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Kosovo 'Tactical Game' Is A Strategic Blunder, Security Expert Charles Kupchan Warns Amid Balkan Violence

By Valona Tela May 30, 2023

Charles Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and is a former director and adviser on the National Security Council in two White House administrations. He is also a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and the author of the books Isolationism: A History Of America's Efforts To Shield Itself From The World and Nationalism And Nationalities In The New Europe.

Hours after Serbs opposed to the Kosovar government's efforts to install ethnic Albanian mayors clashed with NATO KFOR peacekeepers in northern Kosovo, Kupchan spoke to RFE/RL's Balkan Service about the latest crisis, outside pressures on Pristina and Belgrade, and the prospects for normalization between Serbia and its former province.

RFE/RL: Violent scenes were seen again in the north of Kosovo, especially in Zvecan. KFOR intervened after the local population refused to withdraw from the protest. There are injured NATO soldiers and locals. This happened after the Kosovo authorities took over the municipal buildings in the north. What is your take on this?

Charles Kupchan: It is a very worrisome development, because violence has again returned to Kosovo and in particular to the relationship between the Serbs in the north of the country and ethnic Albanians. And we are at a moment at which normalization between Serbia and Kosovo has as good a chance of moving forward as we've seen in a long time. We have U.S. and EU efforts, the EU framework that is under discussion. And these kinds of bouts of violence are unhelpful.

In some ways the government in Pristina is playing a tactical game that may be politically useful but is strategically unwise in the sense that taking provocative actions like trying to seat ethnic Albanian mayors in the north after an election boycotted by the Serb population, pushing forward on license plates -- these are issues that stir the pot and raise tensions at a time when we need calm on both sides to see Belgrade and Pristina make progress on the broader agreement. So, this is an unfortunate development.

RFE/RL: Kosovo's prime minister, Albin Kurti, ignored the calls of the international community not to use force to enter the buildings, and he sent the police to assist the mayors in entering the buildings.

Kupchan: Again, all parties should avoid actions that stir the pot, that create opportunities for violence, that stoke passions on both sides, that cause, in the case of Belgrade, talk of putting its forces on high alert. Even if you could say that the government in Pristina is justified because it held an election, these are the kinds of activities that in the long run are unhelpful and counterproductive.

RFE/RL: What would you suggest the government of Kosovo do now?

Kupchan: The solution is to stand down, to back away from this effort to install the mayors, and to take a deep breath. Because, as I said, there is an opportunity here to make progress on the bigger issues: the agreement [on resolving tensions between Serbia and Kosovo] that has been laid out by the European Union has potential, has momentum. Rather than seeing KFOR having to confront angry Serbs in the north of the country, what we ought to be seeing are the Serbian and the Kosovar governments sitting down and trying to work out the details of the agreement [reached verbally in February] and, in particular, the format for self-management of the Serb community since this seems to be one of the main sticking points. What's happening now in the north is a distraction from an important next step in the agreement.

RFE/RL: The two countries seem to be going in different directions, as far as normalization is concerned. Why is that?

Kupchan: The domestic politics of this issue are extremely difficult on both sides. That's why, as a consequence, one day it looks like Vucic and Kurti are headed in the right direction, and then the next day Vucic says, "No, there's no hope here," and then Kurti does something that is provocative. So right now, we're simply in a place where you have -- in theory, in principle -- the outlines of an agreement, but the political situation on both sides is headed in the wrong direction.

RFE/RL: Let's return to north Kosovo. The Serbs there refuse to accept Kosovo police on the ground. Is this negotiable?

Kupchan: The situation in the north needs to be part of a broader settlement, a broader conversation. In the meantime, I would encourage the government in Pristina to avoid steps like those that it has been taking over the last few days...that provoke the Serb population living above the River Ibar to protest and to end up in a confrontational situation with KFOR, which, as we are hearing, has led to violence and injuries on both sides.

RFE/RL: On the other hand, Serbia increased its military [alert level] and said it is deploying troops near Kosovo. Where do you see this heading?

Kupchan: It's unlikely that you would see Serbian forces enter Kosovo, in part because they would confront NATO forces, and that puts Serbia and NATO in a very awkward position at a time when, right now, we're looking at efforts to advance Serbia's integration into transatlantic and European institutions. [Serbia's troop alert] amounts to escalatory steps in a broader tableau of coercive bargaining, but I do not expect an actual military conflict resulting from the Serbian military entering into northern Kosovo.

RFE/RL: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Kurti that this situation might affect relations between the United States and Kosovo. What do you think?

Kupchan: The U.S. and the EU have both been forthright in recent months in making clear to both parties that their long-term relationship with the West -- with the United States, with the European Union -- [depends] on their good-faith efforts to move toward normalization as outlined in the agreement [from February] that has been put together by the European Union and been discussed on numerous occasions between Kurti and Vucic. It will take arm-twisting and pressure from the United States and from the EU, and as a consequence I support Secretary Blinken's statement that this kind of behavior could entail costs in the relationship between Kosovo and the United States.

RFE/RL: We saw the reaction from Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. How much is this situation benefiting Russia? (Lavrov warned on May 29 that "a big explosion is looming in the heart of Europe, where NATO in 1999 carried out an act of aggression against Yugoslavia.")

Kupchan: Any disruptive behavior in the region benefits Russia -- whether it is a statement from [Bosnian Serb leader Milorad] Dodik or the difficult political situation in Montenegro, or confrontations between KFOR and Serbs in northern Kosovo, the Russians try to capitalize on disruption and division, and political disagreements. Every time that some kind of rift emerges, the Russians try to use it as a wedge, both to increase their influence in the region and to try to interrupt the integration of the Balkan region into European and Atlantic institutions.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is sending a message to the countries of the region that Russia is not, in the long run, a reliable partner and that on balance its aggression against Ukraine will convince Serbia, for example, that it should look more clearly and move more readily toward integration into Europe. But we're not there yet; we're still in a situation in which Russia has footholds in the region and takes advantage of regional disagreements to try to increase its leverage.

RFE/RL: Finally, this part of Kosovo has been problematic for years now. How do you see a way out for northern Kosovo?

Kupchan: It is one of the most difficult issues in a very complicated set of regional problems, and that's because you have a region where there is a majority of ethnic Serbs inside a country that they feel they don't belong to. And they direct more allegiance and feel stronger loyalty to Serbia than they do to Kosovo.

The solution to this is to come up with a package deal, a broad agreement between Pristina and Belgrade that gives the Serb minority in Kosovo the reassurance that they need to stay put and to feel like they belong. Clearly, how that is to be worked out, we don't know yet. It's one of the most difficult parts of the conversation taking place between Kosovo and Serbia. But it seems to me to be resolvable only as part of a broader package deal that ultimately leads Kosovo and Serbia to normalize their relationship.

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-strategic-blunder- serb-balkan-violence-kupchan-/32435552.html

Copyright (c) 2023. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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