Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, has warned of Russia inflaming tensions between his country and Serbia due to the war in Ukraine faltering, as Belgrade took its first step in deploying troops to the region.
Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, where they are in the majority, have had barricades set up for more than a week, preventing the free movement of the Kosovan authorities, despite US and EU calls for the illegal road blocks to be dismantled.
A large group of members of the Narodne Patrole, a Serbian nationalist organization with ties to the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, had also massed on Sunday on the Serbian side of the Serbia-Kosovo border threatening to confront Nato troops.
With the risk of violent clashes growing, Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, used his right under a UN resolution to ask Nato for permission to send 1,000 police and army personnel, citing a need to protect Serbian communities.
Serbia’s request on Friday, the first since the Kosovan war ended in 1999, will almost certainly be rejected, but the concern will be that it could be the first step towards a unilateral decision to deploy.
Kurti said he was anxious the tense situation could escalate to the advantage of Vladimir Putin with Russian and Serbian forces having conducted what he said were 104 joint military exercises in 2021.
The Kosovan leader added that he had agreed to give Nato-led troops, known as Kfor, time to persuade those on the barricades to stand down but that they could not be allowed to remain much longer.
He described the barricades as a step towards partitioning the country, which has been independent from Serbia since 2008.
“Our worry [is] that removal of these barricades cannot exclude casualties,” he said. “And that’s why we want to be as careful as possible to make sure that there will be no destabilization and relative peace and security will be in place. However, we cannot allow this violation of legality and constitutionality forever. So, yeah, this must end, sooner the better.”
Kurti added: “The EU-US all agree that barricades should be removed. But they are also worried how this might be used and abused by Belgrade.
“I think that the concern of our western partners and friends is the links of Belgrade with Moscow. We do not know how they could be rendered operative in case of rising tensions, towards escalation in the north.
“I think that their major concern is precisely this: now that Russia got severely wounded in Ukraine after its invasion and aggression, they have interest in spillover. They have interest in outsourcing their war-mongering drive to the Balkans where they have a client who’s in Belgrade.”
The Kremlin has said it wants the “situation resolved through diplomatic means” but that they “stand for ensuring that all the rights of the Serbs are guaranteed”.
The standoff in northern Kosovo, during which masked armed men have used trucks, ambulance cars and agricultural machines to block roads, had been prompted by the arrest of an ethnic Serb former police officer suspected of being involved in recent attacks on Kosovan police.
The underlying point of tension remains Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
The EU has been seeking to mediate an agreement that could see relations normalise, but Kurti said that the ever deepening ties between Belgrade and Moscow were an obstacle to progress.
A Franco-German proposal had suggested that in return for Belgrade not standing in the way of the breakaway region’s accession to the UN as a member state, Serbia would receive EU financial support and a fast track to membership of the bloc.
Kosovo needs Serbia’s approval to become a UN member because their allies Russia and China have veto power on the security council.
The EU plan, based on a 1972 agreement that helped normalize relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, had been tentatively welcomed by Vučić but the Serbian first deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Ivica Dačić, who has close ties to the Kremlin, later announced its rejection.
Vučić has also stood out against EU sanctions on Russia in relation to the war in Ukraine. Coordination between the military of the two countries has intensified in recent years.
Beyond the extensive joint military exercises, an agreement on the establishment of a representative office of the Russian ministry of defense in its Serbian counterpart was signed in October 2020.
Kurti said he still hoped that Serbia would ultimately join the EU along with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo.
A formal accession request was handed by Kurti to the current Czech presidency of the EU last week. “There is a war in Ukraine, let’s prevent spillover. So joining the EU helps,” Kurti said. “We know that there is a long way ahead. For Finland and Sweden it was three years. For Malta and Cyprus, 14. The average is nine. And I said publicly, ‘Let’s aim for the average’. I saw a certain readiness in EU to think differently after the continent is at war.”
The Serbian defense ministry said in a statement it denied what it called Kurti’s “untrue and malicious allegations” of 104 joint exercises with Russian forces. It said it had conducted 21 military exercises in 2021, four with Russia and 17 with Nato members.
“All exercises that our military conducts with partner countries aim, among other things, to strengthen trust and contribute to regional stability,” the statement said. It accused Kurti of attempting to mislead international public opinion on Kosovo by alleging Kremlin influence over Serbian decision making.