Western Balkans Overview Sep 25, 2023 – CWBS

Western Balkans Overview Sep 25, 2023 – CWBS
  • Bloody provocation in Kosovo’s north

Kosovo police reported a clash with ethnic Serbs at the entrance to the village of Banjska near Leposavic, where one policeman was killed and another – injured. The police scrambled to respond to a report of the two trucks blocking the road, only to be fired upon in an ambush involving firearms, hand grenades, and grenade launchers. The patrol unit that arrived as reinforcement also came under fire. Later, according to the Kosovo side, nearly 30 armed men broke into the monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Banjska. Kosovo’s border guards then shut down the two key crossing points on the border with Serbia and declared an anti-terrorist operation on the territory of four cities.

Miroslav Lajcak, the EU special representative for dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, urgently arrived in Kosovo, and the head of EULEX, Giovanni Barbano, rushed to the police station in North Mitrovica to personally monitor the developments. Later, the Kosovo police reported that three of the attackers were eliminated and five – arrested.

The Kosovo authorities accused Belgrade of an act of provocation against Kosovo. “We condemn this criminal and terrorist attack. Organized crime with the political, financial and logistical support from Belgrade officials is attacking our country. In this fight, we defend and ensure compliance with the law, protect citizens and independent Kosovo,” said Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti.

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said the killing and wounding of policemen in the north of Kosovo was planned, organized, and executed by Serbian criminal gangs, in what he called an attack on law and order in the north of the country, an attack on Kosovo.

In turn, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, in an address to the nation, accused the prime minister of Kosovo of provocations against the Serbs, adding that Kosovo seeks to drag Serbia into a war with NATO. He noted that he did not justify the killing of the policeman, but wondered why the operation was not carried out by KFOR, but by the Kosovo police. Serbia intends to convene a meeting of the National Security Council to decide on their next steps.

The incident in the north of Kosovo sharply aggravated the situation in the region, which was precisely what the culprits and masterminds of the provocation were counting on. The United States strongly condemned the organized violent attacks on the Kosovo police, as stated by the American ambassador in Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier. The Kosovo police, the ambassador noted, bears full and legal responsibility for upholding the rule of law in accordance with the constitution and laws of Kosovo. That is, the US recognizes its role as a first responder in emergency and crisis situations, and at the same time appreciates the ongoing coordination between the Kosovo Police, the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, and the NATO Force in Kosovo (KFOR).

Interestingly, on the eve of the incident, a long convoy of the Serbian army’s armored fighting vehicles was spotted on the main Kraljevo-Raska road, moving towards the land security zone from the side of Kosovo. Whether this is a coincidence or a calculated pre-emptive move by Belgrade will become clear in the near future, but it is obvious that there are certain forces out there that are interested in escalation. It must be noted that it’s Moscow and its allies in the Western Balkans benefit the most from this. In a negative scenario, Serbia may dare to launch a military operation with the subsequent return to Belgrade’s control of Serbian municipalities on the territory of Kosovo. It is a serious precedent for Republika Srpska to announce withdrawal from BiH and joining Serbia. But Washington and Brussels are not going to sit idly, observing provocations. It is clear that every effort will be made to avoid further escalation.

  • North Macedonia once again expelling Russian diplomats involved in espionage 

North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski says his country has expelled 21 Russian diplomats for espionage over the past two years. “In all cases, in each of the 18 plus these three, our agencies, with the help of partner agencies from NATO, have proven to the last letter that the Russians are going beyond the status they were granted when they arrived in North Macedonia. Therefore, they were not diplomats, and that’s why they were expelled,” said Pendarovski.

Because of this, he added, relations between Skopje and Moscow are at the lowest in history. Pendarovski expects that due to the latest expulsion of the three diplomats, Russia will likely respond with mirror measures but North Macedonia had no choice but to proceed with the move. “All competent agencies in our country, both foreign intelligence and counterintelligence, drew a joint report on the activities of these three diplomats, and the decision of the state leadership is that there is no choice or any option, it is all too clear that they were not engaged in diplomatic activities, as stipulated by the Vienna Conventions,” Pendarovski believes.

It must be understood that North Macedonia has expelled the largest number of Russian spies, working under diplomatic cover, among all the countries in the Western Balkans, given its territory and population. Brussels praised the principled position of Skopje, taking into account the damage caused to the Atlantic unity by the Russian intelligence services.

It is noteworthy that one of the Russian diplomats expelled from North Macedonia later resurfaced in the Russian Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which caused a stir over careless vetting by the BIH security agencies. The BIH foreign minister was forced to explain to the local public how this could even happen in the first place. In addition, a Sofia-based Russian priest who serves in the Russian Orthodox Church, but was engaged in intelligence operations in North Macedonia, was also expelled from North Macedonia. Vasian Zmeev is a Russian church minister of the Moscow Patriarchate who last year frequently visited North Macedonia where he had frequent meetings with Archbishop Stefan and Metropolitans Grigorij and Peter. He turned out to be the Balkan coordinator of Russian church politics, with particular influence exercised in Bulgaria and Macedonia. Last week, Bulgaria’s National Security Agency, following the decision of the Bulgarian authorities, expelled three clerics linked to Russian special services for the same reasons. As is seen, the security agencies in the Balkan countries are closely watching the agents of Russian influence across the region – not only in diplomatic, but also in religious circles.

  • Albanian Prime Minister assessment of his Kosovo counterpart’s actions toward Kosovo settlement

After the latest unsuccessful round of negotiations in Brussels between the President of Serbia and the Prime Minister of Kosovo, international mediators and the Serbian side accused Albin Kurti of undermining the talks. He, in turn, accused the EU’s special representative for dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, Myroslav Lajčak, of conspiring with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who are apparently to blame for the lack of progress in negotiations in Brussels. Beyond that, Kurti sent a letter to the French president and German chancellor, laying down these accusations. In this regard, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said these are things that “leave us all speechless” and cause more harm than good.

