The West wants to disarm the ‘powder keg’ of Europe, but it risks igniting it — Analysis

Although another war in Kosovo was avoided, the agreement reached is not a satisfactory solution for the tensions between Belgrade & Pristina.

The events throughout late July in the Balkans – alarms sounding at the administrative border between Serbia and Kosovo, locals hastily erecting barricades, gunshots, forces redeploying, calls for peace from the Serbian president and NATO’s vow to intervene should the situation escalate – have led many to believe Europe is on the brink of another war.

Yet diplomatic efforts were somewhat successful: Pristina agreed to postpone for a month its decision – the source of the tension in the first place – to bar holders of Serbian documents and license plates from entering Kosovo. The diplomatic teams have been able to negotiate with the parties and reach an agreement. This resolution won’t stop the escalation of tensions that have been overshadowing the region for many decades. Even though they are less than Connecticut or Thuringia in Germany in size, the 11-square kilometers of the historic Kosovo lands remain in the middle a crisis that could affect all of the world.

Russian author and historian Evgeny Norin explains where Kosovo went wrong and why it remains a volatile problem

Why Kosovo is Serbia

Just a day before the agreement was struck between Serbia and Kosovo, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Gabriel Escobar made an infuriating statement, “It’s time to forget the narrative ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ and move to the one that says ‘Kosovo and Serbia are actually Europe.’”

A US diplomat suggested a brighter future to the Serbs in return for their historic lands. But, the words of this US diplomat sparked outrage among politicians and the public in Serbia.

“The line between terrorists and freedom fighters is very thin for them. This is US Policy. This is US policy. What should you expect of Mr. Escobar?” Why do we keep pretending we don’t know what it is about?”Alexandar Viucic, the president of Serbia, was outraged and addressed the nation.

Escobar’s rhetoric didn’t go unnoticed in Russia either. Maria Zakharova (Russian Foreign Ministry) reminded her American counterpart that “UN Security Council Resolution 1244 <…> is still the legal framework for the Kosovo settlement, clearly reaffirming the territorial integrity of Serbia.”

This story has two sides, but history clearly favors Russian and Serbian viewpoints.

Kosovo can be found in the southwest of Serbia close to the Albanian border. It was annexed to the newly formed Serbian state in the 12th century. This made it a prominent part of the Middle Ages. The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church resided in Kosovo’s Peja. The building of Serbian nation was also influenced by Kosovo. The Battle of Kosovo, when the Turkish army fought the Serbs and won, became one of the bloodiest battles in Serbia’s history and a symbol of heroic defeat. These events are the subject of a large amount of Serbian poetry.

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Kosovo’s role as the cradle of Serbia’s nation and culture is colossal.

Ottoman legacy

The Ottoman Empire controlled the Balkans in the Middle Ages. This is why the origins for the Kosovo conflict can be traced back to this era. Constantinople was active in trying to get distant parts of the empire into the Turkish fold. This transformed the Balkan ethnic fabric.

Kosovo had a mix of Serbs (and Albanians), whose population was concentrated to the east, close to the coast. Under Ottoman rule, the Albanians quickly adopted Islam and began to absorb Turkish culture, becoming the Sultan’s base in the Balkans. Some Serbs moved closer with their Christian neighbors across the Danube, as did Turks and Albanians who relocated to Kosovo.

In the early 19th century, Kosovo’s Albanian-Serbian communities were roughly equal in size. The balance was radically altered by the chaos of the 19th century and the early 20th centuries.

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Echo of World War Two

Note that the borders that separated the Balkans’ different ethnicities were nearly impossible to draw. The map had the appearance of leopard skin: Serbs, Muslim Serbs (who eventually became a separate group – Bosniaks), Croatians, Montenegrins, and Albanians.

Kosovo was annexed to Serbia in 1991, after the Ottoman Empire lost its control over the Balkans. However, when Italy and Germany occupied the Balkans in the 20thcentury the powder keg again exploded. In Kosovo, the occupying regime was harsh and drove many Serbs to their deaths. Kosovo was transferred to Albania and the reign of terror made it impossible for Serbs not to flee.

