Security challenges in the Western Balkans and Kosovo's call for a fair approach
H.E. Güner UREYA
The author is the outgoing Ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo to The People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
After every war, serious efforts must be made to erase the traces of the past, and for rehabilitation from the traumas. Especially by political leaders.
If this is achieved, a new page can be opened in relations and trust can begin to be built between the parties. In addition, security issues will be minimised, and the cries of war and conflict will also gradually disappear.
Leaders' responsibilities and the impact of their words are so great. Therefore, leaders must evolve populism towards constructiveness. Populism brings parties and leaders to power, but after winning, it depends on the wisdom of smart people to direct society towards constructiveness and the right path. Otherwise, a very bad situation would be created. Unconscionable populist leadership can bring degenerateness and hooliganazation to people.
Serbians' old discourse on Kosovo and the region
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić's speech at the 78th session of the UNGA was not about reconciliation, but rather about attempting to undermine peace efforts in the Western Balkans. This speech should enter the literature as “an example of irresponsible post-conflict leadership”.
In summary, the Serbian President talked about how the Serbs were the victims of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, and how the Kosovo issue is a cause of today’s global issues and crises. In short, we call this a mental eclipse.
Let me explain it simply. During the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), not Kosovo but Serbia was internal hegemonic power in the federation. Not Prishtina but Belgrade tried to dominate each federal unit of the SFRY and while doing this, misused the mechanisms of the former country. In addition, Belgrade instrumentalized the Serbs living in other federal units and used its proxies in the neighbourhood for its hegemonic dreams. Serbia during the 90s attacked the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other federal units, applied aggression towards them, interfered in their domestic affairs, violated the principle of equality, and violated the co-existence of all of the nations in the former country. Furthermore, Serbia`s aggression caused humanitarian crises in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, and resulted in the deaths, and injuries of hundreds of thousands and displacement of more than four million people in SFRY. The Srebrenica genocide was not committed by Kosovar Albanians or Croats, but by Serbs, backed by Belgrade. The assassination of former Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjić was not carried out by Kosovars, but by the Serbian deep State and its nationalist tools, who are still seen as heroes by most of the Serbian people.
It is obvious that the new era of Balkanization began during the 90s with the Belgrade`s efforts for evolution of Yugoslavism ideals into Serbianization and plans for more hegemony over others’ territories with the rhetoric of securing Serbs, very similar to Putin's Russia. Serbians could not get rid of their old dreams. While they ostensibly talk about European Union integration, unfortunately, they still dream of establishing their own hegemony in the region. It is of great importance for the future of the Balkans that Serbia truly embraces the values of the European Union. But unfortunately, their behaviour so far is not in line with modern European ideals.
Serbia, which has been trying to corrupt others for years, has corrupted itself the most and is still unable to explain to its own people that the racist expression known as "heavenly people" (nebeski narod) is nothing more than nonsense. On the other side, Balkan nations are tired of Serbian admiration of war criminals like Slobodan Milošević or Ratko Mladić. If the new Serbian generations bury the war criminals in the depths of history and keep alive the ideals of scientists such as Nikola Tesla and Mihajlo Pupin, who served humanity, everything will change positively.
For reconciliation and peace, it is important to take bold and smart steps to remove the dark clouds that depress societies. Serbia needs this the most in the Balkans. If Serbia cleans up its own courtyard and directs its people to truth, law, peace, and love, then we can be happy for the region. For this, Serbians must first stop seeing their own genesis as special and belittling others, and even get rid of racism rather than arrogance. There can be no love and reconciliation in a region where one hegemonic side constantly instils racism and enmity.
Interestingly Serbian President Vučić, in his address to the UNGA said “We do not divide people by the colour of their skin or their religious affiliation, that is why our relations with the People’s Republic of China, Republic of Korea, Japan, many Arab and other Muslim countries are at the highest historical level!?” We remember that on 20 July 1995 same Vučić, as a young MP of Serbian Parliament, referring to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said, “If one Serb is killed, we will kill a hundred Muslims!” It was the time when Serbs committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, which is considered as the biggest act of genocide in Europe after World War II.
If you want to see the mindset of a nation, look at what it does to its neighbors rather than its search for alliances on a global scale. In the last 30 plus years, Serbia has had a very poor record in this regard. Unfortunately, some global powers have always ignored Belgrade's past atrocities and crimes, considering the potential to use Serbs as proxies in South East Europe. This situation may benefit some countries, but it is extremely harmful for regional peace and stability in the Balkans, as well as global peace and stability.
Kosovar side strongly condemned the words of the Serbian President in UNGA, through the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Donika Gërvalla-Schwarz, and rightfully called international community to remind Belgrade of the obligations taken with the Brussels and Ohrid agreements for the normalization of the relations between the Republic of Kosovo and Serbia.
