The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly conducts analyses of events spanning the Middle East, the Balkans, and the world. IFIMES is analyzing the ongoing situation in light of the rising tensions and the impasse in the process of normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo. From the analysis titled “Serbia – Kosovo 2023: The disinformation war,” we present the most significant and compelling findings.
As the end of 2023 approaches, tensions in the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo are on the rise. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, coupled with the local elections in northern Kosovo's municipalities of Mitrovica, Leposavić, Zvečan, and Zubin Potok, which were boycotted by members of the majority Serbian community, have led to an upsurge in tensions and violence. In February 2023, envoys from France, Germany, the EU, the US, and Italy met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti (LVV) in an attempt to persuade them to sign a plan aimed at calming tensions and achieving full normalization of relations. The outcome was the unsigned Ohrid Agreement, outlining the parties' specific commitments for implementation. More recently, Azerbaijan initiated a military operation, successfully reclaiming the secessionist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, an event that consequently reverberates in its implications for the situation in Kosovo.
The isolated armed incident in the town of Banjska on 24 September 2023, when a group of local Serbs clashed with the Kosovo police, further exacerbated concerns among the local population and heightened tensions. Milan Radoičić assumed responsibility, stating that he was present in Banjska with a group of local Serbs with the aim to encourage “the Serbian population in that region in offering resistance to the daily terror they are subjected to.” The aftermath of the Banjska conflict resulted in the loss of one Kosovo police officer's life and that of three Serbs. Since then, the Kosovar government has persistently called for sanctions against Serbia, accusing it of complicity in the attack on the Kosovo police. On the other hand, the NATO/KFOR military mission has repeatedly dismissed the possibility of ‘assuming police duties’ from the Kosovo police. Numerous stakeholders are stirring the ‘Kosovo stew’ each pursuing their respective interests and exerting influence. Placing exclusive blame on a single actor, Serbia, or its President Aleksandar Vučić, without a thorough independent investigation, would demonstrate a lack of professionalism and due diligence, since Serbia has not had effective authority in Kosovo for over two decades. Kosovo is a complex equation replete with numerous elements and variables, both domestic and foreign. Should the international community, which is increasingly becoming a part of the problem in Kosovo, fail to amend its approach to addressing this ongoing issue, spontaneous resistance from the Serbian population should not be discounted.
Representatives of the EU, the United States, KFOR, and EULEX have stated that they will await the results of the investigation before taking any actions concerning official Belgrade.
Vladimir Bilčík, the European Parliament rapporteur for Serbia (EPP), in response to the adoption of the resolution on Serbia in the European Parliament, stated: “This resolution is not just a message for one side; it sends a message that the past must be overcome to avoid its repetition and highlights the equal responsibility of Kosovo and Serbia. On one hand, the resolution conveys what the Serbian side, Belgrade, should do, and that's the main message. However, we also expect Pristina to demonstrate a serious commitment to dialogue, negotiations, and issues related to the dialogue, such as the establishment of the Community of Serbian Municipalities (ZSO), the reduction of tensions, and the full investigation of all violent incidents, including attacks on Serbs, such as the one on Christmas Eve this year. All of this is outlined in the resolution, and it is important.”
The attack by the militant Hamas movement on Israel on 7 October 2023, has introduced a new dimension into international relations, bearing implications for the global stage, particularly in the Western Balkans, which has several unresolved issues, one of which is Kosovo.
The culmination of tensions and violence, both in the world at large and in northern Kosovo, has prompted international stakeholders towards greater involvement and the continued pursuit of political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. The recent visits of EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajčák, U.S. Special Envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar, as well as advisors to the President of France, German Chancellor, and the Prime Minister of Italy, who convened with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, have introduced a new dimension to the process of normalizing relations.
The visit of the so-called Big Five sends a message underscoring the unity of the EU and the United States in their commitment to the Agreement on the Normalization of Relations, which the parties reached on 27 February in Brussels, along with its implementation annex agreed upon on 18 March in Ohrid. Nevertheless, obstacles to the plan’s realization may still come from EU and NATO member states that have not recognized Kosovo's independence (Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, and Greece), as from Russia and China as permanent members of the UN Security Council, and from at least half of the UN member states that also do not acknowledge Kosovo's independence.
