Serbia Between Washington and Moscow

Photo Credits – “Statue of Bill Clinton – Pristina – Kosovo” by Adam Jones, Ph.D. – Global Photo Archive is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. 

By Julian Fisher

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have simmered since America’s intervention in the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia over a decade ago. Despite a recent agreement signed by senior Kosovar and Serbian representatives, outstanding concerns about ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo have resurrected a crisis. Sensitivity to the concerns of Serbs in Kosovo could moderate the crisis and redefine the U.S. relationship with Serbia.

Any long-term settlement between Serbia and Kosovo needs to address the status of Kosovo’s northernmost majority-Serb municipalities. An agreement brokered by the EU in 2013 obligates the government of Kosovo to establish a semi-autonomous “Association of Serb Municipalities”. Kosovo’s current Prime Minister Albin Kurti, however, is publicly opposed to the creation of this association. 

In April, Kurti’s attempt to organize local elections in Serb areas was met with a Serb boycott, resulting in a 3.5% voter turnout and ethnic Albanian mayoral candidates winning in the majority-Serb municipalities. The Kosovo government nevertheless announced its support for the electoral results, igniting protests. Political violence spilled over into conflict with NATO-led Kosovo forces (KFOR), leaving some 25 KFOR troops and 52 protesters injured. Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vučić, insisted that he would not allow a “pogrom” against Kosovar Serbs, echoing the fears of past ethnic violence in the region. 

Cold War Yugoslavia was an independent socialist state outside of the Soviet bloc and Kosovo was an autonomous province within Yugoslavia’s dominant Socialist Republic of Serbia. Yugoslavia led the global non-aligned movement until the Cold War ended. Ethnic secessionism tore apart the Yugoslav project and with it Yugoslavia’s unique position as a militarily powerful, neutral country.

The recent clashes in Kosovo are a stark reminder of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. In 1999, amid fresh memories of the Bosnian war a few years prior and new reports of ethnic cleansing, NATO intervened in the Kosovo war by launching a 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia. While NATO put sufficient pressure on the Serbian government to ultimately force its withdrawal from Kosovo, the loss of both Serbian and Kosovar Albanian civilian lives and the lack of a mandate under international law exposed the trickiness of humanitarian interventions. 

Upon hearing the news that the U.S. and its allies were intervening against Serbia, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov ordered his plane bound for Washington D.C. to turn around mid-flight in protest. This literal U-turn became a figurative turning point in U.S.-Russia relations. Detailing the discourse on NATO expansion in Russia during the 90s,  NATO research fellow Vladimir Brovkin wrote that by not giving advance notice, the U.S. was signaling to the Russians “that their reaction was not very important or relevant”. Brovkin noted that the helplessness of the Yeltsin regime further degraded his popularity in Russia and “contributed to the rise of the mood to resist NATO and the United States next time.” The impression that Washington sought to humiliate Moscow played a role in Russia’s drive to reassert geopolitical influence in the following two decades.

Today’s geopolitical dimensions, which can be described as “partially unipolar”, are mostly the same. However, the emergent wisdom is that a multipolar world is on the horizon and that multipolarity will differ from the unambiguous American hegemony that characterized the 1990s as well as Cold War bipolarity. Once again, the Balkans are stuck in the middle of today’s geopolitical rivalries.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has balanced his relationship with Russia and the European Union (EU). On the one hand, Vučić criticizes the Hague’s warrant for President Putin’s arrest, refuses to sanction Russia, and continues to host direct flights to Russia, bypassing the European Union’s flight ban. On the other hand, Vučić remains publicly committed to Serbian EU membership and has condemned Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

Vučić’s cautious approach recognizes that unqualified support for Russia would weaken Serbia’s position on Kosovo. Vučić has maintained this view since at least 2019 when he explicitly compared the recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea to Kosovo. If Serbia recognized Crimea’s separation from Ukraine in 2014, then according to Vučić the West could claim that “Kosovo is likewise independent, and we [Serbia] no longer have the right to fight for it.” From a realist’s perspective, Vučić’s sensitivity to international legal precedent – in this case the aversion to recognizing separatists – makes sense given that Serbia has territorial claims in Kosovo while maintaining a weak military in NATO’s backyard.

The ongoing tug-o-war between the United States and Russia is reintroducing old strategies from great power competition. Some now argue that while Serbia remains closely allied with Russia due to their shared religious and historical ties, the possibility of a political fracture means “the West should start an information offensive against Putin on social and other media platforms in the Balkans.” Western pundits are interpreting Russia’s military losses in Ukraine as an opportunity to leverage the moment and cement Western influence in the conflict-prone Balkans.

However, approaches like launching “information offensives” or funneling money to opposition groups as the United States did in the past have given it a reputation of seeking regime change in places like Serbia. Instead, the United States can appeal to international law while accepting the desire of the Serbian people to remain culturally and politically independent, all in the pursuit of enduring peace.

This begins by holding the Kosovo government accountable to the agreement on the “Association of Serb Municipalities”. The United States doesn’t have to start from scratch on this strategy, either. On June 1, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrel issued three requests that the U.S. should actively support: (1) to host new elections in northern Kosovo, (2) to ensure the participation of Kosovar Serbs, and (3) to establish the Association of Serb Municipalities.

Insofar as Serbia was a thorn in NATO’s flank in the past, Kosovo once served as a useful asterisk on Serbia’s aspirations. But an independent Kosovo that is overly confident in U.S. backing may get in the way of America’s strategic calculus and undermine peace. The U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill admitted as much himself when he recently questioned whether Kosovo’s Albin Kurti was still a “good partner”. The U.S. should, therefore, engage with the EU’s requests to help temper the situation and pursue diplomatic compromises with Serbia.

Julian Fisher is an independent researcher of International Relations and a previous Global Politics Fellow of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His research focuses on the history of International Law.







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