Analysis: How the north of Kosovo, in addition to Ukraine, became the most vulnerable point in Europe
A few days before the new escalation of violence in Kosovo, political analyst Agon Maliqi warned that such a thing could happen soon and that it would be "exactly what Russia would like to see, hoping to distract the West from Ukraine." ". He believes that the increase in tensions is largely the result of the "Serb-centric policy of the West".
At the beginning of the analysis for the newly founded "Observatory for the Western Balkans" of the American institute "New Lines", Maliqi recalls a series of incidents that happened between Kosovo and Serbia recently, including the attack by protesters on NATO peacekeepers in Zvečan after the troubled elections in the north of Kosovo. The escalating episodes came just months after Kosovo's government and police engaged in another battle with Kosovo Serbs in the north over license plates and identity documents.
A question that arose from these episodes is: Who controls the north of Kosovo? The answer to this question may be the key to solving the long-term dispute between Kosovo and Serbia - and to security in the Balkans in general," says Maliqi.
He explains that the four northern Kosovo municipalities are territorially connected to Serbia through hilly terrain that the government in Pristina can hardly control, and which is "suitable for smuggling, including weapons." The majority of Serbs living in these municipalities are, as he states, very hostile towards the independence of Kosovo and its institutions. According to him, in 1999, when the defeated Yugoslav army was retreating from Kosovo along with many Serbian civilians on the run, NATO set up a blockade on the bridge that separated the northern city of Mitrovica from the rest of Kosovo.
For nearly two decades, even after Kosovo gained independence in 2008 and as Serbs living in other parts of Kosovo gradually integrated into its institutional structures, the north remained a world unto itself, he writes.
Around 2015, a gradual process of formal integration began through EU-mediated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, and in 2017, the parallel Serbian judiciary and police structures were integrated into the Kosovo system. He points out that for years international organizations have described the north as a "hotbed of organized crime" or a "local possession of a few individuals", allegedly connected to the government in Belgrade.
Maliqi says everything went downhill in November 2022, when Kosovo Serbs in the north abandoned all Kosovo institutions, including the police and courts.
The answer to the question of who controls the north so far seems to be: nobody and everybody at the same time. Hence the chaos and violence, while the parties break through the borders and weapons seem to be easily available," concludes Maliqi.
In the analysis, published a few days before today's incident, he warned:
The North has reached a point where there is a high probability that someone will be shot and killed, risking a dangerous spiral of escalation. That's exactly what Russia's information war predicts will happen, and that's what Russia would like to see, hoping to distract the West from Ukraine."
Maliqi believes that the main reason for the escalation of tensions is exactly the great Western diplomatic effort aimed at improving things. Just a few months ago, Kosovo and Serbia reached agreements in Brussels and Ohrid that were supposed to lead to the full normalization of relations. However, as recent escalations have shown, this effort is on the verge of failure like several similar ones so far, and that, as Maliqi states, precisely because of the West's approach.
Since the end of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, with Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 as the final chapter, the West's approach to pacifying the Balkans has been to retrace the path taken by Western Europe after the Second World War. War!, says Maliqi.
He explains that a key pillar of this approach is focused on countries' path to EU accession, which was supposed to create interdependence, protect the rights of ethnic minorities and ultimately make borders like those between Kosovo and Serbia less important. In 2011, the EU-backed normalization dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia began under the assumption that the EU had critical leverage on both sides through its conditionality policy, which would effectively mean that Serbia would one day have to recognize Kosovo's independence for to join the EU.
All agreements in 2013 and 2015 resulted from this dialogue, which, among other things, brought the northern parallel institutions into the fold of Kosovo and represented a major step towards full normalization. The agreements also provided for an additional level of autonomy for Kosovo Serbs through the Community of Serb-Majority Municipalities.
At that time, the EU indefinitely halted its expansion into the Western Balkans. It's hard to overestimate the irreversible damage and toxic dynamics this historic decision has set in motion across the region, he says.
Maliqi explains that this decision encouraged authoritarian leadership, stifled economic growth and opened the way for capital from authoritarian countries to fill financing needs, and perhaps most significantly, it undermined the influence of the EU. He believes that the American administrations were much more aware of the situations in terms of the vulnerabilities that were being created and that this is the reason why NATO membership in the region progressed, e.g. regarding the accession of North Macedonia and Montenegro, while the accession to the EU is at a standstill.
For a long time, the United States viewed the Kosovo-Serbia dispute as a key regional issue, and the current situation allows Russia to serve as a protector of Serbia's interests and dictate its geopolitical orientation. According to Maliqi, Russia was actively trying to undermine Western-led normalization efforts between Kosovo and Serbia.
He recalled that in 2018, with the support of the Trump administration and some European countries, the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia even considered the idea of exchanging territory as a solution. Thus, parts of northern Kosovo would join Serbia in exchange for parts of the Albanian-populated region in the south of Serbia.
The efforts have failed, mainly because of fears of domino effects on the region, the resistance of several European countries, most notably Germany, and his unpopularity in Kosovo, he says.
Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Russia's strategic mistake led to an opening and emphasized the urgency of resolving the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia," he states, adding that it led to the initiative that resulted in the Basic Agreement reached in February of the same year.
The recent agreement was not the achievement of the ultimate goal of mutual recognition, but a step that would allow Kosovo to join multilateral institutions without formally recognizing Serbia, much as West Germany and East Germany agreed to co-exist in the international arena. In return, Kosovo will fulfill its previous obligations on the rights of Serbs within its constitutional framework.
Maliqi believes that, in order for the basic agreement to work, "there should be a clear and agreed sequence of events about who does what and until when".
There should also be a minimum level of trust between the parties; clear incentives for compliance; and an intermediary with credibility and leverage. None of these preconditions existed – which explains why the deal is already falling apart, he says.
However, according to him, nothing undermines the process like the mistrust between the two leaders of Kosovo and Serbia.
Both appear to genuinely think the other wants to start a war and are engaging in a "coward's game," trying to trap the other on a course of confrontation with NATO in the north, he says.
Maliqi concluded that Vucic, who is facing weekly protests, has a clear interest in avoiding any decision on Kosovo and the failure of the deal, but only if the West does not see him as the sole culprit. He believes that Vucic is well suited to the tensions in the north, because "the security crisis helps to stifle domestic protests and creates an obstacle to continuing the dialogue."
According to him, "the real goal for Serbia remains either the status quo or the ethnic divisions, which is why the Serbs left the institutions only in the north and not in the south, where the majority of Serbs live."
Kurti's strategy of antagonizing Kosovo's friends and allies at a critical moment has left many confused. Does he not believe in any of the Western guarantees? Is he prioritizing domestic politics, where the JSO is a very unpopular idea and police actions in the north are good for ratings? Does he really believe he can forcefully change the reality on the ground in the North? Does he have another, longer game in mind?" Maliqi asks.
He states that all of the above may be true, but that, in any case, his strategy "set Kosovo on a course of isolation from the West and sharing the blame with Vucic, which will not bring any good."
It is difficult to predict what will happen next. There are probably more episodes of controlled violence. What is clear is that the current status quo in the north, where no one has full control, can no longer be maintained," Maliqi concluded.