Violence in northern Kosovo: The United States’ failed bet on Serbia

Western sponsors of the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade are wrong to believe Serbia will work to make a success of diplomacy

A U.S. Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldier, under NATO, stands guard near a municipal office in Leposavic, Kosovo May 31, 2023.
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | Fatos Bytyci
©

Renewed violence in Kosovo has jolted international attention back to the profound challenges facing Kosovo and the Western Balkans. The European Union and the United States have each responded by focusing criticism on decisions taken by the Kosovo authorities. But the EU, and especially the US, are neglecting to consider their own influence over the longer-term failure of international efforts to improve Kosovo-Serbia relations. Fundamentally, the two powers are mistaken in treating Serbia as a good-faith actor in the decade-long dialogue process between Pristina and Belgrade. Kosovo has committed its own errors as part of the process – but Western indulgence of Serbia’s essentially anti-Western foreign policy orientation helped pave the way to the recent violence.

Last Friday, newly elected mayors for the four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo tried to enter municipal buildings to take up their posts, amid protests by the local Serb community. The Kosovo government had backed the mayors in this move. When crowds gathered, the Kosovo police deployed tear gas and local Serbs attacked NATO soldiers who had stepped in to keep the peace. Kosovo Serb voters had boycotted the polls, causing turnout to plunge below 4 per cent and leading to the election of three Kosovar Albanians and a member of the Bosniak community.

The US had led pressure for the mayors to stay away, and the US secretary of state and the EU and Quint ambassadors scolded Kosovo for escalating tensions with Serbia. The US also removed Kosovo from the Defender 23 military exercise currently taking place and suspended its support for the country’s recognition efforts. For its part, Serbia placed its army on full alert and moved military units closer to the border with Kosovo.

Since 2011, the EU has acted as the facilitator of a dialogue process (as mandated by the United Nations) between Kosovo and Serbia to address outstanding issues between the two countries. The US has always been closely involved, and indeed, in the last two years, American involvement has intensified noticeably: Washington appointed a seasoned senior diplomat as the US ambassador to Serbia, while deputy assistant secretary Gabriel Escobar has made frequent visits to the region alongside the EU’s special representative, Miroslav Lajcak.

Core to the US approach is a major effort to nurture ties with Serbia and draw the country out of Russia’s orbit. Under the Biden administration, the US has held numerous high-level meetings with Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, and other high-ranking Serbian officials. Secretary of state Antony Blinken himself has led such meetings for the US. The chair of the US joint chiefs of staff recently met his Serbian counterpart and spoke highly of the meeting afterwards. In contrast, hardly any equivalent such meetings have taken place between US and Kosovo officials. At this year’s Munich security conference, Blinken sat down with Vucic – but not with Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti. 

Progress through the dialogue has been glacial, and the US approach has allowed Serbia to almost completely absolve itself of its responsibilities

The dialogue itself has borne some fruit, such as a recent joint declaration on missing persons. But overall, progress through the dialogue has been glacial, and the US approach has allowed Serbia to almost completely absolve itself of its responsibilities as a member of the process. For example, Serbia is supposed to respect agreements made as part of the dialogue, such as ceasing to oppose attempts by Kosovo to join international organisations. Yet Serbia’s vote in April against membership for Kosovo in the Council of Europe was met with silence from Western sponsors of the dialogue process. In contrast, the US demands that Kosovo fulfil its obligations agreed during the dialogue, mainly the creation of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities as signed in 2013.

The United States’ approach to Serbia also does not appear to have altered wider Serbian calculations. Within Serbia, political leaders stoke hostility towards any resolution with Kosovo through the dialogue, undermining the entire enterprise. The Serbian public are distrustful of the US and regard Washington as the leader of the 1999 NATO strikes on their country. And the boycott of the municipal elections took place with the full support of Vucic, who also backed the pullout of Serbs from Kosovo institutions in November 2022. This is the context in which tennis superstar Novak Djokovic scribbled “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia” on a camera lens at the French Open.

The US correctly identifies the anchoring of both Serbia and Kosovo in Euro-Atlantic institutions as the key to peace and prosperity in the Western Balkans. But looking back over the last year, the US has little to show for its efforts. If anything, it has created space in which Vucic feels he can escalate crises in whatever manner he deems necessary to remain in control at home. (The president has recently been under pressure following public anger at two mass shootings in Serbia.)

The most recent events did not arise as a result only of misjudgments by Kosovo; its position deserves at least a hearing. Under international pressure led by the US, Kosovo had already postponed the municipal elections from December to April, and the constitution of Kosovo mandated the polls. (One can equally imagine criticism emanating from Belgrade had Pristina effectively permanently postponed elections in Serb-majority areas.) Kosovo’s prime minister and president have each pointed to the right and indeed obligation to ensure the protection of Kosovo’s sovereignty and complete territorial integrity. Kurti has said he will not trade democracy for a “fascist militia” – in language that will not be unfamiliar to US decision-makers still grappling with the after-effects of the January 6 riots.

The dialogue process between Kosovo and Serbia is set to fail unless and until key Western capitals recognise they have backed the wrong horse. The EU and the US can recalibrate by starting to treat each party more equally. At the very least, they must identify steps that will persuade Serbia to cease behaving destructively towards Kosovo and stop inciting Kosovo Serbs to disregard Kosovo authorities and institutions. Otherwise, scenes such as those witnessed in May will only continue and potentially spread, to the harm of all.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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