While Yugoslavia was restored in 1945, Kosovo’s residents became hostages of Josip Tito’s political vision. Tito blocked the return of Serbian refugees to Kosovo, instead wanting to use the province as a ‘bridge’ to influence Albania. Tito also declared some territories in Serbia part of Kosovo. However, his hopes were not realized – the bridge to Albania was never built. Tirana had a strong influence on Kosovo and the Albanians made up the bulk of Kosovo’s population.

Tito’s miscalculations

In fact, the ‘national portrait’ of Kosovo changed almost completely. The process started under Turkey’s rule and was ‘semi-natural’ in essence, and continued through the time of the Nazis and Tito, becoming almost completely artificial. In the end, Serbs fell to a small minority in a country they still considered to be their home. Estimates of Kosovo’s ethnic community profile before the breakup of Yugoslavia differ, but it’s safe to say that Serbs made up about 20% of the province’s population. Apart from Albanians, who accounted for 65-75% of Kosovo’s population, according to various estimates, the territory was also inhabited by Turks and Roma.

This was the moment that Albanian nationalist organisations emerged from the darkness and have been active in the area ever since.

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While Yugoslavia’s disintegration is generally believed to have occurred in the 1980s, the problems in Kosovo began earlier in this decade. Tito was able to subdue the separatist movement using an iron fist. However, throughout the 1980s pressure on the Serbian population mounted at the hands of Albanians, who dominated the region’s ethnic landscape. Many cases were of minor crime and community sabotage. There was also a lot of incidents of arson, battery and threats.

Yugoslavia tried to address the Kosovo issues. Poor education and overall poverty were the biggest obstacles to any development that took place in this remote province. Belgrade attempted to tackle this problem by creating educational programs. Under Tito, a university was set up in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, where instruction was provided in Albanian. This was what Yugoslavia achieved, however: the rise of an elite of nationalist intellectuals from Albania.

Kosovo’s ambitions

As a result, by the early 1990s, Kosovo was ripe for a breakaway – including military secession. Albania was supportive of this dream, as did the majority Albanians. During Tito’s rule, it managed to form its own intellectual stratum that could provide a solid ideological foundation for Kosovo’s breakaway ambitions. Low living standards and poverty in Kosovo made it easy for people to join the Albanian militias.

A referendum on Kosovo’s independence was held in 1991. Then, presidential elections were held. Yugoslavia was at that time only Serbia and Montenegro, but refused to acknowledge the results. Local politicians were already in the forefront of Kosovo’s political debate at that point.

Ibrahim Rugova made a mark on Kosovo’s political scene, and was to remain a central figure for many years. As an opposition member and editor as well as a doctor of literary arts, Rugova represented the Yugoslav-educated group of Albanian humanitarian intellectuals. It was an endeavor they didn’t expect to boomerang. Rugova belonged to a moderate faction, and was a supporter of political struggle. But then in the mid-1990s, a militant group formed within the Albanian separatist movement – the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The plans of Kosovo’s Albanians went far beyond their homeland and extended to another ex-Yugoslavian republic populated by Albanians: North Macedonia.

Atrocities in war

KLA was mainly involved in terrorist and guerilla warfare. Belgrade’s control over Kosovo was deteriorating, and its attempts to suppress the insurgency were met with intense resistance, which turned into a bloody protracted war. Although major violence was committed during the years preceding the conflict, historians agree it began in 1998.

Consistently, the Western mass media covered the conflict in a biased manner. While the Serbian military did carry out some horrific attacks, there was an increase in terror amongst the Serbian people. Truth is, ethnic killings were committed by both civilians and combatants on both sides. Many ethnic Albanians fled from Kosovo to Albania – only to find the KLA propaganda arm recruiting them as fighters.

