mutual recognition with Kosovo have not been well received.” 

All the while China lurks in the background. Serbia has been the largest recipient of Chinese investment in the Western Balkans, with approximately 61 projects active in the country. The “steel friendship” between the two countries is expected to yield a free trade agreement before the end of this year, a move that would make Serbia the third European nation to secure such a deal with China, alongside Switzerland and Iceland.

With Belgrade coming under pressure from the EU to fall into line behind sanctions and from Russia to keep the door open, Beijing is becoming even more important. “For the last few years, China has become for Serbia the dominant partner outside the Western world. It really has replaced Russia as the No. 1 partner in the east,” said Vuk Vuksanovic of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. “Serbia doesn’t want to put its eggs in a single basket, so all of this is about tactical maneuvering, and China has been a part of this equation, especially as it doesn’t recognize Kosovo.”

Sunday’s alarm was a reminder to Brussels that Serbian recognition of Kosovo remains a distant prospect and that Russia’s black hand in the region hasn’t vanished. It also underscores the ripple effects of Russia’s aggression as it splits recalcitrant EU states and those that would join their ranks from the Brussels consensus. 

But as Vucic tries to walk a diplomatic tightrope, it also serves as a reminder that sometimes, no matter how big the balancing pole, falls happen.

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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