A few months after the invasion of Ukraine began, Vladimir Putin tried to justify their war by the example of the Western Balkans. During a meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the Russian autocrat pointed to the legitimacy of NATO’s 1999 invasion of Yugoslavia.
Then the allies bombed the territory of modern Serbia and Montenegro, trying to stop the massacre organized by Belgrade against ethnic Kosovar Albanians. A brief war and the subsequent peacekeeping operation led to the emergence of a de facto independent state of Kosovo, recalls Washington Post. Putin insisted that the actions of the Western alliance were allegedly no different from what the Russian army is trying to do in Ukraine. Like, the Russian troops are only trying to ensure the independence of the two so-called “republics” in the Donbass, created by the Kremlin.
“Many countries in the West have recognized Kosovo as an independent state. We did the same with respect to the republics of Donbass“, Putin said.
The American edition writes that there are a lot of reasons why an attempt to draw such an analogy causes only laughter. If only because Russia has not yet recognized the independence of Kosovo and loudly condemned the NATO war against its Serbian ally. Alliance air strikes have resulted in civilian casualties in Serbia. However, they also helped quell ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and stabilize a crisis that had already cost thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee the war. In turn, the invasion, which Putin arranged, is accompanied by Kremlin’s genocidal rhetoric and egregious reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes.
Kosovo’s President Vyosa Osmani sees a very different parallel. In her opinion, the victory of the Kosovo forces over the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia with the help of NATO was part of the battle for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles.
“23 years ago these values were put on the line in Kosovo. Now, 23 years after those events, these values are at stake in Ukraine”, Osmani is convinced.
Russian aggression against Ukraine, according to the President of Kosovo, does not deserve a single raid of international legitimacy. This is just a manifestation of the “sick imperialist inclinations” of the Russian ruler. The Washington Post writes that President Osmani, along with Prime Minister Albin Kurti, visited Washington last week. They met with Secretary of State Anthony Blinkin and signed an investment agreement with the state-owned Millennium Challenge Corporation, which pledged $237 million to develop Kosovo’s energy infrastructure. During an interview with the Washington Post, Osmani pointed to the broader threat facing her region. After all, Russia historically has a very great influence in the Balkans.
“Putin’s goal is to expand the conflict to other parts of the world. Since he constantly tried to destabilize Europe, we can expect that one of his targets could be the Western Balkans.“, – says Osmani.
Washington Post reminds that on the weekend tension between Kosovo and Serbia flared up again. Ethnic Serbs in the northern regions of Kosovo have blocked roads and clashed with police units in response to the government in Pristina demanding that cars coming from Serbia change their license plates to Kosovo and vice versa. A similar requirement applies when vehicles from Kosovo enter Serbian territory. The bureaucratic dispute unleashed a much deeper tension. High-ranking officials entered into a “war of words”. Kurti accused Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic of provoking violence. Vučić said the parties “have never been in a more difficult situation than they are now.” But he promised that Serbia would win. The small NATO mission in Kosovo felt compelled to issue a statement that she is ready to intervene if stability is disturbed.
Also of concern is the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country’s complex political system, which unites the ethnic Bosnian, Croat and Serb population, today seems more shaky than ever. Analysts are sure that the leader of the Republika Srpska in the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, is promoting the idea of secession. And this could be a shock to the entire region. Dodik’s intentions are supported by Moscow and Belgrade.
After all, Serbia is a historical Russian ally and, according to Osmani, plays the role of “fertile ground” for Putin’s influence operations. If most of Europe’s leaders punished the Kremlin for invading Ukraine, Vučić did not. He refused to join EU sanctions against Russia. Belgrade signed a lucrative gas deal with Moscow in early summer as the entire continent struggles to wean itself off Russian energy. Also, Vučić’s nationalist rule led to the erosion of Serbian democracy and increased concerns about freedom of the press. Vučić also allowed Russian propaganda channels to remain in Serbia. They play a huge role in increasing the polarization in the region.
“Instead of the idea of joining a peaceful, prosperous Europe, there has been a growing sense of stagnation in which the historical grievances of each country fester, becoming an integral part of election campaigns and potential engines of conflict. Leaders fan this fire with aggressive rhetoric to divert attention from sluggish economies, low living standards, corruption and nepotism.,” the International Crisis Group said in a report.
Osmani sees Vučić’s behavior as that of an autocrat who cannot be appeased. In addition to Serbian territorial claims in Kosovo, she also points to Belgrade’s involvement in attempts to provoke instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as participation in the Kremlin’s attempt to stage a coup in Montenegro in 2016 to prevent the country from joining NATO. Vučić is guided by long-standing ideas of a “greater Serbia”. On Sunday, a member of the ruling party in the Serbian parliament also tweeted that his country “will have to start denazifying the Balkans.” Thus, he echoed Putin’s rhetoric, which the Russian autocrat tried to justify the invasion of Ukraine.
“Vučić considers our countries temporary and tries to deny our existence. This is how Putin treats Ukraine, Moldova and other countries. It’s the same strategy“, said the President of Kosovo.
Unlike Russia, Serbia is a candidate for EU membership. And it takes a more difficult position in Europe. But the new geopolitics triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has cornered Vučić.
“They have chosen their path. At present, the path of Putin and the path of the EU are completely opposite directions. And you can’t go through all of them at the same time. When there is a neighbor who has decided to be on the wrong side of history in these very difficult times for Europe and beyond, it hurts all of us.“, Osmani added.
Kosovo, meanwhile, knows well which way it is going to go, but it will not be easy. The country lacks UN recognition, and Russia’s Security Council veto remains a key hurdle.
A significant part of the international community has not yet recognized the sovereignty and independence of Kosovo. Even in the EU there are five countries that have not yet done so. President Osmani believes that the situation may change in the current environment, as the war in Ukraine also revitalizes Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic integration. She pointed to how Sweden and Finland are moving fast towards NATO membership.
“We all know well that being safe means being in NATO. “, Osmani stressed, calling on the countries of the alliance “to take steps to accelerate the accession of Kosovo and Bosnia” to the alliance.
Also this year, the European Union, through an accelerated procedure, granted Ukraine the status of a candidate for joining the association, which became a symbol of Europe’s admiration for the Ukrainian struggle. Some critics in the Western Balkans feared that this would delay the accession of their long-standing candidate countries to the EU. But Osmani disagrees.
“For too long we have heard about enlargement fatigue in the EU countries. The openness that the EU has shown towards Ukraine has changed this situation. The EU has finally begun to view the enlargement process as a geostrategic process, not a bureaucratic one”, the President of Kosovo is convinced.