Serbia ‘threatening third Balkan war’, warns Kosovan prime minister

Serbia’s government is threatening to start a new Balkan war in a bid to extract concessions from the West, the prime minister of Kosovo has said.  

Albin Kurti accused Serbian president Alexander Vucic of acting like "Germany between the World Wars" and warned recent crises in Kosovo and Bosnia could escalate if Western governments do not take him seriously.  

Serbia deployed troops to the Kosovo border in September and ethnic Serbian protesters clashed with Kosovo police in the north of the country last month. Earlier this week the UN’s high representative to Bosnia warned the 1995 Dayton peace accord was close to collapse.

Mr Kurti told The Telegraph: "I think it definitely is more dangerous than before.”

Albin Kurti, the current Prime Minister of Kosovo

Credit: Eddie Mulholland

"They want to behave as if they are Germany between two world wars: ‘if you are not going to please us, we will cause another one.’ Because they have done one round in the nineties.”

"If you check the numbers for expended military expenditure in Serbia, in recent years skyrocketing. For whom are they buying all this?" he added.

"The fact I am saying this very calmly, is because I saw it coming months and years ago," he added. "It is a rational analysis – not an emotional one.”

Serbia’s defence spending has more than doubled since 2015 and it is projected to spend some $1.14 billion (£840 million) in 2021, making it the biggest military spender in the Western Balkans.

It has heavily modernised its airforce and bought drones, aircraft, and air-defence systems from Russia and China.

Mr Vucic has denied preparing for war and has defended his country’s right to buy arms where it likes.

But neighbours say the military build up is accompanied by confrontational policies and bellicose political rhetoric about unifying the "Serbian world" worryingly reminiscent of the build up to the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Kosovan officials insist that policy has produced inter-linked crises across the region that are designed to stoke chaos and force the West to accept increases in Belgrade’s influence and power inside neighbouring former Yugoslav republics

Last week Christian Schmidt, the United Nations’ High Representative to Bosnia, warned in a report to the UN that the country could break up and the 1995 Dayton peace agreement collapse if Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik went ahead with plans to pull out of Bosnia’s military, judiciary, and tax structures and build his own army.

Mr Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity established at the end of the 1992-1995 war, said last month that he intended to declare full autonomy from Sarajevo. He insisted that Repubika Srpska would remain a part of Bosnia and denied trying to start a war, but has hinted that Russia would provide support if the West tried to intervene militarily.

In September, riots erupted in Montenegro after the Serbian Orthodox Church appointed a new patriarch in the country, a move seen by some there as an attempt by Belgrade to reassert control there.

Kosovo Conflict Locator

In Kosovo, the most recent round of escalation began in September, when Mr Kurti’s government said it would require drivers from Serbia to use temporary Kosovan number plates when crossing the border, a measure that mirrors long-standing Serbian policy, and sent police to enforce it.

Serbian activists from northern Kosovo responded by blockading roads. Mr Vucic then put Serb forces near the border on high alert, and deployed fighter jets, helicopters, and and troops in armoured fighting vehicles and warned he would take action if the protesters were attacked. The standoff was finally defused by international mediation after two weeks.

On October 13, Serbian protesters clashed with Kosovo police raiding a pharmacy in Northern Mitrovica, a Serbian enclave, in what authorities say was part of a country-wide anti-smuggling operation. By the end of the morning ten police officers and ten Serb protesters had been wounded, one by a gunshot wound.

Serbia has blamed the tensions on Mr Kurti, accusing him of bringing the region to the “brink of chaos”. Mr Kurti accuses Serbia of organising the “spontaneous” protests as an instrument of political pressure.

The war of words continued last week when Mr Vucic accused Mr Kurti of plotting another police action, this time to seize control of a disputed electricity substation that lies in a Serbian controlled area but provides power across the province. Mr Kurti denied any such plans to The Telegraph.

Ferdonije Qerkezi lost her husband and all four of their sons when they were abducted by Serbian police during the war in 1999. The bodies of only two of her sons have been found. She has turned their family home in Gjakova, Western Kosovo, into a museum dedicated to their memory

Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Zahir Tanin, the head of the UN mission to Kosovo (UNMIK) warned that the incidents threatened to “unravel steady but fragile progress made in rebuilding trust among communities.”