All efforts of the Serbian leadership are to undermine the successes of Kosovo since declaring its independence. Serbia`s entire aim is to portray Kosovo's independence as a failed state formation and to obtain concessions thereupon. They are also trying a similar in Bosnia and Herzegovina via instrumentalization of the Republic of Srpska. Since they cannot evolve their own mentality into a constructive one, they try to affect the dynamics of others. Regarding the Republic of Kosovo, they try to influence non-recognizers but also some recognizers by creating confusion and deepening the prejudices about the newest country in Europe.
For reconciliation, we need peace, and for this, Serbia must stop using threats and proxies. Serbian President Vučić creating tensions, tries to mask the general public's dissatisfaction in Serbia rather than the situation in Kosovo. His discourse reminds us of our nightmares in the 90s. This is an extremely flawed strategy. Kosovo expects friendly countries and all international legal entities to call, but also through various mechanisms to oblige Belgrade to be constructive and peace-oriented.
Facts about Kosovo’s liberation and independence
In order to get over prejudices influenced by Serbia against Kosovo; it is useful to state some facts. First of all, Kosovo is a 'sui generis` case and, as such, it cannot be compared to any other situation and cannot represent a precedent for any other entity or territory in the world. If some see the case of Kosovo as a precedent for its internal issues, it would be doing itself an injustice, above all. Serbia may want to create such a perception in other countries, but this perception will harm the processes related to Kosovo and also can create confusion regarding the future of many countries. "Kosovo case is `sui generis` and taking it as a precedent for other cases leads to confusion and does not serve to solve problems.”
To understand how Kosovo achieved independence, it is essential to comprehend its history. In 1989, Belgrade abolished Kosovo's autonomy and two years later, as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) disintegrated, Kosovo lost its status as a federal entity in the ex-country with rights similar to those of the six republics. During the 1990s Kosovo and its institutions were under the Serbian occupation. Serbian authorities consistently discriminated against Kosovars, especially Albanians, excluding them from governance and public life, along with exclusion from the health and educational system. In reaction, the Kosovo leadership under Ibrahim Rugova pursued a policy of peaceful resistance for several years before the lack of progress led to the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army and armed struggle. This, in turn, encouraged the Serbians to exercise more pressure against the Kosovars. Following a failed attempt to negotiate a settlement at Rambouillet, France, in March 1999, NATO decided to stop humanitarian crises in Kosovo and intervened in Serbian targets. During the Serbian atrocities more than half of the Kosovars became refugees or internally displaced. After the war, the problems were tried to be solved through negotiations. But after all the attempts, the UN special envoy, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, gave the green light for the status of Kosovo, as a ‘sui generis’ case. Although Serbia, Russia and some other countries insist on denying the truth, Kosovo's independence has become an irreversible fact.
It should be noted that, more than half of member countries of the UN have recognized the independence of the Republic of Kosovo. The majority of these countries are geographically close to Kosovo and they realized that the case is unique and cannot be used as a precedent for other cases. In addition they considered the peace and stability of the region as well as their own peace and stability. On the other side, the International Court of Justice ruled that the declaration of independence of Kosovo was not in violation of international law.
Everyone, including the birds in the air, knows that it is the Serbians, not the Kosovo Albanians, who are still trying to destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo. Serbians must give up these behaviors and accept these countries as they are, for the sake and interests of new generations. In order for the Balkans to become a more peaceful, safe and prosperous peninsula, the facts must be acknowledged, future cooperation opportunities must be explored, and every country in the region must embrace more democratic values.
Instrumentalization of proxies by Belgrade
The Serbian leadership is committing grave errors by endangering the lives of young people and organizing and directing them. Just like in the 90s, the wrong steps taken today will boomerang and hit Belgrade, and Serbian youth will continue to be poisoned by hate speech and feelings of hostility.
Before moving on the subject of the Serb terrorist attack committed against Kosovar police officers on September 24, 2023, let’s remember the facts of what happened in the last few months in the north of Kosovo, where the Serbian community consists of a majority:
First of all, let me emphasize that the Constitution of my country states that the People of the Republic of Kosovo are determined to build the future of Kosovo as a free, democratic, and peace-loving country that will be a homeland to all of its citizens and committed to the creation of a State of free citizens that will guarantee the rights of every citizen, civil freedoms, and equality of all citizens before the law. Let me underline again, 'equality of all citizens before the law`. Every government in office must comply with these provisions. The incumbent government is doing the same. The government rightfully decided that the rule of law and avoiding negative phenomena are among the topmost priorities for peace, harmony and social integration in the country. Indulging the criminal groups and turning a blind eye to lawlessness and the subjects and activities that destabilize certain parts of the country are phenomena that put the future of the nation in danger. The government decided that all citizens must be treated equally. For example, Kosovo Serbs living in the northernmost municipalities of the country have not paid their electricity or other utility bills for many years. In addition, they did not comply with government decisions after the additional periods given to them regarding the use of license plates.
