After being silent for several years, tensions in the Balkans have risen again. After the completion of a train line from Belgrade to the ethnic Serbian town of Mitrovica in Kosovo, Serbia sent a train emblazoned with the words “Kosovo Is Serbia”. In response, the Kosovar government sent soldiers to halt the train, stating that the provocation was ‘an act of war’. Serbia ended up stopping the train from entering Kosovo on the claim that the Kosovar soldiers were going to blow it up, which Kosovo has denied. Making matters worse, Serbia has stated that if ethnic Serbians in north Kosovo were threatened it would send troops there, a violation of Kosovo’s self-proclaimed sovereignty.
These tensions overshadow Serbia and Kosovo’s longtime efforts in working towards peace. Over the past six years the Belgrade–Pristina dialogue, facilitated by the European Union, has been working on deescalating tensions between the two countries and improving cooperation on a wide variety of fronts, from protection of minority communities to developing telecommunications links. Major achievements have come out of the negotiations, including freedom of movement for people, lifting of trade embargos, and sharing of birth, death and marriage documents.
Despite these accomplishments, two underlying causes of the conflict have not yet been addressed. First, conflict will remain as long as Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo. The two parties cannot come to mutual agreement as long as Serbia denies Kosovo the right to determine its own affairs. Second, even if Kosovo were to be recognized, peace would not be guaranteed. Much of Serbia’s anxieties over Kosovo independence express genuine fears over Serbian minorities living there. In the past these minorities faced ethnic cleansing, and today continue to be discriminated against and face human rights violations on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, strong ethno-nationalism in both Serbia and Kosovo make solving these issues hard and lengthily. Two recent developments, however, offer a rare opportunities to mount a strong push for Serbian recognition of Kosovo and for Kosovo to protect Serbian minorities: a reset in United States – Russian relations, and mounting demands from Republika Srpska’s to secede with Bosnia Herzegovina.
United States – Russian Reset
With the election of a new administration, the United States can play an important role in promoting peace between Serbia and Kosovo. At the moment, 83 of the 193 members of the United Nations do not recognize Kosovo. This lack of full recognition gives the appearance that Serbia’s territorial claims in Kosovo are legitimate.
The most crucial actor among these countries is Russia, which the new United States administration under Donald Trump has vowed to normalize relations with. Should the United States entertain lifting economic sanctions during negotiations, it should solicit Russia to, in return, recognize Kosovo. While Russia is a close ally with Serbia, this is not a far-fetched idea, with Mary Dejevsky of the think tank Chatham House forwarding the possibility of Russian recognition.
As a close ally with Serbia, Russian recognition of Kosovo would be a signal to the rest of the global community that Kosovo’s sovereignty is no longer debatable. Subsequent recognition would almost certainty follow suit from Russian allies in the former Soviet Union, as well as from majority Muslim countries, many of whom supported Albanians during the Yugoslav Wars. This would significantly reduce the 83 non-recognizers, signaling to Serbia that the international community does not support its claims to Kosovo. Even absent ensuing recognition from other countries, the recognition of Kosovo from two superpowers would be a major deterrent to Serbian claims. Before making such an agreement with Russia, however, the United States would have to negotiate with Kosovo that it would pressure Russia to recognize them in return for Kosovo giving greater protection and autonomy to Kosovar Serbs, otherwise refusing to do so without such a guarantee.
Hypocrisy and the Republika Srpska
Should Russia refuse to recognize Kosovo, another option is available. Kosovo’s claims for being a sovereign country largely rest on arguments on the right to self-determination under international law. While the United States and Western countries have strongly supported Kosovo’s right to self-determination, they have shown a high level of hypocrisy for other political entities. West of Serbia is the Republika Srpska, a political entity of Bosnia Herzegovina that is dominantly Serbian. Recently, tensions have risen significantly in the region, with many calling for separation and the formation of a union with Serbia. The United States and Western allies have condemned such proposals, arguing that such a separation would risk ethnic infighting, and that Republika Srpska’s government is corrupt and violates human rights. While concerns over ethnic conflict are warranted, it is highly hypocritical for these countries to express such anxieties while failing to take into account Serbia’s anxieties over minorities in Kosovo. In addition, while it is true that corruption and human rights violations occurs in the Republika Srpska, Kosovo is not exempt from these issues either.
Should tensions continue to increase in the Republika Srpska an opportunity could arise. Countries could agree to allow, and assist in monitoring, a referendum in Republika Srpska in return for Serbia recognizing Kosovo. Countries must ensure that any negotiation would have to involve laws that protect minorities in a Republika Srpska – Serbian union. Additional pressure could come from the European Union, which could offer membership on the condition that minorities are protected. In order to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy, the same standards should be asked for from Kosovo should it wish to join the European Union as well. Without protection of minorities, there would always remain the risk of ethnic infighting.
While current tensions appear to be sporadic, they express larger underlying causes. Tension will continue without Serbian recognition of Kosovo, and protection of minorities in Serbia. Should the United States reset its relations with Russia, or the Republika Srpska make louder its demands for independence, Western countries should take the opportunity for a permanent peace in Serbia.