Last frontier of the Serbian part of Kosovska Mitrovica. Graffiti picturing Serbian flag with Kosovo and Russian flag with Crimea and a title: Kosovska Mitrovica. Kosovo is Serbia – Crimea is Russia Source: Young Pioneer Tours (undated). Mirovica – a City Divided (https://www.youngpioneertours.com/mitrovica-city-divided/).
God is in heaven; Russia is on earth — Serbian proverb
It is hard to imagine more pro-American state in the Western Balkans other than Kosovo. The same applies to nearby Serbia, as the biggest pro-Russian state. In this sense, it is quite naive to think that discussions around its status are only a regional issue. It is a very significant place for a political struggle of interests between the West and the East.
During the war in former Yugoslavia, weakened by the collapse of the USSR, Russia was trying to somehow alienate with its Western states, but not always without complications — memory of the dominant position of the superpower was very strong. By 1999 the situation has changed, and Russia has openly entered a conflict with its Western partners. When three out of five UN SC members knew that their plans to stop ethnic cleansing by force will not pass through the Russian veto, they have unilaterally started the operation under the auspices of humanitarian intervention. But shortly after the bombardments, Russia has sent its peacekeepers from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Kosovo (a friendly gesture towards Serbia) and made it clear – Moscow has its word to be said in the Kosovo settlement.
Russia and Serbia have remembered their long lasting historical, Slavic and orthodox ties. Later, in February 2008, when Kosovo (with Western support) had seceded from Serbia and has unilaterally declared its independence, which was recognized by most of the “Western” states, Russia opposed it. By this it had provided Serbia a sort of international support and therefore, closed the way of Pristina to the UN and other international bodies. However, already in August in the same way Moscow had recognized independence of two other republics — Abkhazia and South Ossetia who got their independence in a very suspicious, from the international law perspective, way.
Since 2008 a lot of things have changed. Serbian support of Russia and its leader lead to the unprecedented level of support (Suvorov 2019), as well as Kosovo admiration for the United States (with a statue of B. Clinton and several streets named after the U.S. presidents in Pristina). And in the meantime, parastate of Kosovo has become a precedent for Russia to show that unilateral Western settlement does not work even in its prior sphere of interest — in Europe.
What does Kosovo mean for Russian relations with Serbia and the EU in the Western Balkans? In terms of economic interest – almost nothing. Russia shows almost no interest in projects in Kosovo, unlike Serbia, where it has investments in the biggest Serbian oil monopoly NIS (Politika 2016), 230 million Euros (out of 800 that are being negotiated for 10 years so far) (Politika 2019 1), or Serbian inclusion in the Turkstream project (Zuvela 2018). On the contrary, the trade, projects and investments from the EU (European Commission 2019 1) and China (Government of the Republic of Serbia 2019) are growing and offer in total more, than only energy supplies.
Russia, however, has a very strategic interest in keeping the Kosovo status. In 2018 the EU has set the term, when Serbia could join the European family — 2025 (European Commission 2019 2). But with one condition — settlement of the Kosovo issue. At the same time both politicians in Belgrade and Pristina expressed a possibility of the land swaps —North Kosovo with majority of a Serbian population will go to Serbia, the rest — to Kosovo (Delauney 2018). Brussels and Washington, that have for a long opposed this approach (as the review of borders is forbidden by the UN charter), greeted this decision. But it was not the case for Moscow — why?
If the Kosovo issue is resolved, Serbia will get a green light on the way to the European structures. Recent developments in Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia have shown that this way will go through the integration into NATO. Moscow in this case would lose its center of projection of power (a leverage in the UN Security Council and a word to say in the regional affairs) and would simply become an energy supplier for Belgrade. Plus, after joining the EU, Serbia wouldneed to give up its free trade agreement with Russia and most likely to impose sanctions on Moscow. Alongside this, Russian citizens, that currently enjoy visa-free entry to Serbia would need to obtain visas, however, this point is quite far from the very first.
Moscow simply sees no reasons in this case to help with the settlement in current realities. Evidently, 11 years of crisis among Kosovo both sides are tired of a pointless confrontation, however, Kosovo for Serbia is like Jerusalem for Israel —a center of national pride. Therefore, Moscow plays with Serbian nationalists, as well as the Serbian orthodox church (Dnevnik 2018) and with every possibility reminds that Kosovo belongs to Serbia. At the same time it says that it will be satisfied with each decision that will be suitable for both sides (Politika 2019 2) but that is in accordance with the UN SC Resolution 1244 with all respects to the international law that Russia tends to violate on its own – e.g. with its engagement in the Eastern Ukraine (Borisov 2019). Or, let us say, with speculations, that Russia trades unnamed goods with North Korea, avoiding international sanctions.
This resolution was adopted in 1999(!), therefore, it logically does not reflect the current realities. Belgrade knows that Kosovo will not be fully integrated in Serbia, it is not possible anymore, but is unable to publicly acknowledge it due to the opposition from the public and the church. Russia realizes it and the most important — it needs to do literally nothing to slow down the settlement process. It is enough to orally express that Russian stand together with Serbian and each politician who questions the integrity of Kosovo becomes venal to the West crook and Moscow, in this case, will be seen as a true patron and protector of Serbia against Western injustice.
Resolution of the Kosovo issue is off-the-table for Russia — Balkans are not even part of the Russian Concept of Foreign Policy (Prezident Rossii 2016). There is basically no need to reinvent a wheel — courtesy exchange with Moscow had helped the current nationalist elite to take the power, but now the debt must be paid off. No politician in Serbia can afford to be seen less patriot of its own country than Kremlin in front of its own people. Especially in the conditions, when most of the population, according to the Belgrade Center for the Security Policy (2017) oppose recognition of independence.
Nowadays, according to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2018) official position on Kosovo looks this way: “one-sided secession has not lead to any positive settlement of the Kosovo issue” and “such actions of ´benefactors´ have made Kosovo a ´black hole´ with strange status” that is “used by the Alliance to project its influence and to manipulate with ongoing developments in the region”. In other words, Russia criticizes, but offers a little in return.
At the same time Russian president Vladimir Putin (2014) compares the status of Kosovo to justify the annexation of Crimea and refers to some “unique status of Kosovo”, that was defined without the approval of local authorities (evidently Serbian). This is a good precedent for Russia to show the West that its model is not fully working. And this is an obstacle, because such position radically limits Serbian political maneuverability and slows down the its way to the EU. “The worse situation around Kosovo is, the better it is for Russia”, sums up the Kosovar politician Azem Vlassi in an interview to the Radio Liberty (Georgievski 2019).
In any case Moscow will be involved in the Kosovo settlement as one of the key players and it is unlikely that its position will be different. Russia will stay alongside its orthodox brothers and sabotage any possible change of its status in order to secure its role of global power with worldwide interests and use this precedent in its own prior sphere of interest —the post-Soviet space. In this sense, despite the fact that Russia has a zero economic interest in Kosovo, but surprisingly it uses it as a place to project its power of a global player with its interests going way beyond the borders of the former USSR. And in the meantime, Russia and Kosovo will be kept apart in the UEFA competitions because of security risks (but will meet on the neutral ground at the UEFA 2021 Women’s Euro qualification) (UEFA 2019), and a new memorial plate to commemorate the 75th anniversary of liberation of Belgrade by the Red Army in 1944 that has to be a “place of a dialogue, friendship and preservation of the traditions of liberty” is being solemnly opened in the Serbian capital (TASS 2019).
Autor: Igor Suvorov
Project Supervisor: Halina Chraščová
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