Useful Spectres

In the EU-NATO protectorate of Kosovo, a small bureaucratic matter just provoked a spasm of violence. It was practically a routine occurrence, but trigger-happy Cold Warriors were quick to announce the beginning of a new Balkan war. The threat of a new conflict in the Balkans – to be instigated by Russia in concert with its Orthodox brothers in Serbia – has proven to be a useful spectre for the West, used to justify NATO expansion, distended budgets and the continued presence of the so-called international community. But it has also proven useful for Russia, allowing Moscow to claim that it still has a best friend in Europe, even as Belgrade moves quietly towards the West.

At issue this time were identification papers and license plates. Last month, the government in Pristina announced plans to introduce new measures that would require the Serbian minority to obtain provisional, Kosovo-issued documents and plates for their vehicles. Kosovo today has a population of a little under two million, of which about ninety percent are Albanian; Serbs are the second biggest ethnic group, comprising between four and seven percent. Pristina considers these reciprocal measures, as citizens of Kosovo need Serbian documents and plates in Serbia. The bureaucratic confusion is an outgrowth of Kosovo’s contested status. Although Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Serbia still claims it as its southern province and holy Serbian land.

On 31 July, in Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo’s north, locals expressed their discontent with the new rules by blocking roads near two border crossings with Serbia, now something of an annual ritual. Police were also reportedly shot at by unknown gunmen. Kosovo’s imperial viceroy, the US ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier, brought the situation under control by directing Prime Minister Albin Kurti to delay implementation of the new measures by 30 days. The status quo – an uneasy but relatively durable peace – was restored. Observers in Kosovo remarked that the moment reflected Kurti’s so-called ‘political maturation’. Tacit capitulation to the authority of the US embassy was an admission that all major government efforts require coordination with Kosovo’s colonial administrators.

It has been a dramatic turn for ‘Kosovo’s Che Guevara’, who once led street protests against privatization and set off tear gas in parliament. Kurti’s political philosophy was modelled on anti-colonialist struggle in the so-called global south; his party, Lëvizja Vetëvendosje, means ‘the movement for self-determination’. A decade ago, the US ambassador accused the party of sending threats to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, a champion of US intervention in Kosovo whose Albright Capital Management was controversially in the running to purchase the state telecommunications company. But those were different times. Last month, Kurti was in Washington for the third time since April to sign the $202 million Kosovo Compact with the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, represented by Chief Executive Officer Alice Albright, Madeline’s daughter.

The international community’s decades-long tenure in Kosovo has long been the subject of considerable criticism, both from human rights organizations and within Kosovo. NATO’s bombing of what remained of Yugoslavia in 1999 was purportedly to halt atrocities committed by Serbs, and initially met with much gratitude from the Albanian population. (Former Obama State Department official and current USAID head Samantha Power would later say that the bombing was also ‘partly about NATO credibility’). A number of international agencies, unaccountable to the population, were subsequently established to administer peace and democracy. The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) have been criticized for their failure to protect minorities from ethnic violence. The Council of Europe would also accuse NATO of ‘obstructionism’ in its investigation of alleged torture in KFOR-detention camps, and its human rights envoy described Camp Bondsteel, the US military base in Kosovo, as ‘smaller version of Guantanamo’. The European Union’s Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) meanwhile was dogged by serious accusations of corruption and bribery – exactly the kind of thing it was intended to combat. In 2020, the year its tenure was supposed to come to an end, Kosovo was ranked 104 out of 180 countries by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a testament to EULEX’s failures.

This recent controversy over papers and plates is compounded by wider tensions. Serbs in Kosovo say that the government in Pristina has not kept its promises, failing to implement a critical part of the 2013 Brussels Agreement with Belgrade: the creation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, a political body that would govern the ten municipalities in Kosovo where Serbs comprise a majority. Much of the disagreement is rooted in the ‘constructive ambiguity’ of the negotiations. For Serbia, the association is a third layer of government that should protect the rights of Serbs; for Kosovo, it is only a civic association, without any executive power. Kosovo’s Albanians on the other hand feel they have waited far too long for full sovereignty. Although Kosovo declared independence 14 years ago, it remains only partially recognized as a sovereign state (Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that it is currently recognized by 117 countries. Five of the EU 27’s states do not recognize it). Many also feel that the Serbs in the north have been treated well enough, pointing out that they have not paid for their own electricity in 23 years – in recent times it has been paid for by the government of Kosovo, at a cost of 40 million euros last year. Pristina is keen on resolving the issue, and local Serbs know that electricity bills are coming soon.

