04 October 2023 /

6 min

Serbia has been an official candidate since 2012, while Kosovo applied for EU membership in 2022

Three months ago, I attended a conference in Brussels where Ana Brnabić, Prime Minister of Serbia, repeatedly asserted that her country “has no Plan B other than joining the European Union.” But what if Brussels has a Plan B for Serbia?

The recent escalations between Kosovo and Serbia have highlighted the risks facing both candidacies; Serbia has been an official candidate since 2012, while Kosovo applied for EU membership in 2022. On Sunday, September 24th according to local police, 30 heavily armed suspects of Serbian ethnicity launched an attack in the city of Banjska, northern Kosovo, near the Serbian border. After killing a Kosovar police officer, the attackers barricaded themselves in an Orthodox monastery. Following clashes between both sides, the attack resulted in the deaths of three insurgents and several injuries on both sides, with a total of four fatalities.

Reactions have been diverse. Kosovo has accused Serbia not only of orchestrating the attack but also criticised the “neutrality” of Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative. Kosovo’s Prime Minister. Albin Kurti went further and warned that “Serbia has a plan to destabilise the country”. On the other hand, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić rejected that the attacks were ordered by Belgrade and took the opportunity to emphasise that he had “already warned that this could happen.” He strongly asserted that Serbian citizens in northern Kosovo live under threat, seeing the attacks as a reaction from a population subjected to genocide. Vučić even reported to the Russian ambassador to Belgrade that there is “an ongoing ethnic cleansing against the Serbian population in Kosovo, supported by part of the international community.” 

How could these events obscure the European ambitions of both parties? While it is not the first time that Europe has witnessed an increase in tensions, this time the situation is different because both parties agreed to the Ohrid Agreement in Brussels in February 2023 – officially, the Agreement on the path to normalization between Kosovo and Serbia. While the agreement was verbalised, Borrell assured that both parties had indeed agreed to its content, with its compliance being a conditio sine qua non for both nations joining the EU in the future.

But what does this agreement entail, and why does it jeopardise the European candidacies of Serbia and Kosovo? Without diving into the details of the eleven-point plan, I will focus just on some articles that have recently been battered and that allow us to understand how tensions have escalated chronologically so far.

The first one would be Article 7, right to self-management of the Serbian community in Kosovo. In regard to this point, tensions arose when Kosovo did not respect this article. In protest, mayors of four municipalities in the north, along with a total of 500 Serbian public officials, resigned in November 2022 as a sign of protest against recent tensions with central Kosovar authorities. After elections to fill these positions were held in May 2023, with a low symbolic turnout of 3.5% in a region inhabited by 90% Serbs, amid tensions and outbreaks of violence, candidates of Kosovar ethnicity were eventually appointed mayors, a gesture criticised both by the United States and the European Union. Following our chronological timeline, the attacks by Serbian citizens took place in Banjska, part of North Mitrovica, one of the four regions where the incidents about the mayors were most pronounced.

Regarding the authorship of the attacks, Kosovar authorities directly point to Belgrade. If this is the case, then Article 3 of the Ohrid Agreement, which stresses the idea of peaceful means to settle disputes, would also have been violated.

A photo shared by the Kosovar Minister of Internal Affairs shows a powerful and sophisticated arsenal of weapons that surpasses the capabilities of average citizens. Not only has the excessive amount of weaponry caught attention, but also its potency, including anti-tank missiles, armoured vehicles, and even maps of the area and various documents like false identifications of the NATO forces deployed in Kosovo (KFOR). The quantity suggests that the attack was planned for a larger number of the mentioned thirty individuals. The sophistication of the arsenal, as well as the movements, coordination, and uniforms suggest more than just a group of angry citizens. The maps and documents indicate meticulous planning, as well as the events themselves, as the attackers ambushed the police and left the monastery and the country unnoticed. Stressing this idea, the U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo suggested in a statement that the attackers were not ordinary citizens, for the aforementioned reasons. From the central government, Serbia is accused of having plotted the attack, according to documents found by Kosovar authorities.

Furthermore, there is one more element to add to the equation. A drone recording showed the face of the leader of the guerrilla, Milan Radoičić, who used to be the political leader of Srpska Lista, the Serbian political party in Kosovo. Radoičić, who is facing legal charges in Kosovo and was blacklisted by OFAC – U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control-, lives in exile in Serbia, and his ties to the neighbouring country are undeniable, as well as his relationship to Serbian President Vučić. Five days after the attack, he confirmed being the author of the plan in a letter where he also announced his resignation as vice-president of Srpska Lista. He also mentioned that the idea was not to kill the police officer, and he claimed not to be a terrorist, but rather someone trying to free Serbs in Kosovo from the alleged terror of the current government. He specifically declared that the Serbian government was not involved in the planning of the attacks.

Concerning the letter of Radoičić, Serbian President Vučić was asked a few hours later during an interview with the Spanish national TV about the situation in Kosovo, and the link between the weapons used for the attack and their origin in Belgrade. He first stated being extremely worried about the security of Serbia, as he considers both, Kosovar Prime Minister and President, as aggressive, “especially when they believe that they have a lot of support from part of the international community”. About the Serbian origin of the weapons, Vučić claimed not seeing any relation but a coincidence. If investigations prove that Radoičić had Belgrade’s backing, the situation for Serbia regarding its EU candidacy would have reached a critical point.

At all events, tensions were escalating so fast, that Washington feared steps backward would be taken regarding the achievements made so far. In a brief statement by Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, he called for prudence and urged both governments to refrain from using violence. He even specified the abandonment of “rhetoric which could further inflame tensions.” He also called for cooperation between Priština and Belgrade. This message is by no means random, as the United States feared that nationalist rhetoric in the Balkans may once again be fuelled, leading to an armed conflict from which Russia could benefit. In a similar tone, without specifically pointing fingers at any country, and only condemning the events, Borrell, representing the European Union, issued a soothing statement in the hope of not inflaming tensions, especially as Europe is already facing a war on its border.

However, far from de-escalating, the crisis reached a critical point when Serbia deployed troops on Friday along its border with Kosovo, a situation described by the White House as “unprecedented”. Nevertheless, threats from DC and Brussels made Vučić withdraw part of them, to which he added that “Serbia doesn’t want a war” and alleged a “campaign of lies” against his country, denying any build-up of troops.

These recent events lead us to the last of the articles of the agreement, where both countries must be strategic in the very short run and measure their words and actions, as Article 1 highlights the idea of both countries developing good-neighbourly relations.

Although this point may seem ambiguous and vaguely described, it is mandatory for both countries concerning their European ambitions. In this regard, Kosovo was severely criticised by Brussels only one week before the attacks, for blocking progress during the negotiations due to the hard position of Kosovo’s Prime Minister. Not only sanctions against Kosovo were on the table, but also was Kosovo accused by the EU’s High Representative for not contributing to the negotiations. Nevertheless, since tensions soared after the detrimental deployment of troops by Serbia, the critical tone of Brussels towards Priština has been balanced against Belgrade.

In any case, given the maximum tension at this stage, effective European mediation involving commitments from both Kosovo and Serbia would be essential. We will see what consequences and future developments the attacks from the past Sunday bring in this regard. What we can conclude, linking the situation to the words of Ana Brnabić, it might be true that there is no plan B for Serbia other than joining the EU, but there is also no plan B for Serbia other than establishing good relations with Kosovo.

Mario Vega is a master student at the Institute of European Studies & Co-President of Eyes on Europe.

(Edited by Luka Krauss)

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