Edi Rama stated that such an approach on the part of Pristina only helps Belgrade, as Serbia turns into a victim in the eyes of the entire international community and Kosovo’s friends and partners. Prime Minister Kurti’s reaction was simply unprecedented. “I don’t remember a similar case where the leader of Kosovo would directly accuse an EU representative and send a letter of complaint to the officials – the chancellor of Germany and the president of France. These are things that only make it even more damaging because they are supposedly trying to fix the situation because of the alleged collusion between Serbia and the EU Special Envoy, which is not what should be done. At the same time, Rama emphasized that he does not doubt Kurti’s desire to do the best for Kosovo, but great desire and good will are never enough: to achieve the goal, a strategic vision is needed, which is just not there. To the question that Albania presides over the Security Council, but is powerless to influence Pristina, Rama replied that he does not want to do this because there is a government of Kosovo, which is based on the will of the people, and it is he who bears the responsibility. The bottom line is that the path chosen by Kurti does not lead to achieving the set goal, but to a collision with the US and the EU. However said it might look, there is hope that the crisis is temporary. It does not bring the desired result for Kosovo to complete normalization and then get out of the “recognition impasse”, primarily with the EU countries. This is also the goal of the Franco-German plan, which should be the biggest possible achievement – the de facto recognition of the country by Serbia, regardless of whether Belgrade formally recognizes Kosovo or not. Kosovo would get its place and get rid of the burden of conflict in proceeding with the European integration process. He also assessed that the efforts of “Serbia and Russia” to revisit the Kosovo issue at the UN are useless because Kosovo won the fight and the UN International Court of Justice confirmed it. It’s a futile propaganda effort, and it’s not going to lead them anywhere.

It should be noted that the opinion of the Albanian prime minister is shared by many other politicians. Thus, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar said that after the failed negotiations in Brussels, for the Kosovo government, which operates on the principle of “take it or leave it”, it is time to change its approach in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. He was very skeptical about the opinion of the Kosovo PM regarding any conspiracy involving Aleksandar Vučić and Miroslav Lajcak. With his unpredicatble actions, Kurti drove himself into a deadlock where the Western allies do not accept his position. After all, the way of settlement requires certain compromises. Pristina’s lack of readiness for them is viewed by Brussels and Washington as a desire to do things their own way, despite the fact that Kosovo is far from being in a position to afford anything like that.

  • Southeast European foreign ministers meeting on UNGA sidelines 

The Western Balkans region has made significant progress over the past two decades, but it is not the place its citizens or foreign peacekeepers hoped for twenty-odd years on, said Majlinda Bregu, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council  (RCC) at the opening of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) ministerial breakfast, co-organized in New York by the RCC and North Macedonia as SEECP Chair during the week of high-level meetings of the UN General Assembly.

Unfortunately, Bregu added, differences between the economies remain in place, and conflicts can hinder investments and economic growth in the region. With this in mind, as well as major geopolitical shifts, member states should consider the development of regional bodies such as the SEECP, whose value may lie in its ability to negotiate early, its functions being to prevent and resolve differences before they scale up, within the framework of multilateral negotiations and consultations. A logical question arises whether the SEECP can be perceived as a regional stronghold, an accurate reflection of the unique features of South-Eastern Europe, linked by common values that reflect the meaning of the European Union.

Thus, the meeting of the ministers of Southeast European countries on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly became another evidence of the importance of continuing regional cooperation within the SEECP. As guardians of regional cooperation, the countries across the region are well aware of serious violations of the global order, such as Russian aggression against Ukraine. In her speech, Bregu emphasized that the common history showed the countries in the region that when global institutions and structures are overloaded, regional bodies can intervene and ensure stability, consistency, and path of development.

  • Speech of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić at the UN General Assembly 

“We are on the European path, but we do not want to lose the friendship we have long been building,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said in an address to the UN General Assembly. The Serbian president noted that he supports the thesis of US President Joe Biden on the observance of territorial integrity and human rights; however, in his opinion, almost all Western nations violated the UN Charter and Resolution 1244, and without a UNSC decision subjected his country to a brutal attack, and in 2008 an illegal decision was made to have a part of Serbia secede. He also stated that “all those who committed aggression against Serbia are today talking about the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We support it and do not change our principles as for us all violence is the same. However, in today’s world, the rules must apply to everyone.”

Thus, accusations against the West in connection with the recognition of Kosovo were in the focus of the Serbian president’s speech. In his address, Vucic called out Western nations for “brutally trampling” the UN Charter and UN Resolution 1244 by recognizing Kosovo. He recalled the events that preceded the declaration of Kosovo’s independence in 2008. Some experts fact-checked the president’s speech. In particular, the crimes of the military and police forces against Albanian civilians during the war in Kosovo were confirmed by the verdicts against members of the political and military leadership of the SR Yugoslavia in the international tribunal in The Hague. During the war in Kosovo, from 1998 to 1999, more than 10,000 civilians were killed, of which more than 8,000 were of Albanian origin. Almost 1,000 bodies of slain Kosovar Albanians have been found in mass graves in Serbia.

At the same time, it should be noted that on the sidelines of the General Assembly, President Aleksandar Vučić met with the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maros Šefčovič, who is responsible for the green agenda, inter-institutional relations, and strategic forecasting. Investments, joint approach, and projects were discussed. A Letter of Intent was signed between the Republic of Serbia and the European Union. At the official reception of US President Joe Biden, the President of Serbia confirmed his commitment to the further improvement of relations with the United States. So, along with slamming the West for recognizing Kosovo, important meetings were held to improve Belgrade’s relations with Brussels and Washington.