Kosovo is ill-prepared to conduct a population census in line with EUROSTAT standards, in the period from 1 November to 15 December 2023. The census holds considerable importance for Kosovo as it serves to collect credible data that will inform future development planning. While the UN's methodology for population censuses does not mandate the disclosure of ethnic and religious affiliations, in Kosovo and the region such disclosure is of paramount (national) interest. Amidst escalating tensions between Serbs and Albanians, Bulgaria is exploiting the current situation to ‘identify’ as many Bulgarians in Kosovo as possible and grant them citizenship. Particularly targeted are Bosniaks and Gorani, whose numbers are expected to significantly diminish due to Bulgaria's aggressive actions, as it effectively transforms them into ‘newly-minted Bulgarians’ by awarding them Bulgarian citizenship and documents. The process of Bulgarization of Kosovo is intensifying primarily due to the upcoming population census, as Bulgaria seeks to legalize the presence of Bulgarians within the demographic makeup of Kosovo. The next step will involve the formal recognition of the Bulgarian community within Kosovo's constitution, aligning with the demands already made of the Republic of North Macedonia. The objective is for Bulgarians to be officially recognized as one of the so-called non-majority communities in Kosovo.
Analysts believe that, with regard to travel documents (passports) issued by Serbia to Kosovo Serbs, a model similar to the so-called ‘Croatian model,’ employed by the EU for holders of Croatian passports, should be applied. This model allowed Croatian citizens to travel freely within the EU, irrespective of whether they resided in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or any other part of the world. Albanians from Kosovo, holding Albanian passports, can travel unimpeded throughout Europe, and a similar arrangement should be extended to Kosovo Serbs possessing Serbian passports issued in Serbia with a registered residence in Kosovo.
The 20th Century was a tragic era for the Serbian people and Serbia as a nation. The harrowing ordeals endured during the First and Second World Wars, as well as the tragic disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, have left lasting consequences.
The first democratically elected Prime Minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjić, who tragically fell victim to an assassination, once reflected on these events by stating, among other insights: “The question of a better tomorrow is ever-present. I would like people to start believing that tomorrow can be better than today. My philosophy of Serbian history is that we lost the entire 20th century, and I am convinced that the 21st century can be an era of our accomplishments.”
With the rise of Aleksandar Vučić and the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) to power, Serbia has once again become the epicentre of events in the region and a driving force in European integrations. Serbia is undergoing an economic revival and is diligently pursuing European Union membership. It has managed to sustain a high level of foreign investment annually, amounting to approximately five billion euros per year, a figure far exceeding the combined totals of all other countries in the region.
The 21st Century has indeed become an era of opportunities and achievements for Serbia. Throughout history, whenever Serbia experienced rapid progress, there were attempts made to slow down or even obstruct its path. This was exemplified in the recent past with the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjić.
Serbia has successfully repositioned and rebranded itself in regional and international relations, notably evident in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, where President Vučić effectively introduced the paradigm that 'they cannot gain everything, while we gain nothing.' Consequently, the United States has adopted a stance advocating the full implementation of the Brussels and Washington Agreements, with a particular emphasis on the establishment of the Community of Serbian Municipalities (ZSO).
In recent history, Serbia largely resisted the international community’s cooperation and proposals, which ultimately came at a high cost. Vučić has demonstrated statesmanship by effectively embarking on the resolution of the most challenging state and national issue, Kosovo, despite all the challenges and dangers that come with it. Any additional destabilization and deterioration of the security situation in Kosovo primarily impacts the Serbian population, as it poses a threat to their physical extinction. It is imperative to achieve a broad social and political consensus between the ruling government and the opposition concerning this paramount state and national issue, with due consideration to the stance of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC). The Serbian opposition seems to misunderstand its historical role; instead of being an opposition to Vučić, it is increasingly becoming an opposition to the state of Serbia itself. Regarding Kosovo, after Slobodan Milošević, the most significant damage to Serbia’s interests was inflicted by the duo of Boris Tadić and Vuk Jeremić. Without apparent cause, they initiated the question of Kosovo's independence legality before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, which ruled that the declaration of Kosovo's independence was in accordance with international law.