If everything is left to fate, the law can never prevail. Following the decisiveness of the Kosovar Government to put an end to distortions and wrong practices, Belgrade increased the level of manipulation of the Kosovar Serb elements and put its proxies on the stage. Belgrade always tries to make concessions from Kosovo through its destabilization, using the elements in the north. For example, after the decisiveness of the Kosovar Government about the license plates, the Kosovar Serb mayors of the four municipalities in northern Kosovo resigned at Serbia's direction. As a requirement of the rule of law, a new election was held within the legal period. The participation of the political subjects representing the Kosovo Serb community in this election could not be ensured due to the pressure of the criminal groups and proxies acting under the direction of the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić. Even Belgrade directly called on the Kosovo Serb community to boycott the elections. After all of this pressure, political subjects who were keen to be part of the elections were deterred from participating. In all these four municipalities, three mayoral candidates belong to the Kosovar Albanian community and one has mixed Bosniak-Albanian origin. Again, as required by law, the new mayor, after the oath taking ceremony, went to the municipal buildings to perform their duties from their offices. Meanwhile, groups under the command of Belgrade took action, and tensions arose. In addition to the Kosovo Police, which is there to relieve tension and ensure security, KFOR soldiers are also performing their duties. As a result, criminal groups under the direction of Belgrade and their stakeholders attacked KFOR soldiers as well. There were dozens of KFOR soldiers, Kosovo Police and journalists injured in the attacks.
Due to the political situation, the government of Kosovo stated that the newly elected mayors will work to ensure public services and that they will help to overcome this difficult process. When conditions permit, re-elections will be held in the most fair and democratic way. The aim of the government is to prevent the formation of a management vacuum in these municipalities. Criminal groups rule the streets of places where there is a government vacuum. Unfortunately, due to the weaknesses in the past, there have always been serious security problems in the municipalities in question, and the ordinary people have been put under pressure.
Terrorist attack in the Kosovo’s north
The worst provocation and attack that endangered peace took place on September 24, 2023. On Sunday morning, a Serbian criminal and terrorist group consisting of dozens of individuals attacked Kosovo police officers patrolling around the village of Banjska in the municipality of Zveqan. After this incident, terrorists raided the Banjska Monastery and took hostage the people who were there to worship. The aim was to create chaos and a bad image through provocation in order to damage the reputation of Kosovo and its police, a distinguished institution of our country. The terrorists could not achieve this. The very successful police operation confirmed that three of them were killed and some were captured. While the many countries condemned this terrorist attack, Serbia declared three days of mourning for the dead terrorists. Of course, although it may sound like an irony, the Serbian President also expressed his sorrow for our police martyr.
Approximately three months ago, Kosovo declared the so-called "Civil Defense" and the "Northern Brigade" as terrorist organizations. There is serious evidence that most of the criminals who participated in the terrorist attack in Banjska were affiliated with these two organizations. Many of them are Serbian citizens. Among them is a criminal named Milan Radoičić, Vice President of Srpska Lista, a political organization supported by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. The presence of Radoičić at the crime scene was detected from the drone footages of Kosovar side.
On the other side the drone footages confiscated in the terrorists' locations by the Kosovo Police were shared with the public by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Kosovo. The footage shows terrorists carrying out preparations and simulations in Kopaonik, Serbia, close to the border with Kosovo. It has been proven that the simulations carried out with the support of the Serbian state apparatus included the scenario of the annexation of Kosovo`s north to Serbia. The professional approach of the Kosovo Police and its institutions exposed the failed Serbian plan.
Besides, Serbia, for the second time in the last three months deployed its forces close to the Kosovar border. They are mobilizing themselves under the pretext of "protecting Serbs in Kosovo`. They are our citizens and we protect them. Unfortunately, they continue to act with the mindset of the 90s that led to war in different parts of the former country. The best protection they can provide to Kosovo Serbs is to allow them to respect Kosovo's democratic order and laws and to fully integrate into Kosovo society. Although the mobilization of Serbian forces is seemingly presented as a threat to the people of Kosovo, it is unrealistic. Moreover, it is truly ridiculous and hilarious that Serbia shows that it is ready to invade a part of Kosovo which is under the protection of NATO-led KFOR, and tries to cast a shadow on the prestige of NATO. The mobilization of the Serbian Army will only refresh the painful memories that our compatriots have from the 90s. This is not good even for the Kosovar Serb Community, which consists of less than 4 percent of the population. For reconciliation we need peace, not rise of tensions. This mobilization was carried out by Serbian President Vučić also to mask the dissatisfaction of the people in his country. Additionally, through this, he is trying to demonstrate readiness for the annexation of the northern municipalities of the Republic of Kosovo to Serbia, similar to the Russian annexation of Crimea. This is such a meaningless and a catastrophic approach. Kosovo expects friendly countries and all international legal entities to call on, even to sanction Belgrade to be constructive and peace-oriented.
