By Daniel Serwer
Serbia’s effort to destabilize Kosova so that it can claim control of its Serb-majority north should today be apparent to all. The license plate brouhaha of last year, the boycott of municipal elections in the spring, the subsequent rioting against the elected non-Serb mayors, the attack on NATO peacekeepers in May, the kidnapping of Kosova police–these were all prelude to the foiled insurrection last weekend.
Hear and see no evil
But the US and EU have so far failed to draw the necessary conclusions. They continue to call for dialogue without any consequences levied against Belgrade. The American Ambassador in Belgrade has even seen fit to suggest Serbia should join NATO. The overwhelming majority of Serbs reject that prospect. Their government’s recent behavior makes it not just illogical but nonsensical.
Within the EU, holding Serbia accountable is difficult because it requires unanimity. Viktor Orban’s pro-Russian Hungary is the usual spoiler. The outcome of yesterday’s election in Slovakia will make Bratislava Moscow’s next best friend.
In the US, it is the Biden Administration’s dogged and fruitless offer of goodies to turn Serbia towards the West that blocks any serious reevaluation of Balkans policy. The officials concerned simply do not want to accept failure. They continue to pursue appeasement, blind to Belgrade’s malfeasance.
It’s not only Kosova
This blindness will have consequences. Serbia, like Russia, sees the West as divided and weak. Belgrade may back off temporarily in Kosova in order not to provoke a serious reaction. But Serbia will continue to pursue irredentist aims in Montenegro and in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In Montenegro, government formation is blocked. The new president there wants pro-Russian parties in the coalition. The prime minister-designate is resisting, under pressure from Washington and Brussels. But he also rejects cooperation with the Western-oriented former ruling party. The country is in a dangerous limbo. Belgrade, working with the Serbian Orthodox Church, could well create chaos there, as it has repeatedly in recent years.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the international community High Representative has taken a series of unwise decisions that have damaged his own standing. He can no longer freely enter the 49% of the country’s territory known as Republika Srpska (RS). Its leader has taken the entity to within a few short steps of secession. He awaits only Moscow and Belgrade approval to declare de jure independence. He has already separated the RS from the country’s judicial and executive authority.
The Ukraine war will be an important factor in what happens next in the Balkans. The omens are not favorable in any of the possible scenarios.
If Russia were to lose in Ukraine, Moscow might well try to get compensation in the Balkans. The method would be destabilization, not naked aggression. Serbia could be given the green light and covert assistance to create chaos in northern Kosova, force installation of a pro-Russian government in NATO member Montenegro, and allow RS to declare full autonomy if not independence.
If Russia wins in Ukraine by holding on to Crimea and at least part of Donbas, the precedent will reinforce Serbia’s push for at least de facto if not de jure control of Serb populations in Kosova, Bosnia, and Montenegro.
If the war in Ukraine continues for another year, Moscow could decide to refocus on the Balkans and set a precedent there for what it wants in Ukraine.
All these scenarios would entail major losses for the the US and EU. They can be prevented. But only if current policies are reevaluated now and a much tougher approach taken to counter Serbian irredentism.