The West has lost the plot in the Balkans

The recent escalation in Kosovo demonstrates the US and the EU have adopted a dangerous strategy of appeasing expansionist Belgrade.

NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers clash with local Kosovo Serb
NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers clash with local Kosovar Serb protesters at the entrance of the municipality office, in the town of Zvecan, Kosovo, May 29, 2023 [Laura Hasani/Reuters]

Images of pipe-wielding and stone-throwing Serb militant nationalists assaulting NATO peacekeepers in the northern Kosovo town of Zvecan in late May put the Balkan country in the international spotlight once again. The violence erupted in the Serb-majority north of the country after Kosovo police escorted to work mayors who had been recently elected in local polls which ethnic Serb residents had boycotted.

The news that Serbia had concurrently placed its military on high alert had many unfamiliar with Balkan affairs asking if another armed conflict was about to break out in Europe.

The answer is no, we are not on the verge of another Balkan war. But that does not mean the situation in Kosovo is not alarming.

Apart from the violence, what is raising concern in the region is the role that the United States and the European Union have played in abetting a dangerous new phase of Serb nationalist militancy in Kosovo and in the Western Balkans more broadly.

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, backed by the US, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy, also known as the Quint.

It came after almost a decade of international supervision under the UN Interim Administration which was set up at the end of the Kosovo War. During this interim period, Kosovo remained nominally part of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as an “autonomous province”, but Belgrade exercised no actual authority over any aspect of the territory’s governance, save for a limited presence in a handful of Serb-majority municipalities in the north.

Kosovo had also enjoyed a significant degree of self-rule during the socialist period, though its ethnic Albanian majority was a frequent target of repression. In 1989, as Slobodan Milosevic seized power in Belgrade, he imposed a new constitutional regime on Kosovo and turned the region into a veritable police state with ethnic Albanians stripped of virtually all civil liberties. This draconian rule eventually resulted in armed resistance by the Albanian community, and ultimately NATO’s military intervention.

Over the past 15 years, the US and the EU have sought to secure a normalisation deal between Pristina and Belgrade. Despite successive rounds of high-level talks, the two sides remain as far apart on a settlement as ever – as the clashes in Zvecan neatly illustrate.

But there is no question of equal culpability here. The problem remains almost entirely on the Serbian side.

The increasingly autocratic regime of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is categorical in its refusal to accept the sovereignty of Kosovo. At the last round of talks held in Ohrid, North Macedonia in March, Vucic refused to even sign the purported deal he had “agreed” to, telling Serbian citizens in a subsequent address that he did not want “to make an international legal agreement with the Republic of Kosovo”.

In Serbia’s regime-aligned media, the ethnic Albanian community, which comprises 92 percent of Kosovo’s population, are routinely referred to by ethnic slurs, while the government in Pristina is branded as the “temporary” local authorities. And in Kosovo’s Serb-majority north, Belgrade maintains a sort of clandestine occupation, administered through a network of local ultra-nationalists and gangsters, as The New York Times recently detailed.

But Serbia’s reactionary posture is not limited to Kosovo.

The Serbian leadership and large segments of the public who have been inundated by more than three decades of revisionist state propaganda, exist in a world of their own. Neither Belgrade nor a large part of the Serbian public accepts that the Milosevic regime – in whose last cabinet Vucic served as information minister – was the chief architect of the Yugoslav dissolution or of the subsequent decade of conflict that engulfed the region.

They falsely claim that Serbia did not wage wars of aggression against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo between 1991 and 1999. They also falsely maintain that Serbia did not orchestrate a systematic, genocidal campaign of extermination, terror, and expulsion against the non-Serb population of Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, which disproportionately affected the Bosniak community.

In fact, the genocidal violence directed against the Bosniaks by Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb proxies was so severe that approximately half of all casualties during the Yugoslav Wars and 82 percent of all civilian deaths during the Bosnian War were ethnic Bosniaks.

Post-war Bosnia has remained riven by dysfunction and strife because of the US-brokered Dayton Peace Accords and the extreme degree of autonomy given to ethnic chauvinist elements under the country’s new constitution. In the Republika Srpska entity, which Milosevic’s genocidal purge carved out as a Serb-majority region and which is loyal to Belgrade, the secessionist regime of Milorad Dodik undermines even the most modest reforms, while explicitly pushing for the breakup of Bosnia, with Russian and Serbian assistance.

In light of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one would think that there would have been severe political and diplomatic repercussions for Serbia and its proxies due to their close links with the Kremlin and their own expansionist machinations in the Western Balkans. But precisely the opposite has taken place.

For example, in the case of the clashes between Serb nationalists and NATO peacekeepers in Zvecan, the Quint condemned the country’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, for having sent the police to escort the newly elected mayors to their offices in the north.

The US also ejected Kosovo from the NATO-led Defender 23 military exercises and threatened local officials with sanctions. Washington’s ambassador to Pristina Jeffrey Hovenier also said his country will no longer assist Kosovo in seeking international recognition. By contrast, Serbia and Vucic suffered no consequences.

Republika Srpska’s Dodik has also faced no repercussions for meeting regularly with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whom US and European officials have repeatedly called a “war criminal”. The entity is still receiving funding from the EU for various development projects and although Dodik is under US and UK sanctions, he continues to openly lobby US officials in Washington.

The Bosnian Serb leader is also not the only anti-state actor in Bosnia to benefit from a curiously high degree of Western appeasement. Dragan Covic, the leader of the hardline Croat nationalist HDZ party who also enjoys the patronage of the Kremlin, seems to have his interests defended directly by the internationally appointed Office of the High Representative (OHR).

Last October, the OHR used its expansive executive powers to rewrite Bosnia’s election laws in his favour and then in April of this year amended the constitution of the Federation entity in order to install an HDZ-dominated government.

In Bosnia, as in Kosovo, the US and the EU seem uninterested in curbing Russian influence; instead, they have sought to accommodate Moscow-backed militant nationalists. Why? Because the West has concluded that it is not worth the time or effort to confront people like Vucic, Dodik, or Covic in a region as peripheral to its interests as the Western Balkans.

The US and the EU have instead opted for a kind of Kabuki policy, maintaining a performative posture of opposition to militant nationalists but expending political and diplomatic capital to help them achieve their aims in the fleeting hope that this will pacify them.

The result, of course, has only been a more emboldened form of nationalist extremism in the Balkans – most of it sponsored by the West.

Unfortunately, both the US and the EU appear wholly committed to this course, as evidenced by their surreal reactions to the violence in Zvecan. That will likely remain the case until domestic publics, including the Bosnian and Kosovar diasporas in the West, and their legislative allies, can effectively make the case for why Western double-dealing in the Balkans is dangerous to Europe’s stability and security.

Until then, however, Belgrade is likely to continue fomenting chaos, safe in the knowledge that Washington and Brussels will look the other way.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.