As the unrest in the north appeared to be stabilizing, a couple of well-known cold warmongers took to social media to report that Serbia, with backing from Russia, had just attacked Kosovo. A litany of unsubstantiated rumours spread: a new front in the confrontation between Russia and the West had opened; Serbia was invading; men wearing uniforms of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group had been spotted. Francis Fukuyama joined the chorus, tweeting a recent photo of Kurti and himself with the comment that he ‘deserves our support in his present confrontation with Serbia’. It was a fitting epitaph to the end of history, given the centrality of the Kosovo precedent in resurrecting it. 

It is important to pause here and say that in Kosovo, reckless rumourmongering of this kind has gotten many people killed. In March of 2004, the drowning of three Albanian children – a day after a young Serbian man was shot – was erroneously blamed on local Serbs. Sensationalist media accounts followed. Over the next two days, Kosovo saw the worst ethnic violence since the war ended in 1999. When it was all over, 19 people were dead and more than 900 injured. Some 29 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were severely damaged or destroyed. More than 800 homes belonging to Serbs, Roma, and Ashkali were attacked and destroyed. Over 4,000 people were displaced. As an OSCE report detailing the media’s role in fanning the flames of the violence states: ‘Without the reckless and sensationalist reporting on 16 and 17 March, events could have taken a different turn. They might not have reached the intensity and level of brutality that was witnessed or even might not have taken place at all’. Elsewhere the report issued a more general warning: ‘in a post-ethnic conflict society such as Kosovo, biased reporting alone can lead to violence’. Presumably, at least some keyboard Cold Warriors are aware of this, and yet they do it anyway.

Kurti has also been eager to invoke the spectre of conflict. In recent months, he has realised that he can garner greater support in Western capitals by drawing parallels with Ukraine. He recently told Italian media that the risk of war was ‘very high’, and emphasized that Kosovo, like Ukraine, was ‘a democracy bordering an autocracy’. Critics of these ominous pronouncements argue that he is prioritizing pleasing the West and the diaspora over people living in Kosovo. Inflation is at 14.1 percent, while the unemployment rate is 25.9 percent (youth unemployment is particularly grim, at nearly 50 percent). Nemanja Starović, the State Secretary of Serbia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued last week that Pristina was trying to portray Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić as a ‘mini Putin’ and Kurti as ‘petit Zelensky’, in hopes that any escalation ‘would by default trigger US and NATO support for Kosovo’ regardless of who started the violence.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ukraine is among the states that do not recognize Kosovo. But there have been new efforts to change that. Serbia has drawn Western criticism of late for its refusal to impose sanctions on Russia. There have been calls to revoke its EU candidate status. Images of football hooligans in Putin t-shirts marching in support of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in central Belgrade have added to the outrage. Serbian public opinion is decidedly more sympathetic to Russia than that of any other country in Europe: according to recent polls, only 26 percent of Serbs view Russia as responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. Serbian government media reproduces many Russian talking points about the war. Kurti has seized on these external markers of Russian-Serbian brotherhood to garner foreign support for his efforts to assert control over the North and advance Kosovo’s independence. On 6 August, an MP in the Ukrainian parliament registered a bill to recognize Kosovo as an independent country.

Upon closer inspection, however, the image of Serbia as a faithful servant of Moscow starts to fall apart. At the United Nations, Serbia has consistently voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Serbia has been a member of NATO’s bilateral Partnership for Peace program since 2006. In recent years, Serbia has participated in more military exercises with NATO than it has with Russia. While Western media has fixated on the presence of Putin coffee mugs at tourist stands in Belgrade, Serbia has quietly held high-level meetings at NATO headquarters. Last year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thanked President Vučić for his ‘personal commitment’ to the partnership between Serbia and NATO. The Serbian armed forces have also worked closely with KFOR, the NATO security force in Kosovo, for many years. Serbia might be pro-Russia before the domestic public; but behind closed doors, it is closer to the West.

You wouldn’t know any of this judging by media accounts from any side. The myth of eternal Serbian-Russian brotherhood is simply too useful to everyone: Russia, NATO, Kosovo and Serbia. But it is also possible that if Cold Warriors continue with the reckless dissemination of rumours of war, they will get the violence they want.

Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Kosovo: The War of NATO Expansion’, NLR I/235.