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On the brink: Tensions escalate between Serbia and Kosovo

A recent clash between Kosovar security forces and ethnic-Serb gunmen in northern Kosovo, and the subsequent build-up of Serbian forces on the Kosovo border, has prompted concerns of renewed conflict. Richard Gardiner considers what these events mean for the security situation in one of Europe’s most divided territories.

On 24 September, a group of Serb gunmen opened fire on Kosovar security forces at the Banjska Monastery in Mitrovica District, a majority ethnic Serb area in northern Kosovo. The ensuing gunfight, which killed four Serb assailants and one Kosovar police officer, prompted Serb authorities to deploy forces along the border with Kosovo. The incident and sudden troop build-up follows already increased tensions between the Serbian and Kosovar governments over the past 12 months. With the monastery clashes representing the worst outbreak of fighting in the territory in over 20 years, and accusatory rhetoric hardening on both sides, concerns have risen over whether war between Serbia and Kosovo is about to break out.

The shadow of Kosovo’s past

Persistent ethnic tensions, unresolved war crime cases from the 1998-1999 Kosovo War, and Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 have sustained strained relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Despite some efforts to normalise ties, limited progress has been made and talks break down frequently. Recent negotiations in 2023 have taken place amid growing and sometimes violent unrest in Serb-majority districts, including attacks against Kosovo police and NATO peacekeepers, as ethnic Serbs reject Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s intensifying efforts to enforce the Kosovo government’s control in those areas, including with a bolstered presence of counter-terrorism police.

Normalisation efforts

In February 2023, after more than a decade of negotiations, Kosovo and Serbia verbally agreed on a plan for normalising ties. The agreement hinged on Serbia’s partial recognition of Kosovo’s statehood and acceptance of Kosovo’s bid to join multilateral institutions, while Kosovo would support the formation of 10 Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo, granting them greater administrative autonomy. However, in September 2023, just prior to the Banjska attack, negotiations collapsed again amid distrust from both sides.

A Serbian invasion?

The likelihood of a Serbian-led invasion into northern Kosovo remains low at this stage. Serbia’s military posturing was likely a show of force rather than preparation for an invasion, and by 2 October this presence was reduced by half, with Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić denying the build-up had even occurred. Serbia has responded similarly in the past, including in May 2023, when it deployed forces to the border in response to clashes between Kosovar police, NATO personnel, and Serb protesters.

Vučić has also said that Serbia has no intention of invading Kosovo, a move that would seriously damage Serbia's diplomatic objectives at a time when Vučić has been working to enhance relations with Western countries in the hopes of EU membership. An invasion will certainly dash these ambitions. Given the now-bolstered presence of NATO peacekeeping troops at the Serbia-Kosovo administrative border, and in the wider region, an intervention risks conflict that would be diplomatically and economically devastating, including possible blockades of the landlocked country. Despite increasingly close ties with long-time ally Russia, which remains bogged down by the war in Ukraine, it is also unclear to what extent Russia will be willing or able to provide military assistance or resources to Serbia in the event of an invasion.

The power of the proxies

While war is unlikely, heightened diplomatic tensions and dynamics on the ground in northern Kosovo still point to the potential for prolonged instability and sporadic flare-ups of violence. While Vučić and Kurti met for talks in Brussels in late October, tensions remain high with no hint that either side will compromise on critical points. Kosovo, which is carrying out an EU-monitored investigation into the Banjska clash, blames Serbia for leveraging its relationship with Serbian nationalist militants in Kosovo to instigate a state-sponsored act of terrorism. But Vučić has denied involvement and Milan Radoičic, deputy leader of the Kosovo-based Serb List party and an ally of Vučić, has admitted to staging the attack without the Serbian government’s knowledge or assistance, due to “different views” on resisting Kosovo’s increasing efforts to control Serb enclaves.

Irrespective of Vučić’s knowledge of the attack, Radoičic’s claim of responsibility, plus protests against Kosovo, and mounting far-right calls in Belgrade for Kosovo to be reclaimed by Serbia, suggest nationalist militants and other pro-Serbia groups intend to disrupt and resist Kosovo’s efforts to govern in the north. Following the Banjska clash, some Serb militants like Radoičic may be emboldened to stage further attacks against Kosovar security forces, particularly if they perceive the Serbian government’s Kosovo strategy as capitulating, and if Kosovo makes further efforts to consolidate control over northern districts. With strong links to organised criminal networks, and likely sympathisers in Serbia, such groups certainly have the access to weapons and financial resources needed to stage more regular attacks on security targets. Frustrations will likely also sustain unrest in Serb-dominated districts like Zvečan, Leposavić and North Mitrovica, driving further skirmishes between protesters, and NATO and Kosovo security personnel, which could periodically escalate into wider violence and further delay diplomatic proceedings.

Looking ahead

In the absence of enough political will, and given the region’s prevailing ethnic tensions and history of political violence, a sustainable political resolution to the long-term dispute seems unlikely over the next 12 months. Rather, northern Kosovo is set to remain in a state of ongoing instability, with the Banjska clash acting as a warning that without sincere efforts to address historical and ethnic grievances, such flare-ups could become more frequent, and more violent.

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