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The 1999 Racak massacre was one of the darkest pages in the conflict’s history. Serbian forces invaded Racak, in retaliation to the murder of a Serbian officer during an armed ambush. 45 Albanian civilians were killed during the raid. The Albanians claimed only nine combatants were involved, but the Serbs maintained all the casualties were part of rebel forces who were killed during combat. This issue is still controversial today. Although the Racak massacre wasn’t the most bloody or indisputable act aggression in wartime, it was the pivotal moment in the Kosovo conflict. The NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia followed.


Negotiations on the Rambouillet Accords have come to a halt. While the Serbs had been ready to sign off to a ceasefire in Kosovo and an autonomy for Kosovo, they weren’t ready to allow international military personnel to be stationed there. NATO accused Belgrade, accusing it of destroying the peace agreement, but in reality, there was no effort to reach Yugoslavia halfway. Belgrade was instead presented with several ultimatums. Serbia was depicted by the mass media as the worst villain while NATO assembled its air force.

On March 24, 1999, the US-led NATO force launched its attack against Yugoslavia. It was decided to only win through air power. NATO’s dominance in the air was indisputable, and Serbian air defense systems were taken out very quickly.

While the Serbs did not suffer any extensive loss of manpower, except in the air force and air defenses, NATO’s strikes succeeded in ruining Yugoslavia’s extensive civilian infrastructure, including airports, bridges, factories and power plants. Some civilians were even killed in the strikes, which also caused significant civil casualties.

The KLA’s combat activity wasn’t very successful. It lost a number of battles on the ground despite NATO’s support from the air, but for Serbia to continue fighting while losing critical infrastructure every day was entirely pointless. On June 10, 1999, Yugoslav President Milosevic capitulated, agreeing to all of NATO’s requirements. Air strikes had killed anywhere from 500 to 5,700 people by that point, depending on different estimates. Kosovo was occupied by international troops.

Disappointing aftermath

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The violence continued in Kosovo with over 1,700 people reported missing or killed in the months that followed. Many of those remaining in Kosovo were Serbs. All in all, hundreds of thousands of people – up to 350,000 according to some estimates – had to leave Kosovo, mostly Serbs but a significant Roma population too. Since the NATO contingent could not stop ethnic cleansing, only a small number of areas are home to the Serbians.

Many years of negotiation on Kosovo’s status have not led to any concrete outcomes. Although a significant portion of the international community recognized Kosovo’s independence in 2008, it was not acknowledged by all.

Serbia still finds the Kosovo question a very difficult issue, given that several hundred thousand Kosovan refugee are currently living there. Kosovo still sees ethnically-motivated clashes on a frequent basis. This region has been in chaos for many years, so simply bombing Serbia is not an answer to its problems.

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Russia’s final drama in Kosovo (or whatever might have been considered it in the 1990s or early 2000s) had major implications for the public mind. As far as one can judge, the West cares little about Russia’s changing attitudes to westernization. But 1999 proved to be a pivotal year for many aspects of the Russian population. The Russian people had held for a while a deeply idealistic view of the West, including the US and Europe. However, the shock at the events in Kosovo shocked those who have West-leaning sympathies.

Even those who had no particular affinity for the Serbs saw the obvious – the bias of the Western community that effectively greenlighted ethnic cleansing and launched a bombing campaign against a European state, which resulted in heavy losses among Yugoslav civilians and significant destruction of the country’s infrastructure. It was not just about the Russians’ traditional sympathy for the Serbs, but that in the ‘Serbia vs. West’ standoff, Russians naturally sided with the underdog, which was even more understandable given the smoldering conflicts in Russia’s Caucasus, where it was being confronted by Islamic terrorist groups.

This led to the moral legitimacy of prowestern ideology in Russia being severely undermined. Against the backdrop of the devastation in Belgrade, Western leaders’ claims about humanistic ideals and freedom were – and still are – perceived as nothing more than blatant hypocrisy and cover in service of their own political and economic interests. The naive, idealistic attitudes that had been so common in Russian society were dealt a severe blow. They began to crumble and a momentum built up which led to full-blown hatred two decades later.



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