Jamie Dettmer holds the position of opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
For over ten years, the European Union and the United States have been attempting to convince Serbia and Kosovo to resolve their hostility and establish normalized relations.
In April, there were indications of progress when Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti reluctantly agreed to an EU-facilitated plan that would enable them to finally bury the hatchet.
However, despite all the persuading and convincing, it was not meant to be.
Officials from the United States and Europe have implied that Kurti bears more responsibility in this situation. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell highlighted the failure to create an association of municipalities in northern Kosovo, which would have granted the Kosovo Serbs some self-governance in a region where they make up the majority.
In private, both U.S. and European authorities have commended Vučić for gradually shifting towards Western alliances, providing covert support to Ukraine with weapons and taking steps to decrease Serbia’s reliance on Russian energy sources.
This is why last week’s astonishing clash between armed Serbs and police in the village of Banjska, in northern Kosovo’s Zvečan municipality, is especially perplexing — and it’s worth asking whose interests it serves.
The leaders of Kosovo were quick to accuse Vučić of being responsible for the attack, which also included a siege of an Orthodox monastery. During the clash, a Kosovan policeman and three Serb gunmen lost their lives. Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani stated on Friday that “the (armed) group was simply carrying out the intentions and motives of Serbia as a nation and Vučić as its leader.”
According to Osmani, Belgrade attempted to replicate Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, where disguised soldiers infiltrated the Ukrainian peninsula. She stated, “They are attempting to use the same strategy in Kosovo, but we will not allow it.”
Kurti is urging for penalties to be enforced against Serbia in response to a terrorist attack he believes was supported by the state. He cautions that if the perpetrator is not held accountable, Belgrade may carry out similar actions in the future. According to him, Vučić orchestrated and commanded an assault in northern Kosovo with the intention of creating chaos and instigating a war.
Vučić has strongly refuted the accusations and his language has become increasingly aggressive, potentially to appease Serbian ultra-nationalists. Additionally, Serbia has been amassing troops near the Kosovo border following the violent confrontations, which the White House has labeled as unprecedented. During a phone conversation between Vučić and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby urged for a swift de-escalation and a resumption of dialogue.
If Belgrade was involved in the attack, it would seem to contradict Vučić’s cautious approach since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He has been trying to balance between the West and Serbia’s traditional ally, Russia. While he did not participate in Western sanctions against Russia, he has criticized the invasion and expresses a desire for Serbia to join the EU.
Marko Đurić, the Serbian ambassador to the U.S., echoes Vučić’s argument that planning or approving an attack in Kosovo at this juncture would make no sense and potentially ruin Belgrade’s improving relations with the West. “We have a lot to lose by any kind of escalation in Kosovo,” he told POLITICO — including harming the country commercially.
According to Đurić, the assault has added complexity to the political landscape in the country. He expressed concern that the far-right in Serbia will take advantage of this situation to the fullest extent.
However, Kosovo’s leaders have presented a valid argument against Belgrade that requires a response.
The accusation that Vučić backed the assault is backed up by pointing out the involvement of Milan Radoičić, the second-in-command of the Serb List – a party that holds significant power in Serb political affairs in northern Kosovo and has strong connections to Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party.
Known as the “leader of the north,” Radoicic confessed to arranging and directing the assault in a statement released by his attorney, taking full responsibility. He stated, “I did not inform any officials from the Serbian government or local political structures in northern Kosovo and Metohija about this. I also did not receive any assistance from them because we had different opinions on how to resist Kurti’s acts of terror in the past.”
However, Kurti refutes the notion that Radoičić acted without Vučić’s consent. “I am certain that Radoičić was merely carrying out orders. The one responsible for planning and commanding this violent and illegal attack on our country, with the intent to jeopardize our borders, national security, and state safety, is none other than President Vučić,” he stated to the press.
Officials in Pristina agree that it is highly unlikely for Aleksandar Vulin, the leader of Serbia’s BIA intelligence agency, to have been unaware of a planned attack.
According to Bojan Pajtić, a legal expert and former leader of Vojvodina in Serbia, the Banjska incident could not have occurred without the involvement of the security agency. He believes it is highly unlikely that the BIA would not have been aware of a well-armed group of individuals planning an operation in a small region. Pajtić added, “The BIA typically has knowledge of who has interacted with whom, even just over coffee in Zvečan.”
“When an event happens that is not accidental, but intentional, one can’t help but question whose motives are at play,” stated Paltić. “In this situation, it is definitely not in the best interest of Aleksandar Vučić. Following the recent attempt at dialogue in Brussels, he was viewed as a constructive partner in the eyes of the West, especially compared to Kurti.”
Other individuals, like Pajtić, have also questioned the motives behind the attack. However, both Washington and Brussels have been careful in their statements. European Commission representative Peter Stano stated that the EU will refrain from making any judgments until the investigation is complete, referring to the incident as a terrorist attack. Similarly, Washington has avoided pointing fingers and has chosen to use neutral language in discussing the perpetrator.
This is in stark contrast to Moscow’s actions, as they have predictably portrayed themselves as Serbia’s traditional protector. They have accused Pristina of carrying out ethnic cleansing in northern Kosovo, which is the same false claim used to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Dimitar Bechev, a scholar visiting Carnegie Europe, stated that the recent violence in Kosovo was the most severe in years and it disrupted Vučić’s control. He also raised doubts about whether the assault was carried out by Serbian ultra-nationalists and Kosovo’s Serb leaders.
He stated that if the validity of Radoičić’s freelancing story is confirmed, it would seem that Vučić no longer has power over his former allies.