Worth to remind that Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, on June this year pointed out the need for de-escalation and mentioned that progress should be made with the full implementation of the Brussels Agreement on the path to normalization between the Republic of Kosovo and Serbia and its Ohrid Implementation Agreement achieved under the mediation of the European Union. Unfortunately, day after the Ohrid Agreement was achieved, Serbian President Vučić publicly declared that he will not implement the agreements as a whole. The Serbian side insists only on the formation of an Association of the Municipalities with the Serbian majority, which is not more important than other topics. Finally, in the meeting held on September 14, 2023, Prime Minister Kurti's warnings and suggestions were unfortunately not taken into consideration seriously by the EU mediators, and how right he was about his concerns came to light in the terrorist attack on September 24.
Kosovo is conducting a very serious investigation into the latest terrorist attack and carrying the process to its conclusion with the support of the international community.
The Kosovo government is determined to take every democratic step to rehabilitate this region. Together with the international community and their representatives in Kosovo, we will continue to explain to the Kosovo Serb community in the north in a good way the need for steps to be taken for a peaceful, prosperous, and integrated region. Only in this manner can we achieve a European future for our country and region. Our aim is to achieve higher standards in Kosovo, more development inside and abroad, and, of course, all region to be part of the European Union. Belgrade’s best protection can provide to the Kosovar Serbs, is to allow them to respect the democratic order and laws of Kosovo and to fully integrate into Kosovar society.
The Government of the Republic of Kosovo, while implementing laws and fulfilling its commitments given to citizens for a better and just Kosovo, also works closely with its allies and partners. Kosovo has always been able to manage crises with its will and constructive attitude. The Kosovo government argues that the problems should not be thrown under the rug. Short-term lulls can lead to long-term chronic problems. We want to get rid of some phenomena that create a dark cloud over a certain part of our country. We especially want our friendly countries to understand this better and support us more. We need this for a more peaceful and prosperous Kosovo and the region.
Our main concern is the feeling of insecurity among Kosovo Serbs in the north. The biggest problem is the existence of criminal and terrorist groups, which is proven to be directed by Belgrade. They suppress the silent majority who want to be integrated into Kosovar society. Our government is working on freeing the north from the shackles and creating a pluralistic political atmosphere among Serbs as well.
The second important issue is our need to eliminate prejudices created by the historical past. Unfortunately, some people still cannot accept the realities of the country. A part of Kosovar Serbs in the northern municipalities does not fully realize that integration into society is the most crucial and brings endless advantages. While the world is changing rapidly, people still do not realize that communication and interaction are something that is very valuable. There are good examples in other parts of Kosovo. There is a lot of interaction and sharing among people. Kosovar Albanians, Bosniaks, Turks, and other communities give the best examples of living together. We see the same sentiment among many of the Serbs in the internal parts of the country. The Kosovo government is sincerely working towards the integration of all Kosovar Serbs into society. But rest assured that neither the government nor the people will indulge in elements that threaten the integrity of Kosovo. Kosovo Serbs must realize that living together is the best option. They should claim their rights within the system like everyone else. However, the Constitution and laws of Kosovo grant them very broad rights. In any case, they are represented by their members in parliament and the government. They should approach things from a progressive perspective. If the integration becomes stronger, much more investments will be made in that region in infrastructure and other fields. Everything will be better if they focus on European ideals and cooperate with us to minimize the negative phenomena in northern municipalities.
More than current tensions in the north of Kosovo, the fact that Belgrade does not accept the reality harms our relations. First of all, mutual recognition must take place. If Serbia does this, Kosovo will also do its part. In addition, Belgrade should stop working against Kosovo’s interests on international platforms. For the future of the region, they must prioritize the ideals of the European Union, more willingly and sincerely, like other Western Balkan countries. If they do so, we will all be comfortable together and develop our future relations under a common structure. If we all fail, we will leave a bad legacy for future generations.
As Kosovo, we call on the international community to be with us on issues such as the rule of law, democracy, human rights, freedoms, and development in order to resolve chronic issues in the region. We call for help in order to preserve these values in the northern part of Kosovo as well. We call on the world not to spare the support for other countries in the region to internalize and implement these values in a real sense. If we accomplish all these things, we solve the issues faster in the municipalities in the north of Kosovo or the relations between the two entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in all other countries of the Western Balkans.