Extraordinary parliamentary elections will take place in Serbia, the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, the City of Belgrade, and 65 additional cities and municipalities on 17 December 2023. Opposition parties had called for these elections,and their request has been granted by President Vučić.
Analysts argue that the opposition's approach is flawed, as they base their political activities on extreme antagonism towards Vučić rather than a sound political platform. Their strategy of uniting the opposition is misguided; instead of rallying around the oldest political party, the Democratic Party (DS), they are coalescing around individuals who have fragmented the Democratic Party. The realization that those who have effectively disintegrated the largest political party are incapable of shaping Serbia's future is increasingly dawning upon the citizens. What particularly draws the public's ire is the fact that certain opposition parties have ‘appropriated’ civil protests against violence and exploited the tragedies of individual families for their own pursuit of power. Collaboration between the Serbian and Kosovar opposition is evident and well-coordinated, with a common goal of toppling the incumbent government at any cost. There are no indications that early parliamentary elections could be held in Kosovo in the near future.
Analysts contend that Serbia has reached a historic zenith in its economic and societal development, and it is imperative to sustain and/or preserve this positive trajectory. The European Union (EU) must avoid risking the loss of Serbia and should adopt a more equitable policy towards it, refraining from persistent conditionalities. Playing with Serbia could potentially lead to a reoccurrence of historical events in the region from roughly 30 years ago.
Serbia is on the brink of an election campaign, ushering in an era of unprecedented disinformation warfare. In certain neighbouring countries, operational hubs have already been established, equipped with boundless resources dedicated to the production of disinformation and hybrid warfare tactics. The objective is to foment chaos and unseat Aleksandar Vučić and the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) from power, despite the party's stable support, which exceeds 50% of voters. Their aim is to mislead Serbian citizens, eroding the standing and credibility of Aleksandar Vučić and the Serbian Progressive Party. Consequently, it is vital that state institutions maintain a high degree of professionalism and readiness to institutionally counteract this assault, particularly in light of recent breaches within the nation's security, defence, and intelligence systems.
Tensions in Kosovo are expected to escalate, with the possibility of a renewed armed conflict, but this time potentially resulting in graver consequences. The United States and NATO/KFOR must be prepared to prevent any such new armed conflict in the region. In this regard, the role of international community policies is vital, necessitating a more sensitive and pragmatic approach to the Kosovo issue.
Analysts contend that breaking the deadlock in the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo hinges on the full implementation of all previously signed agreements. Among them, the 2013 Brussels Agreement serves as the foundation for the establishment of the Community of Serbian Municipalities (ZSO) in Kosovo. This step would ease the reintegration of the Serbian population into Kosovo's institutions, from which they withdrew in November 2022, and set the conditions and environment for the rerun of local elections with the participation of Serbs in the four northern Kosovo municipalities with a Serbian majority — Mitrovica, Leposavić, Zvečan, and Zubin potok.
The debate in the UN Security Council on 23 October 2023, regarding the six-month report on the situation in Kosovo, has exposed the complete ineffectiveness of the United Nations due to the myriad of global issues. The UN struggles to proactively identify and prioritize problems worldwide, whether in Africa, the Caucasus, the Middle East, or elsewhere. The UNMIK mission in Kosovo primarily serves the purpose of compiling reports for the UN Security Council, while Resolution 1244 exists in a purely formal capacity. Despite the UN Charter designating the organization as the primary entity for addressing global challenges, the UN has become a marginal player in Kosovo.
Ljubljana/Washington/Bruxelles/Beograd/Prishtina, 26 October 2023
 IFIMES - International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN in New York since 2018, and it is the publisher of the international scientific journal "European Perspectives."
 Source: Al Jazeera Balkans: Evropski parlament usvojio rezoluciju o Kosovu i Srbiji https://balkans.aljazeera.net/news/balkan/2023/10/19/evropski-parlament-usvojio-rezoluciju-o-kosovu-i-srbiji