Kosovo officially declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The Muslim-majority nation had been administered by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia — a move that forced then-President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his troops from the breakaway province.
Now, almost 20 years after Kosovo first broke with Serbia and nearly a decade after it declared independence, the country is accusing Serbia of attempting to take over a Serb-majority region in the north — in effect, annexing a potential breakaway region of its own breakaway region.
“It is the Crimea model,” Kosovo President Hashim Thaci told Reuters in an interview Monday, referring to Russia's 2014 annexation of the peninsula in southern Ukraine.
Over the weekend, tensions between Kosovo and Serbia had increased sharply as a train attempted to run from Serbia's capital, Belgrade, to the city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo — the first time the two cities have had a direct train link since 1999. On Saturday, the train was stopped ahead of the border after Kosovo authorities said they would intervene to block its passage.
Looking at the train, it's possible to understand why. Painted in the colors of the Serbian flag, the Russian-made train bears the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in a variety of languages, as well as a number of Christian Orthodox symbols. (Serbia is majority Christian Orthodox.) Serbia has admitted it did not seek permission to run the train, as it does not recognize the authority of Kosovo's government in Pristina. Serbian authorities have said that the train was a celebration of their cultural history.
“This is like a mobile exhibition presenting our cultural heritage,” Marko Djuric, the head of Serbia’s office for Kosovo, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Much like Crimea, which was home to large numbers of ethnic Russians despite being part of Ukraine, some parts of Kosovo have remained majority Serb even after independence. Mitrovica is located on the edge of North Kosovo, the most populated of these areas, where many locals do not accept the government in Pristina. Before the 2013 Brussels Agreement that normalized relations between Serbia and Kosovo, Serbia helped fund an alternative system of government in the area, including schools, hospitals and a court system.
Tensions between the two states were reignited earlier this month when former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj was arrested in France. Haradinaj had been sought by Serbia on war crimes charges related to the 1988-1999 war, though he had previously been cleared by a U.N. tribunal. France ultimately decided to release Haradinaj rather than extradite him to Serbia.
Escalating friction between the two states may well represent a shifting geopolitical reality. With the ascendance of a Russia-favoring U.S. president and both the European Union and NATO facing questions about their future cohesion, the Balkan region's fragile status quo may seem ripe for change. Notably, President-elect Donald Trump has not offered a clear condemnation of Russia's annexation of Crimea and has indicated he would seek rapprochement with Russia, a key ally of Serbia and critic of Kosovo's independence.
In comments to journalists over the weekend, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic admitted that conflict was possible, but said the fault lay with the “Albanians” who “want war,” referring to the dominant ethnicity in Kosovo. In a statement Tuesday, Nikolic suggested that previous U.S. policies in support of Kosovo's independence had “created much trouble” in the region.
“I hope that with the new [U.S.] administration, that kind of behavior will stop,” Nikolic's statement added.
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