Kosovo – Serbia Micro “Cuban Missile” Crisis

By: Lulzim Peci

The First Agreement on Normalization of Relations between Kosovo and Serbia of April 2013, has been hailed by many international officials and national political leaders in both countries as an historic achievement. A number of analysts have branded it as the end of a Cold War and the beginning of the period of détente between the two countries.

Nevertheless, the paralyses of the dialogue on the comprehensive agreement was obvious already in the beginning of 2017. At that time, both Belgrade and Prishtina did put aside the implementation of the Agreement on the Association of Serbian Majority Municipalities in Kosovo, and moved towards the land swap option between the two countries, which Thaçi labelled as a “correction of borders,” and Vučić and Dačić as “delineation between Serbs and Albanians.”

The potential for agreement that provided this option at that time, was seen with sympathies by a number of Western capitals, as well as by Russia, but, on the other hand, it was strongly opposed by Germany and Great Britain, and especially by the countries of the region, like North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. However, by the end of 2019, it was already clear that this option had failed.

After around 20 months of effective stagnation, the EU facilitated dialogue resumed by mid-2020 and it was superseded with the Washington Agreement of September 4th, 2020 that provided a framework for the normalization of economic relations between Kosovo and Serbia, as well as a “cease fire” of their diplomatic war in the international arena regarding the (de)recognitions of Kosovo and its quest for membership in international organizations.

Against this background, the timing of the resumed dialogue between Kurti and Vučić was unfavourable for both of them, due to their electoral agendas. “A dynamic status quo” in the dialogue – commitment to negotiations without aiming at any agreements, and playing the blame game, was a tactic of both of them, and many experts expected this to last most probably until the presidential elections in Serbia, which are due to take place in April 2022.

But on September 20th, 2020, the Kosovo Government introduced reciprocal measures on the licence plates of Serbia, which was followed with the deployment of the Special Police Forces of Kosovo at the border-crossings Jarinje and Bernjak, which, according to Prishtina authorities, were mandated to protect the Border Police and Customs Officers from any possible riots in the north of the country that may endanger their safety and the security of the border control.

There is no doubt that this decision has been taken for electoral effects related to municipal elections in Kosovo that are due to take place on October 17th, 2021, and it caught by surprise the international presence in Kosovo. Serbia responded by bringing military and police forces to the border, including the flyovers of military jets, on one side, and with protesters and blockages of the roads of north of Kosovo leading to these two border-crossings, on the other.

One without any deep knowledge of the situation in the region could have thought that the two countries will start a war next day. Vučić was threatening that if KFOR would not intervene, he will wait for 24 hours and then order his troops to enter in the territory of Kosovo to “protect” the Serbian population, which, apparently, was threatened by nobody, whereas Kurti stated that under these conditions, he will not return the Special Police Forces from the border crossings at Jarinje and Brnjak.

The cherry on the cake to this “drama” came from Serbia, when the Russian Ambassador to Belgrade, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, accompanied by the Serbian Minister of Defence Stefanović and the Chief of Staff Milan Mojsilović, inspected the military forces in the barracks in Raška and at the Rudnica base, close to the border with Kosovo, that were in a state of elevated combat readiness.

This gesture of Vučić gave the impression that Serbia, with its protector Russia, was ready to wage a war against Kosovo and NATO’s peace-enforcement mission, despite the fact that Belgrade is an official partner with the Alliance.

This manifestation of power by Vucic reminded me of the Cuban Missile crisis at the height of the Cold War in 1962, when the Soviet Union secretly deployed a number of medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy imposed a naval quarantine on Cuba. The world moved quickly to the verge of nuclear war. Faced with this situation, the Secretary General Khrushchev offered President Kennedy to withdraw the missiles from Cuba, under the condition that the U.S. will end the quarantine and will not invade Cuba. Robert Kennedy offered an assurance to the Soviets that after several months from the withdrawal of missiles from Cuba, the U.S. would remove its missiles from Turkey. This is how the most dangerous crisis during the Cold War, that threatened the entire world, was resolved by Kennedy and Khrushchev.

At the end of the day, this Kosovo – Serbia micro “Cuban Missile Crisis” was not solved by Russia, but it de-escalated by the mediation of the European Union, with strong support of the United States, on September 30th, 2021. Kosovo got what it wanted, reciprocity with licence plates issued in Serbia, and a pledge for the peaceful withdrawal of protesters on the roads leading to Jarinje and Brnjak, whereas Serbia withdrew its military forces from the border, and got Prishtina’s pledge to return the Special Police Forces to their bases, as well as the use of KM (Kosovoska Mitrovica) plates in the north of Kosovo.

The good news is that the two countries do not possess nuclear weapons, but they were playing a simulation game of small states asymmetric conventional deterrence, while being observed by NATO’s peace enforcement mission – KFOR.

At the end of the day, this clash between Kosovo and Serbia tells us a lesson that the results of the dialogue and the détente between the two countries are reversible, and that they may lead to dangerous developments, in the absence of a comprehensive agreement for normalization of relations between them.

The upcoming period should be used for re-energizing diplomatic efforts in Brussels and Washington for achieving such an agreement. Instead of becoming fire fighters, both the EU and the U.S. should show a strong commitment for a final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia to be achieved during the course of the next two years. This mandate of President Biden and of the European Commission should be used for achieving this much needed settlement, and this can be hardly achieved without bold engagement of both administrations. If the weather in Brussels becomes rainy, the sun may shine in Camp David, or vice- versa.

Lulzim Peci was born in Pristina in 1966, where he attended primary and secondary school. He holds a Bachelor degree from the University of Pristina’s Technical Faculty, a Master degree in International Relations from the Ortega y Gasset University Institute in Madrid, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of South-Eastern Europe in Macedonia. Peci is the Executive Director of the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development (KIPRED).


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