NATO’s Ghosts of the Past Return in Kosovo-Serbia

By Conor Gallagher- Naked Capitalism

As Russia grinds down NATO proxy forces in Ukraine, the West is turning its ire against the one country in Europe not to join sanctions against Moscow. Washington and Brussels have had enough of Serbia playing nice with Russia and are now pushing a conflict to punish Belgrade.

The emerging conflict, coming amid the ongoing NATO proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, brings full circle nearly a quarter century of NATO bellicosity that began with its 1999 bombing of Serbia, which confirmed to Moscow that it was an aggressive alliance determined to expand.

The West has been pressuring Serbia (including threats to cut off visa-free travel and yank approximately 200 million euros in annual aid) to join sanctions against Russia for months but to no avail. Now Kosovo, a NATO vassal state, and its western backers are now doing everything they can to provoke Serbia, which enjoys beneficial relations with Moscow (as well as Beijing).

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo began simmering over the summer when Pristina began pushing for ethnic Serbs to use Kosovan number plates as opposed to Serbian issued ones. This was a no-go for the Serbs because to do so would mean recognising the state of Kosovo as legitimate. Kosovo Serbs temporarily blocked roads into northern territories that are dominated by Serbs, and minor violence ensued.

The EU tried but failed to mediate some sort of settlement, which failed, and Serbs in northern Kosovo abandoned their posts en masse. Estimates are that more than 600 officials and police officers refused any further cooperation with Pristina.

The Kosovar Serbs demanded a Union of Serbian Municipalities under the 2013 Brussels Agreement, but Pristina refused, saying this would amount to the creation of a Serb state-within-a-state. Pristina instead called for snap elections in the north, a plan that has since been abandoned after the Serbian List party refused to take part.

The situation remained in a stalemate until the night of Dec. 8-9 when Kosovo made its move. According to Modern Diplomacy:

About 400 members of the Kosovo Special Forces ROSU (Regional Operational Support Unit) blocked Kosovska Mitrovica, the largest city in the northern part of the region, which is divided by the River Ibar into Serbian and Albanian parts. The central authorities explained the deployment of the special police units by the need to ensure the security of local residents. However, the local Serbs are actually wary of such defenders, since their activity only exacerbates the conflict, instead of preventing it.

Pristina has also arrested Kosovo Serb police officers who refused to continue serving in the Kosovo police in protest of demands to change their Serbian license plates. In response, ethnic Serbs once again barricaded the roads into Serbian municipalities in northern Kosovo, and they have remained blocked for the past 16 days.

Serbia requested that it be allowed to send up to 1,000 Serbian troops or police into northern Kosovo to protect the local ethnic Serb population, but after a week the NATO-led forces in Kosovo (KFOR) are still “evaluating” the request.

United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 provided for the 1999 withdrawal of Serb police and military from Kosovo but allowed for their limited return in certain cases. UNSC 1244 states:

Confirms that after the withdrawal an agreed number of Yugoslav and Serb military and police personnel will be permitted to return to Kosovo to perform the functions in accordance with annex 2.

And from annex 2:

After withdrawal, an agreed number of Yugoslav and Serbian personnel will be permitted to return to perform the following functions:

–  Liaison with the international civil mission and the international security presence;

–  Marking/clearing minefields;

–  Maintaining a presence at Serb patrimonial sites;

–  Maintaining a presence at key border crossings.

Belgrade argues it is justified to send in reinforcements to the administrative border of Kosovo due to the “systematic expulsion of the Serbs from Kosovo, the failure to provide the necessary conditions for their return, destruction of religious and cultural buildings and theft of church property, seizure of state property and constant violations by the Pristina authorities of the terms of the EU-mediated agreements.”

Additionally, the 2013 Brussels Agreement stated that:

There shall be a Police Regional Commander for the four northern Serb majority municipalities (Northern Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic). The Commander of this region shall be a Kosovo Serb nominated by the Ministry of Interior from a list provided by the four mayors on behalf of the Community/Association. The composition of the [Kosovo Police] in the north will reflect the ethnic composition of the population of the four municipalities.

It’s likely that due Serb resignations and the influx of Kosovo Special Forces, Pristina is in violation of this agreement. But the West is having none of it, with Berlin already spinning the narrative:

Kosovo and the West will likely continue to poke Serbia and tear up past agreements in an attempt to get Belgrade to react, and then they can fire up the propaganda machines about the Serbian menace.

The NATO provocations put Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in a tough spot as domestic opinion strongly sides with the ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo. While he would like to maintain ties with both Russia and the EU, Brussels – and especially Berlin – are increasingly adamant that he choose a side.

Events in Kosovo may force his hand. Western media are already reporting that far-right activists with ties to the Russian paramilitary group Vagner are preparing to enter Serbian areas of northern Kosovo.

Vučić said on Tuesday that Serbia’s trust in the West no longer exists, which is creating a situation “like in Chekhov’s play in the first act when you see a rifle hanging on the wall, there is no doubt that the rifle will go off; it’s the same here.”

