Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Kosovo and Serbia’s Long Frozen Conflict

President Donald J. Trump participates in a signing ceremony with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House.
Image: Flickr/Trump’s White House Archive

By Alexander Miguel

Yugoslavia comprised a delicate balance of cultural and political interests. It had four primary languages (Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Albanian, and Macedonian), three main religions (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Sunni Muslim), two alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic), six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina), and two autonomous republics of Kosovo and Vojvodina. All the while, seven neighbors, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, and Italy, surrounded it.

Greece and Italy were North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, while Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary were members of the Warsaw Pact. Under President Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia was a socialist republic with a communist ideology. However, disagreements with Josef Stalin pushed him into the non-aligned movement in 1948, where he delicately placated both blocs to maintain his power. American loans dampened the economic fallout of Yugoslavia’s 1973 oil embargo and recession. Krushchev’s denunciation of Tito’s old rival Stalin after his death also reduced the tension between Yugoslavia and other communist nations. 

Tito employed careful diplomacy over his long tenure as the president of Yugoslavia to ensure his country’s standing abroad. He also carefully avoided stoking the ethnic tension within Yugoslavia. He rose to power as a partisan leader in World War II to liberate Yugoslavia from Nazi occupation. In 1944, the British and Americans backed Tito’s rise to power, preferring him over the perceived untrustworthyYugoslavian king in exile, Paul Karađorđević, who very briefly signed onto an alliance with the Axis powers. Tito enjoyed broad popularity among both Serbs and non-Serbs within Yugoslavia.

Even though Tito liberated his country from totalitarian rule, we should not mistake him for a benevolent figure. He still ruled Yugoslavia as a dictator-for-life and purged dissidents both within and without the Yugoslav Communist Party, like his Soviet counterparts. Similar to his foe Stalin, he chose to freeze over preexisting ethnic conflicts and establish autonomous regions as a simple solution to a more complicated problem. Even as a monarchy, ethnic tensions existed within Yugoslavia. Ostensibly a nation for all South Slavs, many Croats and Slovenes still felt alienated and underrepresented. 

A tragic outcome of this situation was the Ustase regime, a far-right political movement by Croatian ultranationalists to establish an independent Croatian state. The Ustase collaborated with the Axis powers to create an independent Croatian state and murdered hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Many Chetniks also responded with massacres of their own. Tito executed the Chetnik partisan leader, Draza Mihailovic, in 1946 on charges of collaboration with the Nazis. 

Tito’s concerns over foreign and ethnic entanglements were linked to his cult of personality. His charisma and long life succeeded in creating a Yugoslav identity. He oversaw the establishment of a new constitution for Kosovo in 1974, which granted the region the status of an autonomous socialist republic within Serbia. Tito died in 1980, and with him died a unified Yugoslavia. His successor Slobodan Milosevic lacked the necessary charisma and tact to keep the nation together. In 1981, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo sought status as a full republic within Yugoslavia. Yet, Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status in 1989. 

When the ethnic tension between Albanians and Serbs escalated into violence, NATO sent forces to support the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) against the Serbian armed forces. By 1999, Kosovo effectively seceded from Serbia. However, the war of independence involved ethnic cleansing from Yugoslav and KLA forces against Albanians, Serbs, and Roma.

Kosovo still does not enjoy universal international recognition. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, swiftly recognized by many western nations. Serbia, however, never officially recognized Kosovo as an independent nation, treating it as a breakaway region and still subject to its sovereignty. Likewise, Serbia’s longtime ally, the Russian Federation, has never recognized Kosovar independence and has employed its veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council as a shield against further NATO action in Kosovo. However, even some NATO members like Spain, Slovakia, Romania, and Greece do not recognize Kosovar independence either.

Much of the northern region still inhabited by Serbs has enjoyed considerable autonomy from the central government in Pristina. Despite support for Kosovo’s independence, European Union (EU) and American lawmakers have encouraged Pristina to formalize the autonomous status of North Kosovo. A long-running dispute over license plates—where ethnic Serbs in North Kosovo refuse to register their cars with the government in Pristina—has also involved the resignation of hundreds of Serbian public officials in North Kosovo. 

