Serbia’s loyalty to Putin threatens renewed conflict in the heart of Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic (L) attend a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, 25 November 2021. [Kremlin pool/EPA/EFE]

The Balkans’ “Little Russia” cannot be appeased anymore, as Putin plans to destabilise the region through Russia’s historic ally, Serbia, writes Faton Tony Bislimi, PhD.

Dr Faton Tony Bislimi, PhD, is a former Member of Parliament of the Republic of Kosovo and an Executive Board Member of the Albanian American Civic League.

In his recent speeches before the attack on Ukraine, President Putin has drawn parallels between the situation in the Donbas region of Ukraine and Kosovo. He believes that the two cases are somehow comparable and uses such comparison to legitimise his aggression against Ukraine.

As someone who was born and raised in Kosovo and suffered under the brutal regime of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic during my childhood in the 1990s, I know first-hand that what was happening in Kosovo was not anything like what is happening now in Donbas.

Indeed, in 1989 Serbia had militarily taken over Kosovo, a constituent part of former Yugoslavia, against the will of the ninety per cent ethnic Albanian population. For a decade, the Serbian regime had terrorised the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo to make them leave.

Serbia’s end goal was a Kosovo rid of Albanians. Hence, in the Kosovo War of 1998-99, Serbia spared nothing to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of Albanians – by scorching villages and towns, forcibly deporting over one million, and killings tens of thousands. Seeing another bloodbath in the heart of Europe, and after all diplomatic efforts failed, NATO had to intervene in Kosovo to save a people and to prevent Serbian genocide there.

\While many still argue about whether NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was the right thing to do, the UN Independent International Commission on Kosovo ruled that the intervention might not have been legal because it lacked prior UN Security Council approval, but it was just.

A just intervention is neither aggression nor invasion. And, that just intervention helped stop Serbia’s genocidal march across Kosovo and enabled over one million ethnic Albanian refugees to return to their homes in Kosovo and to live in peace since June 1999, after NATO’s peacekeeping force, KFOR, moved in. I am one of them, as I had ended up as a teenage refugee in neighbouring Macedonia, separated from the rest of my family.

In the Donbas region, Ukraine has not taken over any other ‘republics.’ If anything, Ukraine has tried to keep control over its sovereign territory despite separatist movements fighting Ukrainian forces constantly with Russian backing. Russia’s decision to recognise Donetsk and Lugansk’s self-declared republics and send in troops there to ‘keep the peace’ is nothing else but aggression against Ukraine and an invasion of a part of its sovereign territory.

NATO did not invade Kosovo, nor was its intervention aggression. NATO saved Kosovo and the ethnic Albanian population there. When Kosovo declared independence about a decade after NATO’s intervention, in 2008, it remained a country within the internal and internationally recognised borders that it once had as a constituent part of Yugoslavia.

Therefore, the comparison between Russia’s aggression against and invasion of a part of Ukraine and NATO’s intervention to save an innocent people in Kosovo from destruction is ungrounded. But President Putin knows this well.

His intention is not to prove that the comparison stands, but rather to suggest that the instability in the Balkans region, where Kosovo is an essential piece of the puzzle, is an area he could further destabilise through their historic ally, Serbia if the West becomes too much involved in Ukraine.

Putin intends to use the potential for conflict in the Balkans to deter or decrease the West’s involvement in Ukraine. Between a potential war in the Balkans and the one already happening in Ukraine, it goes without saying that the West’s focus would be in the Balkans way more than in Ukraine. By threatening to stir up things in the Balkans, Putin may get more manoeuvring room in Ukraine.

For the past few years, Putin has encouraged and supported Serbian radical head of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, in Bosnia and Herzegovina to seek separation from the confederation and either become an independent state or join Serbia. Dodik has openly challenged the authority of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the territory of Republika Srpska and the Dayton Peace Accords that brought an end to the Bosnian War in 1995.

Moreover, Putin has been a staunch supporter of Serbia’s leader, Aleksander Vucic, and his quest to not recognise Kosovo’s independence and mine its progress as a sovereign nation as much as possible. For Russia and Serbia, damaging Kosovo is indirectly damaging the US, as they both consider Kosovo an American-founded country.

Serbia is the only country in Europe, apart from Belarus, that has not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it has instead said, “this is not the time for sanctions against Russia.” If Serbia continues to be loyal to Russia and serve Putin’s agenda for the reincarnation of the USSR, then it is likely that conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo could easily erupt. Serbia could decide to follow Russia’s example and make a military move against Kosovo’s north under the banner of ‘protecting its Serbian minority there.’ Whereas in Bosnia, Dodik could declare Republika Srpska ‘an independent state, separated from the confederation of Bosnia and Herzegovina,’ and sign a defence treaty with Serbia, after which Serbia could send in troops there to ‘keep the peace.’

Under such a scenario, the problem in Ukraine would become less important for the EU, NATO, and the US than the one in the Balkans because this region is way more complex in terms of history and geopolitics. Apart from Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, all other countries in the Balkans are NATO members. A conflict in this region is a conflict right in the middle of NATO and not on its eastern borders.

Therefore, time is now for the EU, NATO, and the US to immediately stop the appeasement approach with Serbia they have employed for far too long and make it clear to Vucic that his decision to side with Russia now is to forever close Serbia’s door for entry into NATO and the EU. On the other hand, a fast-tracked process should be immediately implemented to bring Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina into NATO as full members. Further neglecting how powerful Russia’s influence over Serbia is and how loyal Serbia is to Russia is a recipe for renewed conflict in the Balkans or, in the best case, for continued dependence on Russia’s will to keep this region stable. Europe and the US cannot afford to be at Russia’s mercy in the Balkans anymore!

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