Mr Kurti, whose government expelled two Russian diplomats last month, believes Mr Vucic is being encouraged by Vladimir Putin, who he says sees an opportunity to challenge the West in the region.

Russia’s ambassador visited Serbian troops near the frontier with Kosovo during the September military build up. Last month the two countries’ militaries held held joint air defence drills in Serbia.

Not all outsiders are convinced Mr Vucic is on the warpath. Conflict would put paid to Serbia’s ambitions of European Union membership, and could also mean taking on Nato, which still has a 3,800 strong force in Kosovo. KFOR command says it considers the situation “stable.” Belgrade also tends to balance its ties with China and Russia against close cooperation with Europe.

Nonetheless, foreign officials say the Balkans are indeed emerging as a theatre of great power competition, and that Mr Kurti is not wrong to say tensions are high.

"Yes, it is serious, and yes, we are very worried," said a Western diplomat based in the Balkans.

Kosovo broke away from Serbia after Nato intervened on the side of ethnic Albanian rebels fighting a war with Belgrade’s security forces in 1999. It spent nine years as an international protectorate before declaring independence in 2008.  

Then Prime Minister Tony Blair meets crowds in Pristina Kosovo in July 1999. RAF aircraft had been deployed six months earlier to prevent Serbia from oppressing the Kosovo Albanian people

Credit:
Julian Simmonds

Serbia and about half of the United Nations members, including Russia and China, still do not recognise Kosovo’s independence. EU-brokered talks between Belgrade and Pristina that began in 2011 eased tensions but failed to produce an agreement on mutual recognition, a pre-requisite for both countries’ accession to the EU.

Kosovo today does not look or feel like a country on the brink of chaos.

The capital Pristina is in the grip of a building boom that has sent skyscrapers shooting up across the city, and an educated and upwardly mobile young middle class at times make the place feel more Baltic than Balkan.

The barbed wire and barricades on the bridge over the Ibar river in the northern city of Mitrovica, once the go-to symbol of potent ethnic division, vanished several years ago following an agreement in Brussels.

Pedestrians – although not motor vehicles – move freely between the Serbian and Albanian river banks, the only security presence a handful of bored Italian Carabineri perched in a permanently parked 4×4.

The northern side of the river, where the telegraph poles are hung with Serbian flags, street signs are in Cyrillic, and cafes charge in Serbian dinars rather than Euros, is visibly poorer.

Silvana Marinkovic, whose husband Goran was abducted in 1999. She lives in Gračanica, a Serbian enclave southeast of Pristina

Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Representatives of Srpska List, the Belgrade-backed party that maintains a political monopoly in Kosovo’s Serbian-populated municipalities, declined repeated requests for an interview.

Locals who did speak blamed the recent tensions on Mr Kurti, saying he ordered the number plate changes and the raid on the pharmacy to appease hawkish ethnic Albanian voters ahead of municipal elections last month. Mr Kurti denies this. Several people concurred that the number plate protests in September were tightly controlled by local officials from Srpska List.

But a number also insisted that the violence that erupted outside the pharmacy on the morning of October 13 had a different flavour to previous incidents.

The rage of the crowd on that day, they suggested, was not just directed at the hated Kosovo police, but as an expression of discontent at the status quo that has left the Serbs of Mitrovica with little job security, bleak economic prospects, and ruled by a one party state of which many are thoroughly afraid.

“Both Srpska List and Albin Kurti stood to benefit from the police action,” said Alexander Arsenijevic, the leader of a small local opposition party called Serbian Survival who admitted to taking part in the protest. 

“But things went differently, not as they were planning. Because the people for the first time reacted not through political actions or calls. It was more spontaneous.”

“I’ve been waiting for that moment to come. I thought it would happen earlier. And now I am sure such protests will continue."

Kosovan officials and Western diplomats dispute that account. Mr Kurti claims he has very clear intelligence about the protest being planned in advance. All the witnesses who The Telegraph spoke described a crowd gathering and violence beginning almost as soon as police arrived.

But weariness with the current political and economic settlement is widespread – and crosses ethnic lines.  

Mr Kurti himself came to power in a landslide election victory after promising to tackle the endemic corruption many Kosovans associate with the generation of former Kosovo Liberation Army commanders who dominated the political scene since independence.

And the polls, he himself points out, consistently show that Kosovo Albanians’ number one political priority is tackling corruption  – not the on going confrontation with Serbia.

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