Kosovo: High tension between Pristina and Belgrade. EU announces EUR 75 million in aid to combat rising energy prices

Politics - November 8, 2022

When people started talking about Kosovo in the mid-1990s, probably few in the West were familiar with this region of Europe. In the centre of the Balkan peninsula, surrounded by Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, this small state is officially the Republic of Kosovo. It had been part of Tito’s Yugoslavia and then Serbia since the end of World War II, until civil war broke out in 1998. Hostilities lasted little more than a year but were very bloody and also led to the intervention of the Atlantic Alliance, which resulted in numerous air strikes. In June 1999, the Kumanovo Accords put an end to the conflict and Kosovo became an international protectorate, mandated by the United Nations (UN).

In 2008, by a unilateral act, Kosovo proclaimed its independence. For the International Court of Justice, which was called upon to rule on the declaration of independence in 2010, the act performed by Kosovo (which Serbia did not want to recognise) violated neither the general rules of international law nor UN Security Council Resolution 1244. However, the Court did not comment on the effects of the declaration, i.e. whether it actually enabled the small Balkan region to acquire full recognition as a state. In 2018, Federica Mogherini, then High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security of the European Union, had welcomed with some interest the proposal of Presidents Thaci and Vucic to proceed with an exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo, in order to facilitate the normalisation of relations between the two countries. However, the idea was read with some fear by those who saw in it a possible implicit attack on Kosovo’s sovereignty and independence, and was not followed up. 

Over the past 15 years, the situation has remained very difficult to manage, but the Russian Federation’s war of aggression against Ukraine has definitely fuelled tensions. Aleksandar Vucic, President of Serbia, who is pro-Russian and very close to Moscow, has in recent weeks threatened military intervention in Kosovo, on the grounds of wanting to defend the rights of the Serbian minority (around 5% of the population) living in Kosovo from the alleged discrimination of the Kosovan government. The reaction comes in the wake of Pristina’s decision to require Serbs to use Kosovo number plates on their cars, instead of the Serbian ones currently used. In a televised speech, Serbian leader Vucic also called for NATO to intervene to protect the rights of the Serbian minority. Vucic also met in Belgrade with the Ambassadors of the United States of America, Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy, along with the head of the EU representation in Serbia. The diplomatic representatives expressed great apprehension over the tense climate, but the Serbian president reassured them that he would continue on the path of dialogue, without forgetting the protection of national interests. Vucic attacked Pristina, claiming that the tensions are due to the unilateral choices of the Kurti government, which break the rules on freedom of movement decided in the agreement signed thanks to the mediation of the European Union.  

In the hope of lowering tensions and guaranteeing security on Kosovo territory, the government in Pristina has temporarily closed two entrances to the country, at the border with Serbia, and frozen the application of the new regulations on number plates. 

In the past few days, the Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti and the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell, head of EU diplomacy, have been in telephone contact. Borrell also spoke with Serbian leader Vucic. Since 2011, the EU has been mediating the dialogue between the two rival states. 

In this already tense scenario, Ursula von der Leyen also spoke at a press conference in Pristina. As reported by ANSA, the President of the European Commission stated that ‘Kosovo deserves visa liberalisation. I know how important this is for you. You have met all the benchmarks. Now our task is to convince the entire European Council’ and ‘those who are still sceptical’. 

Kosovar citizens remain, to date, the only ones in the Western Balkans who need visas for entry into the European Union, although there are all the necessary requirements for lifting the obligation (see Commission report COM(2018) 543 final). 

President von der Leyen also intervened to reassure the citizens of Kosovo that the European Union will not fail to help with the energy price rise. It will be 75 million euros that the EU will invest in Kosovo, as “Russia’s energy war is affecting everyone”, as von der Leyen made clear, who also invited the Kosovan government to participate in the joint purchase of gas by joining the platform created by the EU.

While Kosovo is sometimes treated inconsistently by European institutions and member states, it has to be said that there is also disappointment on the part of the EU towards Kosovo. For example, the government in Pristina has turned the security forces into armed forces (with the consent of the United States alone, but contrary to the already mentioned UN Resolution 1244 of 1999) and applied heavy duties on products imported from Serbia, which were later withdrawn following the American and European push. 

To date, there are just under 4,000 Atlantic Alliance soldiers stationed in Kosovo. They guarantee the security of the Kosovo citizens and the Serbian minority, but with not a few difficulties. The situation is very tense, especially in the north of the country and, significantly, in Mitrovica, the border town, the ‘divided city’ where the two communities live together on a daily basis. Divided by a bridge over the river Ibar, manned by the Carabinieri of NATO’s KFOR contingent, the populations live parallel but separate lives. So-called ‘pacification’ clearly still seems a long way off. 

Most of the aid reaches Kosovo from the European Union and member states. Even in the military sphere, it is Europe that is most involved. Italy leads the command of the KFOR mission for the seventh time in a row.

Russia, which has always supported Belgrade’s claims, has given Serbia 30 tanks and Pantsir air defence systems, while China has delivered helicopters and drones. 

It is important to remember that, to date, Kosovo’s independence is only recognised by 98 out of 193 UN member states. For the European Union, recognition remains complex as it includes five so-called ‘non-recognition’ states (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, Spain). 

The Western Balkans remain, therefore, a powder keg ready to explode, where the attempts at hegemony and the power aspirations of large nations meet and clash. The Eastern bloc composed of Serbia, Russia and China (the latter two being permanent members of the UN Security Council, with the right of veto) are among those states that do not recognise it. On the opposite side are the United States of America and the majority of Western states. 

In this complex framework of alliances and contrasts, the KFOR mission helps us to strengthen our position in the dialogue between the two states, since we are in fact the guarantors of the security of both populations. Now more than ever, Italy can and must play an important, strategic role, not only because of its geographical position but also because of the history that we have shared with the nations on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. The stability of the Balkans is crucial for maintaining peace and prosperity within the entire EU.