The events on the ground are taking place against the backdrop of Kosovo’s official application for EU membership, which occurred on Dec. 15, further inflaming tensions. In 2008 Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence, which Serbia has never accepted, arguing that it remains a Serbian province and has no right to declare itself a sovereign state.

Kosovo is not a member of the United Nations, and five EU states – Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus – have refused to recognise its statehood, as have many other countries, such as Russia and China.

The day before Kosovo’s EU application was accepted, representatives of the European Parliament, Commission and Council approved visa liberalization for Kosovo. The new rules will start no later than Jan. 1, 2024, and will allow Kosovo passport holders to travel to the EU without a visa for a period of 90 days in any 180 days.

The spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Marija Zakharova, compared the situation in Kosovo to that of Georgia in 2008. The former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, thinking Georgia was soon to join NATO and that the alliance would have his back, began bombing South Ossetia.

One of Serbia’s reasons for refusing to sanction Russia is the gas it receives from the country. In May Serbia signed a new three-year gas deal with Russia. Since the start of 2021, Russian gas supplies to Serbia have been delivered via the TurkStream pipeline to Turkey.

The EU has turned to Azerbaijan to partially replace Russian gas, and Brussels helped push a deal between Belgrade and Baku that will see Serbia receive gas from Azerbaijan once the Bulgaria-Serbia interconnector is complete next year.

Serbia is in a tough spot as the EU is its top trading partner while Russia comes in second. 63 percent of Serbia’s overall trade in 2019 was done with the European Union. Russia and China rank second and third, respectively,  but at considerably lower trade levels – ten times lower than trade between Serbia and the EU.

In recent years, Serbia has looked increasingly eastwards for trade – even signing a trade deal with the Russian-led Eurasian Union in 2019 despite threats from Brussels. Belgrade and Moscow also have strong military cooperation, and Russia supports Serbia internationally on issues such as Kosovo.

Belgrade has shown no intention of joining Europe’s sanction party against Russia. Is it any wonder why, especially with the west’s current hardball tactics in Kosovo? It brings back memories of the 1990s Balkans conflict when Serbia came under attack by NATO, which disregarded the UN and launched a war of choice so it could expand eastward toward Russia.

Additionally, polls in Serbia consistently show that Serbians support Russia and see the US/NATO as a bigger threat to their country. They’ve seen this story before. Diana Johnstone, who was press secretary of the Green Group in the European Parliament from 1989 to 1996, explains:

Western politicians and media persuaded the public that the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia was a “humanitarian” war, generously waged to “protect the Kosovars” (after multiple assassinations by armed secessionists provoked Serbian authorities into the inevitable repression used as pretext for the bombing).

But the real point of the Kosovo war was that it transformed NATO from a defensive into an aggressive alliance, ready to wage war anywhere, without U.N. mandate, on whatever pretext it chose.

This lesson was clear to the Russians. After the Kosovo war, NATO could no longer credibly claim that it was a purely “defensive” alliance.

The Western media often explain that Serbia and Russia have close ties due to Orthodox Crhristianity being the major religion in both countries. What they always omit though is how both countries share a common recent history of being attacked by European fascists – German Nazis in the case of Russia and Nazi-aligned Croatian Ustasha in the case of Serbia. And now it feels as though history is repeating itself with one key twist. Again from Johnstone:

As it shapes up, with NATO openly trying to “overextend” and thus defeat Russia with a war of attrition in Ukraine, it is somewhat as if Britain and the United States, some 80 years later, switched sides and joined German-dominated Europe to wage war against Russia, alongside the heirs to Eastern European anticommunism, some of whom were allied to Nazi Germany.

Berlin’s plans to serve the U.S.-led Western empire by strengthening its role as European leader include pushing for a larger, more militarized EU, which will be governed by majority decisions and include the Balkan statelets. In such a scenario, Germany would wield even more control over the EU than it does today, as its influence on most of the poor Balkan states would help bring about a majority. This is not lost on Serbia.

“Germany wants full dominance in the Balkans,” said Vučić on Dec. 20.

Germany is among the top three export destinations for Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo and is one of the top European investors in the region, making Berlin the most important EU partner for the Balkan states.

Berlin’s plans for the Balkans include wind farms and solar power plants to help with Europe’s energy crisis and a giant lithium mine in Serbia to curb China’s influence. If completed, the Jadar lithium project could supply 90 percent of Europe’s current lithium needs.

The problem is, just like western Europeans, Serbians don’t want the dirty mining project in their backyards.

But Berlin isn’t taking no for an answer. Belgrade revoked the mining licenses for Rio Tinto’s $2.4 billion lithium project back in January, and yet Germany’s ruling coalition continues to push the plan as part of the EU “Global Gateway” infrastructure program.

The Federation of German Industries says “that German companies will benefit greatly from orders in developing and emerging countries through Global Gateway.”