Analysis | How Russia’s Ukraine War Is Stoking Tension in Kosovo


Three decades after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, the ethnic hostilities that ignited the conflict linger on. Kosovo declared its independence from former Yugoslav republic Serbia in 2008, but Serbia refuses to let it go. There was a flare-up in the dispute in mid-2022 that raised fears of violence on the European Union’s southeastern frontier before the situation was defused. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added a new dimension to the standoff, with Serbia coming under pressure from the EU to cut ties with Moscow. 

1. What was the latest argument about?

Kosovo has a predominantly ethnic Albanian population of 1.8 million, but it includes more than 100,000 Serbs. Tensions grew in August when the Kosovo authorities sought to force the minority Serbs to swap their existing identity documents and car plates to conform with the rest of the population. Many ethnic Serbs viewed the administrative order as an affront, and a threat to their identity. The directive was later put on hold pending EU-mediated talks later in the month.  

2. What are the origins of the dispute? 

Protests erupted in Kosovo in 1981 following the death of Yugoslavia’s long-ruling Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito. An initial demand by ethnic Albanians that Kosovo be upgraded from a province within Serbia to a federal republic within Yugoslavia triggered Serbian nationalism and helped propel Slobodan Milosevic to power in Serbia in 1987 as he vowed to stem the separatism. His crackdown, however, escalated demands by Kosovo’s majority to seek full independence. War over the territory broke out in 1998, killing more than 10,000 people. The fighting ended in 1999 when bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forced Serb troops out of Kosovo, and an estimated 200,000 Serb civilians fled as well. Serbia has vowed never to agree to the secession of what it considers its historic heartland, a stance backed by Russia, China and even five EU states. 

3. What’s been the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine?

Geopolitical divisions over Kosovo have become more acute after the attack on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, an outspoken Serbia supporter. Putin has criticized the West for what he says are double standards. He has compared the cause of Kosovo — which has been recognized by most of the western world — to that of two regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. In turn, the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo have used the war in Ukraine to intensify their rhetoric. There’s a risk that an escalation could spill over to other parts of the volatile Western Balkans, including Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still, a NATO-led peace force of nearly 3,800 troops has helped keep peace in Kosovo for years and it has said it is prepared to intervene if stability is threatened. 

4. Who are the key players?

Kosovo Premier Albin Kurti has accused Serbia of serving Russian interests, while Serb President Aleksandar Vucic said Kosovo officials are trying to exploit alarm over Ukraine for their own purposes. Both have opponents at home who question their handling of the recurring tensions, but their populations remain largely entrenched in rival nationalism. The US generally wields more influence than the EU over Kosovo’s leadership, while Serbia seeks support from Moscow as well as from Washington and Brussels in handling the dispute. Vucic has condemned the invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations while stopping short of adopting EU sanctions against Russia. In 2022, Vucic secured five more years as president, with his party holding a majority in parliament. Kurti’s refusal to make any concessions to Serbia has further complicated any talks with the neighboring nation. 

5. What about the EU’s relationship with Serbia and Kosovo?

Serbia and Kosovo signed an EU-brokered agreement in 2013 on trade, energy and communications, and which envisioned giving Kosovo Serbs some self-rule. Kosovo later said it wouldn’t give autonomy to the minority population and demanded Serbia’s full recognition before any further consideration. While the EU remains the key investor in both nations, progress in their efforts to join the bloc has been slow. Serbia is negotiating its entry and is further ahead in the process than Kosovo, which has yet to become an official candidate. The EU has made resolving the standoff between them a condition for accession. Disillusion with the bloc is growing in Serbia, where the EU is seen as increasingly distant and preoccupied with its own issues. 

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