by Alessandro De Pascale

Tensions in Kosovo seem to be slowly easing after the terrorist attack on the national police force by Serbs on Sunday 24 September. After the United States and the European Union had warned against the massive military deployment of recent days, the Chief of Staff of the Serbian armed forces, Milan Mojsilovic, assured on Monday 2 October that he had “returned to normal” the number of troops deployed on the border of this small Balkan country, born in 2008 and protected for the last 23 years by the NATO-KFOR (Kosovo Force) mission. At a press conference, Mojsilovic also told reporters that the number of Belgrade soldiers had been reduced from 8,350 to 4,500. “The operational regime of the units (…) in the security zone” along the “administrative line with Kosovo”, the highest-ranking member of the Serbian armed forces, has thus “returned to normal”, he added.

On Friday 6 October, the day of talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Serbian nationalist President Aleksandar Vučić, the US administration said that “the withdrawal of Serbian troops from the border with Kosovo would be a welcome step”. On the EU side, Peter Stano, spokesman for EU High Representative Josep Borrell, told journalists at the usual daily press briefing that the priority of the EU institutions, which have been trying for some time (without success) to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo, was “de-escalation and stabilisation of the security situation” between the two Countries. Stano also told journalists that, for the EU, “there is no place for weapons and security forces to be stored on the European continent”. Therefore, according to Brussels, “they must all withdraw”.

This is on the military level, because on the political level the climate remains anything but relaxed. At a press conference last Monday, Serbian Defence Minister Miloš Vučević even said he was ready to invade Kosovo, which Belgrade has always considered part of the Republic of Serbia, if such a military intervention were ordered by President Vučić. Who, by virtue of his role, is also the supreme commander of the armed forces. In such an extreme case, Vučević also claimed that “the Serbian army will carry out this task efficiently, professionally and successfully”.

As already mentioned, NATO is also present in this conflict zone. The Atlantic Alliance has had troops in Kosovo since 1998, the year in which the last Balkan war began, the result of the slow but inexorable disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, which began in 1980 with the death of the then President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. That is to say, the marshal who had led it since 1953, i.e. since shortly after the end of the Second World War, and who had also been at the head of the movement of the so-called “non-aligned States”, i.e. those Countries that did not ally themselves with either NATO or the Soviet Union (USSR), which were at odds with each other during the Cold War.

In 1998, the Atlantic Alliance intervened in the Kosovo conflict on the side of the Albanian Kosovars of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which until the day before had been designated a terrorist organisation by the UN. At the end of a three-month bombing campaign that forced the Serbian army to withdraw from the area, NATO had deployed up to 50,000 troops under a UN mandate, later gradually reduced to 3,800. This contingent is mainly deployed in the north of Kosovo to protect the enclaves where the Serbian minority still lives in ghettos (about 120,000 people of Orthodox faith in a country with an Albanian majority and a population of 1.8 million, the majority of whom are Muslims).

Following the UK’s decision to send 200 more troops to the region, German Defence Minister, Boris Pistorius, said that Germany would be able to “act very quickly” if necessary. The Atlantic Alliance has already announced that 600 additional troops will be sent to the Country from a reserve force maintained in the area precisely to deal with any escalation of tension in the region.

After a long period of apparent relative calm, the situation in this small Country has been hotting up again for exactly a year now, with the “licence plate crisis” that erupted in October 2022 over the refusal of the Serbian minority to use the national plates bearing the flag of this young nation on their vehicles, and the ban imposed by Pristina on the use of Serbian plates, preferring in most cases to drive around without them in protest.

Worse had happened the following May, when the Kosovar police dispersed Serb demonstrators who had tried to prevent the installation of some ethnic Albanian mayors elected in the municipalities of their enclaves. Once again refusing to recognise the authority of the central State, they had in fact decided to boycott this administrative vote. The clashes, which took place in the area of Zvečan (465 inhabitants according to the last census in 2011), located in the north of the Country and just an hour’s drive from the capital Pristina, also seriously injured 41 soldiers of the NATO-KFOR peacekeeping contingent, including 14 Italians.

Also in the Zvečan area, tensions flared up again on Sunday 24 September, following a terrorist attack by Serbs in which a Kosovar policeman was killed (and another wounded). Gun battles between the security forces in Pristina and the commando, who had barricaded themselves in the small monastery in the village of Banjska (under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church), lasted a whole day. In the evening, at the end of the Special Forces raid, four terrorists were counted dead, six wounded, as many captured, while ten managed to escape. In the days that followed, the Kosovar police found and confiscated a veritable arsenal of weapons (anti-tank rocket launchers, machine guns, ex-Yugoslav army sniper and assault rifles, mortars, hand grenades, landmines and drones), twenty SUVs and an armoured truck.

Indeed, tensions between the two Countries have been building since Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, now recognised by around 100 nations (including the United States and most Western Countries), but always rejected by Serbia (as well as Russia, China and five EU members, such as Spain). The Serbian nationalist President Vučić, addressing the Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti (but indirectly also NATO and the EU), has returned in recent days to reiterate: ‘You can kill us all, but Serbia will never recognise the independence of Kosovo, that monstrous creation you made by bombing our Country’.

Contrary to what one might think from looking at the chessboard of current world alliances, Serbia, close to Russia, is actually benefiting from NATO’s presence in Kosovo, whose military, as mentioned, is currently deployed to protect the Serbian minority remaining in the Country. The latter live in enclaves where the national police rarely enter to patrol the territory, while armed citizens often set up roadblocks and barricades precisely to prevent access to the security forces and customs officers of the central government in Pristina.

To learn more, read our Kosovo conflict factsheet

On the cover photo, a Serbian-Kosovar vehicle without number plates after a street protest in northern Mitrovica (Kosovo) © Alessandro De Pascale