By: Aleena T. Sabu, Research Analyst, GSDN
Kosovo has been in the news recently because of the violent clashes that took place between the ethnic Serbs and the Albanian police. Kosovo has been a disputed area between the Serbs and Albanians. Kosovo declared itself an independent nation in 17 February 2008 and almost 100 countries have formally recognised the independence of Kosovo, but Serbia has not accepted it. They consider Kosovo to be part of their area despite the ethnic ratio of the nation. Kosovo has around 96% of Albanians and only 4% of Serbians living there. This has come out as a disadvantage to Serbia as the majority population wants to be independent from Serbia. This article seeks to understand the history behind the instability in Kosovo and its present-day scenario.
Where is Kosovo and why is it a disputed area? A Historical background
Kosovo is a small, isolated country in the Balkans in southern-eastern Europe. Its neighbours are Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Many believe it to be the origin of the Serb people. However, only 6% of Kosovo’s 1.8 million residents are Serbian, compared to 92% of Albanians. The others are Turks, Gorans, Bosniaks, and Roma.
Kosovo was part of the Serbian Empire and then the Ottoman Empire during the Middle Ages, because of which the country has been influenced by so many cultures and religious practices. With the rise of nationalism in the Balkan region in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and it led to the formation of independent sovereign states like Serbia and Albania.
Serbia was one of the six republics that became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after the Second World War. Kosovo was also part of it as an autonomous province. Yugoslavia was faced with political and economic turmoil in the 1980s and 1990s which set off racial tensions. Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia, abolished Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, setting off protests amongst the ethnic Albanian population. Early in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia started to fall apart, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina all proclaimed their independence, starting the Yugoslav Wars.
The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (made up mostly of Serbian forces) and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a paramilitary group of ethnic Albanians fighting for Kosovo’s independence, engaged in combat during the Kosovo War.
This led to the displacement of thousands of people as well as loss of lives too. There were also reports of human rights violations reported during the war and events of ethnic cleansing also took place. When the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) launched a military operation against Yugoslav objectives in 1999, Milosevic was eventually forced to remove Yugoslav soldiers from Kosovo.
Following the conflict, NATO forces were tasked with keeping security in the area while Kosovo was placed under United Nations (UN) administration.
Numerous attempts have been initiated to solve the problems peacefully, such as the discussions that happened between Kosovo and Serbia encouraged by the European Union in 2011. The conversation was to restore matters and resolve issues related to shared interests, this led to the signing of a few agreements, such as the creation of the Association of Serb-majority municipalities and integrated border management.
However, tensions between Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority and the Serb minority, who live there, continue, especially in the northern half of the nation. Political, economic, cultural, and historical resentments between the two sides add to the difficulty of the issue.
Kosovo War and NATO
In 1989, the leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, altered the ruling of Kosovo to Belgrade, which was Serbia’s capital. This led to a lot of tensions between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing led to large scale displacement of refugees both inside and outside the region.
In 1999, many diplomatic decisions and talks were set forward but the failure of all these led to NATO intervening. NATO launched an air campaign to halt the humanitarian crisis that was spreading over Kosovo. The mission was called ‘Operation Allied Force’ and it started on 24 March 1999 and then later was suspended on 10 June 1999 and it lasted for a total of 78 days. On 10 June 1999, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia withdrew military, police and paramilitary forces and accepted deployment of an international civil and security presence.
Despite many strains, NATO held together the war for 78 days and at first the targets were the air defences of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, then gradually NATO is said to have made use of advanced and precision- guided technology in order to avoid civilian casualties.
NATO deployed a multinational peacekeeping force called the Kosovo Force, whose members belong to NATO members as well as non-member countries, to provide a security mechanism for Kosovo. They also gave humanitarian aid in the region by delivering aid, helping refugees and displaced people.
NATO still maintains its role as the peacekeeping force in Kosovo and continues to maintain Kosovo Force. Its main role is to essentially maintain peace and security in the region. NATO works closely with all the authorities, organisations, and institutions in order to contain the security issues in the country. NATO is also said to be involved in capacity building programs as well as initiating dialogues between both nations.
Clashes and Consequences
The relations between the Serbs and the Albanians have been strained for a couple of years now. Recently, with a new election that happened, things escalated. The Serbs have boycotted the elections held in the northern region as the mayors who are elected are Albanians only. The turnout was less than 4%, which triggered protests from the Serbs majority that lived there. These four mayors must then be transported with the help of the Kosovo police to their office. This was met with protests as these elections were boycotted by the local Serbs, which led to the Albanians winning them with less than 4% turnout. The tensions began with the Kosovo police forces raiding the municipality building. The Serbs tried to stop the mayor from taking over the office and the police responded to them with tear gas. The Serbs then staged a protest in front of the municipality buildings, which caused problems between the Serbs and Kosovo peacekeepers and local police.
Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti and his government officially installed all the elected Albanian mayors without trying to control the situation in Kosovo. The government also ignored calls by the United States and European Union, which have always supported Kosovo’s independence from Serbia since its independence in 2008.
The Kosovo Force explained how it was faced with brutal and unprovoked attacks when they were trying to take control of a hostile crowd as the demonstrators clashed with the police and forced their way inside the government building in Zvecan, a northern town in Kosovo. And at least 30 NATO peacekeeping forces were injured in the protests that aimed at the removal of the newly elected Albanian mayors.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said 52 Serbs were hurt and a few of them seriously injured by gunshots from the Albanian police.
NATO has strongly condemned these unprovoked attacks on the Kosovo Force troops and said how unacceptable the whole situation is now.
While on the other hand, the Serbs are demanding the withdrawal of the Kosovo Police Forces, whose presence seems to cause a problem, as it has ignited protests in northern Kosovo and the Albanian mayors who they do not want as their representatives.
Serbia is backed by its strong ally, Russia, and even during the protests many demonstrations showing clear signs of Russia’s backing were showcased by Serbia. Russia has always supported Serbia on the issue of Kosovo and uses its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to block any decisions that seem to cause problems for Serbia. Russia has trade agreements with Serbia and often invests in its economy and provides them with infrastructure too. Russia also supplies Serbia with arms and ammunition as and when needed. And when issues of diplomacy arise, Russia always favours decisions that hide the interests of Serbia.
This complex dynamics of relationship between Russia and Serbia along with China creates problems during discussions and dialogues in the United Nations. Nations seek out their national interest only and this leads to clashes between various countries and their national policy.
International dialogues are in the need of the hour as clashes are erupting between both sides. The 1999 war was an example of the lengths both nations could go to achieve their national interests. And so, it is essentially important to reach consensus on this problem as soon as possible in order to avoid any problems in the future.
Both Kosovo and Serbia want to be members of the EU and so reaching a consensus on this issue is needed for both by the nations and Serbian intervention in Kosovo would mean a clash with NATO, which could have far-reaching consequences too. Serbia and Kosovo need to reach agreements in a diplomatic way in order to avoid instability in the region.