Will further measures by Pristina to reduce North Kosovo’s autonomy escalate into a future war of reintegration into Serbia, as the December 2022 ethnic tensions in North Kosovo have shown? This scenario is not likely. Even if Pristina wants to eliminate Serbian autonomy, it cannot do so while seeking EU membership. Pristina applied for EU membership in December, but this will likely not go anywhere without Belgrade’s recognition, which will require a compromise with the Serbs of North Kosovo. 

Some states that do not recognize Kosovo—like Spain and Cyprus—fear the precedent that an independent Kosovo will provide for ethnic separatists within their borders. Even in Belgrade this is complicated by the ruling coalition, involving the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), considering the idea of EU accession for Serbia. 

President Aleksander Vucic of the SNS thus has a difficult choice ahead of him. He can swallow the bitter pill of recognizing Kosovo’s independence in return for greater autonomy for North Kosovo Serbs. This recognition will enable his decade-long plan of EU accession but will, in turn, damage the pride of Serbian nationalists and lose future SNS voters. Given Russia’s distraction in the Ukraine War, Vucic cannot rely too heavily on Belgrade’s traditional informal ally when Russia seems unwilling to give military support to its own formal allies, like its lukewarm response to the September 2022 Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes. 

Assurances from Moscow in 2023 do not mean the same as they did in 1914. Likewise, Serbia has participated in China’s Belt and Road Initiative to receive funding for large infrastructure projects to facilitate economic development like many other countries in Eastern Europe. While China has also supported Serbia alongside Russia diplomatically in matters relating to Kosovo, furthering itself into the Russia-China Axis may prove disastrous to Belgrade, especially as the Chinese economy experiences a slowdown due to lockdowns and the winding down of its manufacturing dominance. 

One alternative bloc Serbia could join to further its national security goals is the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), led by Warsaw and primarily funded by Washington. Currently, twelve Eastern and Central European nations form the organization with the goal of integrating the region into a cohesive bloc, reducing its historical dependence on Russia. Though not likely in the near future, Serbian integration into the bloc can strengthen its position along the Danube and integrate Serbia more closely with some of the most rapidly-growing markets in Europe. 

Serbian nationalists will never accept such a settlement, however, especially if goaded by the United States. Polls consistently show opposition by the Serbian public to EU accession, with 61 percent of respondents saying they would be willing to give up EU accession to keep strong ties with Russia. Many Serbs still harbor ill will towards the United States and NATO for its role in Kosovo’s independence and will remain stubborn, even if they can win small compromises. 

Though proclaimed as a significant victory, Trump’s 2021 Kosovo-Serbia deal accomplished little besides the relocation of each of their Israeli embassies to Jerusalem. Like Tito, the ruling Serbian SNS coalition is trying to stay neutral on all foreign policy blocs with a contradictory EU accession policy. However, placating both sides only works as a strategy when both sides are equal. Despite calls for a move to multipolarity, the fallout from Ukraine and an economic slowdown have isolated Russia and China, respectively, inhibiting Belgrade’s diplomatic independence. 

Just as Milosevic lost control of a unified Yugoslavia during the decline of the Soviet Union, the SNS may have to cut their losses in Kosovo and join the EU. The United States has already encouraged both Pristina and Belgrade to make peace. From here, Washington should keep a delicate hand and welcome Serbian integration into the rest of Europe, though be realistic in its expectations.

Belgrade must accept its loss of Kosovo, which the United States cannot force upon it. American policy-makers should remain content if Serbia and Kosovo remain isolated from the rest of Europe for the indefinite future as they deal with their frozen conflict.

Alexander Miguel is an undergraduate student at Florida State University studying International Affairs and Religious Studies. He is specifically interested in the intersection between religion and geopolitics, with a primary interest in research into the Eastern Catholic Churches.

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