More than two decades since NATO went to war to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the Balkan region is on edge again. Escalating tensions between Kosovo’s government and the country’s ethnic Serbian minority have raised the prospect of renewed fighting that could draw in neighboring Serbia and put at risk the 3,700 NATO troops still stationed in Kosovo.
With Western governments focused on Ukraine, the long-festering Kosovo-Serbia dispute may seem like a distraction, but ignoring the problem would be a mistake. The US and Europe should apply greater pressure on both sides to return to the negotiating table and avert another Balkan war before it begins.
Home to some 1.8 million people, mostly ethnic Albanians, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state and has supported efforts by ethnic Serbs living in the country’s north to resist the authority of the central government in Pristina. A 2013 agreement brokered by the European Union calls for Kosovo to allow a degree of self-rule for ethnic Serb communities. However, Prime Minister Albin Kurti opposes making any such concessions so long as the Serbian government in Belgrade denies Kosovo’s right to exist.
The standoff intensified last fall, when Kurti’s government implemented rules requiring that ethnic Serbs use license plates issued by Kosovo’s government, not Serbia’s. The policy triggered the mass resignation of ethnic Serbs serving in local government, including some 600 police officers. Residents in Kosovo’s Serb-majority areas erected barricades to block the entry of government forces; when authorities started arresting the protesters, Serbia raised the combat alert for its military forces and threatened to intervene. Under pressure from Western officials last month, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic persuaded the protesters to remove the barricades, but the underlying tensions have persisted.
The EU has set a deadline of March for Kosovo and Serbia to reach a deal on normalizing relations. Although the prospects for success appear dim, the alternative is worse. Failed negotiations would embolden opportunists on both sides to stir up sectarian passions for political gain. As was true during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, even low-level clashes could rapidly escalate into full-scale ethnic conflict, this time with thousands of NATO troops caught in the middle. Such hostilities would further worsen relations between the West and Russia, which is seeking to increase its influence over Serbia and prevent its integration into the EU.
Europe can’t afford another war. Preventing one will require ramping up engagement in the region and leaning on all parties to resume dialogue. Western diplomats should press Kurti to suspend policies seen as provocative by Kosovo’s Serbian minority, so long as Serbs stop attacking police and other government officials. The EU should rule out advancing Serbia’s application for membership in the union until Belgrade commits to a timetable for recognizing Kosovo’s sovereignty. For its part, the US should make clear to Kosovo’s leaders that NATO’s willingness to keep its forces on the ground isn’t indefinite. Continued Western military support for Kosovo should be contingent on signs of progress toward a peace settlement that grants greater self-government for Serb communities.
For decades, the Balkan nations have been struggling to escape a history of division and strife. Sustained Western diplomacy is needed to avert another war in the region — and to begin building a more hopeful future for its people.
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• Europe’s Warm Winter is Putin’s Nightmare: Javier Blas
The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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