My Europe: ‘Trip Wires’ for Peace in the Western Balkans


The latest incident in Kosovo is reminiscent of scenarios Serbia used to start the wars in former Yugoslavia in 1991. The West must prevent a new flare-up in the Balkans, says Alexander Rhotert.

The recent attack by a Serbian paramilitary unit on Albanian police officers in Kosovo is the latest example in a chain of violent acts aimed at destabilizing Europe’s newest state.

Belgrade’s denials of prior knowledge or involvement were made no less dubious by the massive armored troop deployments it subsequently sent to Kosovo’s borders, prompting even US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to intervene with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Hopefully, this incident has made the last advocates of appeasement policy rethink their position. The popular fairy tale until recently was that the autocratic Serbian regime was the anchor of stability in the Western Balkans. But this has now been completely discredited, despite Vucic continuing to play games through his governors in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Still, Washington had made seeing Vucic as a “guarantor of stability” the guiding principle of its Balkan realpolitik a year ago in order to free Serbia from Russia’s grip and integrate it into the Ukraine alliance. But this “fantasy diplomacy” has finally reached its limits.

The images coming out of the region these days are frighteningly similar to those from Croatia in the summer of 1990, when Serbian paramilitaries ambushed Croatian police officers. Those attacks began just months before the actual start of the war in June 1991. A year later in March 1992, it was once again Serbian paramilitaries who cut off the Bosnian capital Sarajevo from the outside world. At that time, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had drawn up a plan to unite all Serb-populated areas of Yugoslavia into one state to create a Greater Serbia.

Serbian Rearmament

Thirty years after the Yugoslav wars, a regime has established itself in Belgrade that more or less openly seeks to realize Milosevic’s project. President Vucic’s closest confidant is his powerful intelligence director Aleksandar Vulin, the main protagonist of the Greater Serbian successor project “Serbian World.” Third in line is Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, alongside whom Vucic led Milosevic’s propaganda apparatus in the 1990s.

The Greater Serbian trio around the Serbian president has become a clear and immediate threat to Serbia’s neighbors, who are hopelessly outnumbered militarily. As early as 2021, British news weekly The Economist reported that Serbia’s “shopping spree for weapons” was rattling border countries. Its arms budget doubled from 2015 to 2022, reaching nearly $1.5 billion (€1.4 billion), according to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Kosovo’s arms budget has also doubled, but rings in at just over $100 million by comparison. In a study on regional armament in 2021, the Institute of Technology Zurich (ETU) concluded that Serbia’s expanding armaments is undermining confidence in the Western Balkans.

The ‘Bosnification’ of Kosovo?

As such, it’s unsurprising that Pristina refuses to implement the 2013 Brussels agreement of a Serbian association of municipalities (“Zajednica”), which provides for a high degree of autonomy for Kosovo’s 10 Serb-majority municipalities. But it should be mentioned that Kosovo’s constitution does guarantee extensive minority rights.

Although Kosovo’s numerous ethnic minorities make up little more than 8% of the population, they are guaranteed 20 of the 120 parliamentary seats, including 10 for Serbs alone, who make up between 3% and 5% of the population. At the municipal level, there is also comprehensive guaranteed participation for minorities once they reach 10% of the respective municipality’s population.

Kosovo’s government, led by Prime Minister Albin Kurti, fears ending up with a kind of backdoor Republika Srpska 2.0 via the creation of a Serb municipal union. The autonomy guaranteed to Bosnian Serbs in the Dayton Accords peace agreement has brought Bosnia to the precipice of war, with Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik pushing for Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia — with Vucic’s acquiescence, if not approval.

Preventive deployment

What can the West do to diffuse the situation? It should recognize that Serb aspirations to achieve Serb-populated territories in Kosovo and Bosnia are real. Stabilising one acute flashpoint — currently Kosovo — helps only temporarily. Especially if Bosnia is neglected,  because that is where Belgrade will engage once it has been deterred by NATO in Kosovo.

Practically speaking, a quick solution could come by means of strengthening the military missions in Kosovo (KFOR) and Bosnia (EUFOR/Althea), both successfully led by NATO and the EU. This would be particularly true for EUFOR, which is overstretched with just 1,350 soldiers on duty.

A textbook example of how the preemptive use of peacekeepers can indeed prevent war and deter a potential aggressor: Thirty years ago in January 1993, the UN deployed a peacekeeping force of 1,000, half of them US troops, in northern Macedonia along the border with Serbia to prevent aggression by Belgrade against its southern neighbor. This small force, also casually referred to as a “trip wire,” actually managed to keep the peace in the country for many years.

This would now suggest the obvious option of protecting the regions of Kosovo and Bosnia bordering Serbia by means of KFOR and EUFOR units. If NATO and EU forces were to monitor the common borders between Kosovo and Serbia and Bosnia and Serbia, respectively, it would provide a watertight security guarantee just like the UN peacekeeping mission in Macedonia in 1993.

While it may be expensive, securing peace with a few additional units will always be a better alternative than having to drop bombs. It’s hard to imagine a cheaper conflict avoidance scenario that would better protect human lives.

Alexander Rhotert is a political scientist and author. A researcher of former Yugoslavia since 1991, he has worked for the UN, NATO, OSCE and the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, among other organizations.

Source : DW