Tensions are once again brewing between Serbia and Kosovo over the recent municipal elections in the North of Kosovo. Violent protests and clashes erupted between Kosovo Serbs, NATO’s peacekeepers in Kosovo (KFOR), and Kosovo’s special police. Kosovo Serbs resorted to violent protests, instigated by Serbia’s President Aleksander Vucic, in response to Kosovo instating Albanian mayors in Serb majority regions due to low voter out.
The United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have responded by condemning and threatening to place sanctions on Kosovo under Prime Minster Albin Kurti and praising Vucic’s ‘good cooperation’ during the last events between late May and June. It appears that the EU and the US have resorted to the policy of appeasement in the region and will go far to prevent Serbia from falling further into Russia’s embrace while jeopardising one of its most loyal allies in the region.
The recent tensions come after the EU’s attempt to broker a deal to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia at the start of 2023. A prerequisite condition for the two respective countries’ path to EU membership is to normalise relations, and the EU deal, backed by the US, has so far not resolved anything but rather stirred hostility.
Although Serbia has been favoured by the EU, exemplified by receiving the most pre-accession funds out of all EU candidate states and continued visa liberalisation, Serbia has drastically dealigned from the EU’s foreign policy alignment, refused to sanction Russia, spiralled downwards democratically, and recently President Vucic and Serbia’s government have been linked with organised crime. Nevertheless, the EU continues to be silent over Serbia’s democratic backsliding and President Vucic’s authoritarian stride, whilst Kosovo has made progress in the rule of law, economy, and democracy and continues to align its foreign policy closer to the EU and the US.
On 29 May, as a result of a low voter turnout in municipal elections in the North of Kosovo by Kosovo Serbs, less than 3.5% of the population voted, and in effect, Kosovo Albanian Mayors were lawfully elected. Despite the low voter turnout, the international community in Kosovo deemed the elections as legitimate. Kosovo Serbs were discouraged by Serbia’s President Vucic from voting and thereby legitimising Kosovo’s sovereignty which led to violent boycotts when the time came for the Mayors to take their positions.Kosovar authorities mobilised special police forces to maintain order, while Serbia simultaneously deployed its military on the border with Kosovo. Moreover, the arrest of three Kosovar border police officers by the Serbian authorities ignited further disputes. Serbia claimed that the border police were “deep inside Serbian territory,” while Kosovo has claimed otherwise. Provided that Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo, anyone in Kosovo can be deemed inside Serbia’s ‘territory,’ and therefore, the arrest of the officers appears to have been part of a provocation rather than a lawful breach of law.
The unrest is rooted in Kosovo’s refusal to establish an Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM), which was part of the EU normalisation agreement. In the agreement, several crucial aspects were integral to the normalisation process, especially one for Serbia to stop preventing Kosovo from being recognised in international organisations. Serbia has already breached this by voting against Kosovo’s Council of Europe membership and Vucic’s goal to block Kosovo’s bid for United Nations membership. Observing Serbia’s breaches of the agreement and the EU’s and the US’s lack of response gives no motivation for PM Kurti to proceed in establishing the ASM. Particularly provided that the ASM could be used as a strategy popularly employed by Serbia to form a breakaway territory, observed in Bosnia with Republika Srpska – a Serbian strategy that the EU and US officials refuse to acknowledge as a legitimate problem.
As PM Kurti proceeded to maintain order in the North of Kosovo by employing special police to allow mayors to take up their newly elected positions, he was met with harsh condemnation by the US and the EU. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, along with the US Ambassador Jeff Hovenier, were quick to condemn Kurti’s actions, followed by the Biden administration suspending Kosovo’s forces from NATO participation scheduled later in the year. The EU Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borell, has gone as far as to threaten Kosovo by proposing to block PM Kurti from participating in high-level events and possibly suspending EU financial support. Whilst no condemnation nor criticism was placed on Serbia, the main perpetrator of violence in the North of Kosovo, or the actions taken by the Serbian government to employ military by the border and arrest Kosovar border police. It is clear that the EU and the US are practicing a policy of appeasement in the region by appeasing the aggressor and punishing a loyal ally in order to maintain peace at all costs.
The policy of appeasement stems from the 1930s, practiced by the United Kingdom and France toward Nazi Germany. It was guided by the notion of avoiding war at all costs, and that included making concessions to an aggressive power that was out of hand, such as Adolf Hitler’s Germany in 1938, which inevitably led to World War II. As the UK and France were militarily unprepared and exhausted from the previous war, continuous concessions emboldened Hitler to seize greater territory. The US and the EU practiced the policy of appeasement when Russia occupied parts of Georgia in 2008, took control of Transnistria in Moldova, and annexed Crimea in 2014. Despite meagre sanctions by the West, Russia wasn’t obstructed from pursuing its revisionist foreign policy. In 2022, Russia felt emboldened enough to embark on a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, causing major instability in Europe and abroad. The policy of appeasement gives leeway to aggressive state actors to continue to build upon their ambitions and disrupt the liberal world order. If left unpunished, small acts of aggression can precipitate broader conflict and war in the future.
So, how long will the US and the EU continue to practice the policy of appeasement? Serbia and President Vucic have time and time again demonstrated loyalties to Russia and its ambitions in the region by not imposing sanctions on Russia, holding state visits with Russian high officials, deepening ties with China and Russia, and deteriorating democratically. The US and the EU have demonstrated broad naivety in handling affairs in the region, and the recent actions taken by them have done great injustice to Kosovo. Kosovo has duly followed foreign policy requests from the US and the EU throughout the years of its independence, is continuing to improve democratically, and genuinely wishes to join the EU and be a part of the Western sphere of influence. The US and the EU are at risk of losing one of their main allies in the region by continuously appeasing Serbia for the price of short-term peace.
The US and the EU enacting this kind of policy toward Kosovo will leave Kosovo with no other option but to turn to Turkey in order to preserve its nationhood, with Turkey already proposing to intervene and mediate between Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo’s place in Europe makes it a European security issue, and the EU’s inability to handle the situation is undermining the Union’s ability to conduct broader operations and garner influence further afield. The liberal and democratic values that drive the EU’s purpose are not practiced in this region. The EU needs to strengthen its position by holding Serbia accountable for the events in the North of Kosovo and removing the prioritised EU candidate status until there is a clear policy shift toward the EU. More stringent approaches are necessary to prevent an emboldened Serbia from taking more drastic action in Kosovo; to preserve Kosovo’s sovereignty, and protect European foreign policy interests and values.
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Pedisic, L. (2023) The Policy of Appeasement: Western Mismanagement of Kosovo-Serbia Tensions, IDRN, 23 June. Available at: https://idrn.eu/the-policy-of-appeasement-western-mismanagement-of-kosovo-serbia-tensions/ [Accessed: dd/mm/yyyy].