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Kosovo: Russia's war in Ukraine has a ripple effect

Airin Nuqi
November 29, 2022

Russia and Serbia share close ties, mutual antipathy toward NATO and strong nationalism. Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, DW looks at how Kosovars worry the war could embolden Serbia.

The 'Z' symbol scrawled on on a wall in Kosovo
The symbol Z, more usually seen as a symbol of Russia's military occupation in Ukraine, is also scrawled on buildings in Kosovo's North Mitrovica municipalityImage: M. Andrić-Rakić/DW

Russia's war in Ukraine is perhaps being watched nowhere more intently in Europe than in Kosovo. As the images of rolling tanks and bombings started playing out across screens in late February, many residents of the southeastern European country were immediately transported back to the war with Serbia over two decades ago, the effects of which they still feel today.

"It kind of reinstated that there might not be long-term stability, this fear of 'you are next,' especially since Serbia is known to have a special relationship with Russia," said 24-year-old Taulant.

The older generation is even more inclined to expect the worst. "My family members told me, 'It's just a matter of time until this happens to us too'," said 24-year-old Hana about her older relatives. "A lot of collective traumas rose to the surface."

During the war in 1998-1999, over 13,000 Kosovar lives were lost and some 1 million people were displaced. The war ended 15 months later when NATO intervened.

Kosovo eventually proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008. Although Germany, much of Europe and the United States recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, Serbia does not. Russia, which backs Belgrade, also does not recognize Kosovo.

Map of Kosovo showing Pristina, Mitrovica and Bernjak

Tracing parallels between Ukraine and Kosovo

With the memory of war still present, many in Kosovo see the parallels between Ukraine and tensions with their own neighbor.

"What is happening in Ukraine has once again brought back the memory that war is something real, especially when we have neighbors who deny us the right to exist," said Arben Hajrullahu, professor and head of the Political Science Department at Kosovo's University of Pristina. "If NATO forces were not in Kosovo today, war would break out tomorrow."

In terms of political rhetoric, there are similarities between Russia and Serbia. During heightened border tensions this summer, Vladimir Dukanovic, a member of parliament for Serbia's ruling party, tweeted that Belgrade may be "forced to begin the denazification of the Balkans” — a phrase that echoes language the Kremlin used to justify the invasion of Ukraine. He later apologized, but not before many in Kosovo took note.

As with Russia, Serbia has refused to accept the borders of its smaller neighbor. "Serbia's stance has been to reiterate its territorial integrity and to argue that those insisting on Ukraine's territorial integrity are either hypocritical or inconsistent when it comes to Serbia," writer and former diplomat Ian Bancroft told DW.

Russia-Serbia connection concerns Europe

Russia's support for Serbia's stance on Kosovo has not wavered since the Kosovo war. Aside from their historical and cultural ties, Russia and Serbia also share a mutual antipathy toward NATO.

"Serbia is an island within Europe, a kind of Trojan horse serving based on the free will and the policies of Russia," said political scientist Hajrullahu.

The close ties between Moscow and Belgrade are an issue of consternation in Europe. At a time when the EU is working toward disintegrating business ties with Russia, a "plan of consultations" drafted by Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, at the end of September raised quite a few eyebrows in Brussels.

Although the document, which called for more bilateral activities, did not include security policies, it was met with criticism, given that Serbia is an EU candidate country.

A photo of Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Serbia's Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic signing agreements at a large desk
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and his Serbian counterpart Nikola Selakovic signed 'a plans of consultations' in SeptemberImage: Russian Foreign Ministry/ITAR-TASS/imago images

Disinformation campaign spreads polarization

Russian President Vladimir Putin frequently invokes the memory of NATO's intervention in the Kosovo war to stoke animosity in the region against the trans-Atlantic security alliance.

"Russia and Serbia are interested in presenting Kosovo as a failure at any cost," Hajrullahu said. The aim is to damage Kosovo's international image while fanning unrest internally, he added. To this end, they employ disinformation tactics and propaganda.

"Russia wants to see political instability and polarization, and this is achieved best if you play on the huge polarization between Serbs and Albanians," said Franziska Tschinderle, a Balkan correspondent for German-speaking media, based in Tirana, in neighboring Albania.

Russia's disinformation campaign has steadily spread through Kosovo's northern region, according to Kosovars. It is here, in the cities with a significant Serbian population, that some posters display Vladimir Putin.

Serbia is Kremlin's 'client regime,' Kosovo PM tells DW

"That's where we have problems, as there is a huge Russian influence in those areas," said Kreshnik Gashi, managing editor at Kallxo, an online platform that reports on corruption in Kosovo.

The propaganda aims at dividing ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, and results in spreading disinformation. "The Serbian population in Kosovo needs a credible source to be informed by," Gashi said, referring to a lack of impartial Serbian-speaking media within Kosovo.

Outside politics, the polarization between ethnic Serbs and Albanians is less pronounced, according to journalist Tschinderle, who has spent much time in Mitrovica, a municipality in northern Kosovo. "In daily life, they really have no problems with each other," she said.

"What is in their way is the government on both sides, especially the Serbian government. There is no political freedom or freedom of expression in the northern part and an atmosphere of fear," she said, pointing to the example of the recent border tensions in Kosovo and the dispute over identity documents.

Gendarmes and security forces stand near their cars, which block the road
Security forces blocked the road near the Kosovo-Serbian border in Mitrovica in JulyImage: Erkin Kevßi/AA/picture alliance

Stalling Kosovo's full statehood

Beyond sowing polarization, many Kosovars believe the goal of Moscow and Belgrade is to derail Kosovo's independence process and prevent it from entering the European Union. Of the 27 EU member states, five still have not recognized Kosovo's sovereignty. Without these last endorsements, Kosovo cannot begin the EU membership process, which is slated to start at the end of the year.

"The stalling of recognition — and indeed derecognitions lobbied for by Belgrade — has prevented the consolidation of Kosovo's statehood," former diplomat Ian Bancroft explained to DW in an email.

But Kosovars have no intentions of letting the propaganda and aggressive rhetoric deter them. "Kosovo intends to move forward, ideally together with all its neighbors," said Hajrullahu. "But if the neighboring Serbia decides to take a different direction, Kosovo can and will not compromise its democracy and freedom."

Against the backdrop of Russia's war in Ukraine and simmering tensions with Serbia, people in Kosovo do find it hard not to wonder whether another violent conflict lies around the corner. But they also find reassurance in one essential difference: NATO is present in Kosovo.

More than a dozen soldiers stand on a road just near the Kosovo-Serbia border crossing
NATO soldiers patrol in Kosovo, including near the northern Serbia border crossing of JarinjeImage: Visar Kryeziu/AP/picture alliance

Edited by: Alex Matthews and Kristin Zeier