For many years, the EU’s policy towards the Western Balkans has been characterized by timidity, inconsistency and ineptitude. At the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, the EU trumpeted that “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” Today this promise rings hollow.
Enlargement fatigue and an internal existential crisis have led the EU’s stance towards the region to become increasingly erratic; rhetorical commitments to accession continue to be made, while powerful actors within the EU actively work to halt the process.
This was vividly illustrated in Albania on September 28 when Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, declared that “Albania’s future is in the EU,” while also telling North Macedonia, “You will be part of the EU. It is not a question of if, but when.”
On the same day, Reuters reported that an internal EU document notes that the EU “can no longer agree to give a guarantee of future membership to the Western Balkans” due to resistance among key member state governments. The EU’s lack of a coherent strategy not only degrades its attempts to present itself as a global power, but also sows instability in the region. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Kosovo and Serbia.
The recent flare-up of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia goes beyond license plates. The Vetëvendosje-led government’s decision to implement reciprocal measures is, by any objective standard, wholly legitimate. No self-respecting state would tolerate the previous arrangements, and criticism of Kosovo’s assertion of its sovereign rights is simply hypocritical.
Criticized by some as an escalation, the deployment of Kosovo’s special police units to the border was the minimum action any state would take when faced with a challenge to its internal sovereignty, particularly in a region with a history of inter-ethnic tension such as northern Kosovo. The subsequent arson and grenade attacks against the vehicle registration centers in Zubin Potok and Zvečan further legitimized the police presence.
Serbia’s response to Kosovo’s decision, however, was disproportionate. President Vučić deployed armored vehicles to the Kosovo-Serbia border, ordered fighter jets and attack helicopters to patrol the skies, and even threatened NATO. He also rejected an EU proposal to resolve the crisis and encouraged the mayors of four Serb-majority northern municipalities to reject a compromise solution proposed by KFOR and accepted by the Kosovo government. Instead he preferred to encourage Serb protesters to continue to block roads at the Jarinje and Bernjak border crossings. Though a deal to resolve the crisis was reached on September 30, Vučić’s response to the incident once again exposed his true nature.
There is clear politicking behind Vučić’s sabre-rattling. With spring 2022 elections looming in Serbia, he wants to portray himself as a strongman to those Serbs who continue to cling to Milošević’s “Greater Serbia” project. But there is more to this than just cynical vote-hunting; Vučić and his government are inherently sectarian.
Vučić subscribes to a particular strand of Serbian nationalism which portrays Albanians in Kosovo as “occupiers,” and does not accept Kosovo’s right to exist as an independent state. Vučić has praised Milošević as “a great Serbian leader who undoubtedly had the best intentions,” and denied that Serbian forces took part in massacres in Kosovo while mass graves continue to be unearthed in Serbia. His Prime Minister Ana Brnabić has also denied the Srebrenica genocide. Just last week, the Serbian Ministry of Defense showed a film praising the “heroic” 125th Motorized Brigade, an army unit allegedly involved in war crimes during the war in Kosovo.
Additionally, Vučić openly cultivates close relations with authoritarian regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere. Due to his own increasingly authoritarian rule, Serbia’s ranking in international democracy indexes has fallen to its lowest level since 2006. It is now a “flawed democracy,” ranked as only “partly free.”
Yet, as Freedom House notes quizzically, “Despite these trends, the country has continued to move toward membership in the European Union.” The paradox is galling. How has it come to pass that the EU has supported the most toxic regime in the Western Balkans?
Following the implementation of reciprocity for license plates and the subsequent flare-up in tensions in northern Kosovo, a number of high EU officials solemnly called on “both sides” to de-escalate the tension. This includes Joseph Borrell, Oliver Varhelyi, and Charles Michel. Given the facts on the ground, these statements are patently disingenuous.
Blaming “both sides” is a tactic employed by those who don’t want to speak the truth. It was used in the early 1990s when Western politicians shamefully chose to hide behind the lie that all combatants in Bosnia were equally culpable. It has often been employed in the context of the situation in Palestine and was infamously uttered by President Trump in response to the violence perpetrated by right-wing militias in Charlottesville in 2017.
In the case of Kosovo and Serbia, the impetus behind these statements is a collective determination to maintain good relations with Serbia’s authoritarian leaders. This is not just embarrassing and unjust, it is dangerous. Vučić of course welcomes developments that create the impression of a moral equivalence between Serbia and Kosovo; so long as “both sides” are encouraged to “leave the past behind” and establish “peaceful co-existence,” he and his regime can continue to circumvent the issues of reparations and recognition.
By consciously preying on the West’s fears that Serbia will ally with Russia if not invited into the EU, Vučić has managed to engage in the “Prishtina-Belgrade” dialogue without ever seriously having to address Serbia’s culpability for the violence its forces perpetrated in Kosovo in the 1990s. The type of cowardice we see in the EU’s “both sides” statements has emboldened Vučić to continue causing regional instability and undermining media freedom and democracy within Serbia.
The Inevitable Tension
The greatest single threat to peace and stability in the Balkans stems not from an independent, democratic Kosovo eager to join the EU and NATO, but from the increasingly authoritarian, militaristic government in Belgrade. To date, the EU has appeased this regime at the expense of its own ideals and credibility, and to the detriment of Kosovo.
While this dynamic has been evident for over a decade, it was always unsustainable. The recent election of the Vetëvendosje-led government brought an end to the self-destructive stance taken by previous governments in Kosovo who acquiesced to the EU’s prioritizing of Serbia’s interests. What indeed did the previous policy towards the EU and Belgrade achieve? No visas, no recognition, no prospects of EU membership. Given this, was it any surprise that the people of Kosovo elected a government that advocated change?
As promised, the new government is taking steps to redress the prevailing narrative and to treat the Serbian government as it is, rather than as the EU likes to pretend it to be. This of course has caused, and no doubt will continue to cause, tensions between the two states and disquiet in Brussels, but what is the alternative? To participate in endless, fruitless talks at which Kosovo’s status as a state is not even recognized? To stay silent while the EU turns a blind eye to Serbia’s denial of past aggression in Kosovo, its escalating authoritarianism, its persistent efforts to provoke instability within Kosovo and its campaign to undermine its status internationally?
Kosovo must do more than just ask others to recognize it as an independent state; it must behave like one. The new stance towards Serbia — as illustrated by the license plate policy — is a tangible manifestation of this behavior which should be welcomed, especially if it exposes the craven nature of the EU’s policy towards the region.
Feature image: ZKM.