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Tensions rise in Kosovo: will ethnic conflict further threaten stability in Europe?

In the midst of global focus on the conflict in Ukraine, another simmering dispute in Europe has been overlooked, but it poses a significant threat to regional stability. Recent events in Kosovo have reignited tensions that could potentially lead to violence and bloodshed. Earlier this month in June 2023, NATO responded to days of rioting in three northern towns by deploying an additional 700 peacekeeping troops, bolstering its existing 3,800-strong force in the region.

The unrest was triggered by ethnic Serbs, who boycotted local elections resulting in victory for ethnic Albanian candidates. Despite a meagre turnout of 3.5%, the government in Pristina insisted on the new mayors taking office, angering ethnic Serbs and their NATO allies. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken blamed Kosovo’s Albanian-nationalist Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, for escalating tensions, leading to Kosovo’s exclusion from a joint US-European military exercise. Kurti, in turn, points fingers at Belgrade, supported by Moscow, for inciting the unrest.

The dispute in Kosovo is rooted in a centuries-old conflict that remains deeply entrenched. Kosovo holds immense cultural and historical significance for ethnic Serbs, who view the province as their cultural and national epicentre. However, the demographics of Kosovo have long been mixed, with Albanians forming the majority for over a century. Following the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic ruthlessly suppressed a separatist movement in Kosovo, leading to a brutal war from 1998 to 1999. The conflict was ultimately resolved through a NATO-led bombing campaign that forced out Serbian forces. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Serbia, Russia, China, and five EU countries still refuse to recognise it. While ethnic Serbs account for only 5% of Kosovo’s 1.9 million population, they constitute a significant majority in the northern region.

NATO hopes to navigate this complex situation by granting ethnic Serbs sufficient rights and protections to secure their recognition of Kosovan statehood, as well as that of Serbia itself. Ultimately, the goal is to integrate Serbia and Kosovo fully into the Western sphere of influence. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has alternative motives With his “special military operation” in Ukraine facing challenges, Putin would welcome a new conflict in Europe to divert resources away from Ukraine. The disturbances in northern Kosovo may seem localised, but with Moscow’s support, they possess the potential to escalate into a more significant crisis.

“In the midst of the global focus on the conflict in Ukraine, it is crucial not to overlook the simmering dispute in Kosovo, which poses a significant threat to regional stability. Recent events have reignited tensions that could potentially lead to violence and bloodshed,” warns Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV.

“NATO’s deployment of additional peacekeeping troops in response to the rioting in three northern towns underscores the seriousness of the situation. The ethnic tensions, triggered by the boycott of local elections by ethnic Serbs and subsequent political actions, have created a volatile environment. The dispute in Kosovo has deep historical roots, and while efforts are being made to address the concerns of ethnic Serbs and integrate Kosovo into the Western sphere, the involvement of external actors like Russia adds complexity and raises the risk of a larger crisis.”