Ser­bia and Kosovo could clash amid in­creas­ing ten­sions

Tehran Times - - INTERNATIONAL - By Michael R. G. Lyons

On Thurs­day, Reuters re­ported that the Ser­bian mil­i­tary launched an as­sault on in­sur­gent po­si­tions to the east of Bel­grade in Pa­sul­janske Li­vade. These op­er­a­tions were presided over by the close su­per­vi­sion of Pres­i­dent Alek­sander Vu­cic and a hand­ful of for­eign ob­servers. Fear not, this oper­a­tion was all part of a mil­i­tary drill, aptly named Syn­ergy 2018, and those in­sur­gents under as­sault out­side of the Ser­bian cap­i­tal were only imag­i­nary as­sailants.

But with this mil­i­tary ex­er­cise close on the heels of the Kosovo po­lice us­ing force on Serbs in the town of Kosovoska Mitro­vica, and the ar­rest and sub­se­quent ex­pul­sion of an EU ne­go­tia­tor, the fear is that the ex­er­cise could be a har­bin­ger of an even darker chap­ter in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Pristina and Bel­grade.

To make mat­ters worse, back in Jan­uary, an in­flu­en­tial Kosovo-Serb politi­cian Oliver Ivanovic, was killed in a drive-by shoot­ing by un­known as­sailants in Mitro­vica, the first as­sas­si­na­tion of a Ser­bian politi­cian in over a decade. Vu­cic im­me­di­ately called an emer­gency ses­sion of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and de­clared the as­sas­si­na­tion to be an act of ter­ror­ism. The Ivanovic as­sas­si­na­tion high­lights the re­cent pro­gres­sion of ten­sions be­tween Ser­bia and Kosovo.

Reuters fur­ther ex­plained that Vu­cic and his top Army com­man­der, Gen. Lju­bisa Dikovic, were quick to dis­miss any no­tions that Thurs­day’s train­ing ex­er­cise was pos­tur­ing to­wards Kosovo, stat­ing em­phat­i­cally that Syn­ergy 2018 had long been on the mil­i­tary cal­en­dar for the 2018 year.

Mil­i­tary drills

De­fense an­a­lysts have a ten­dency to grant too much im­por­tance to mil­i­tary drills and large-scale ex­er­cises. In re­cent mem­ory, West­ern of­fi­cials like Ger­many’s Van der Leyen sounded the alarm about Za­pad 2017, the joint ex­er­cise of Rus­sia and Be­larus, to prac­tice de­fend­ing against a NATO-like ad­ver­sary. But in the for­mer Yu­goslavia, par­tic­u­larly be­tween Pristina and Bel­grade, these alarms may not be en­tirely un­founded, as things are go­ing from bad to worse.

Since Kosovo de­clared in­de­pen­dence from Ser­bia in 2006, Ser­bia has adopted a pol­icy of for­mal neu­tral­ity. While mem­bers of NATO’s Part­ner­ship for Peace, Ser­bia has held am­bi­tions of join­ing the larger Euro­pean and In­ter­na­tional com­mu­ni­ties in the form of Euro­pean Union mem­ber­ship. How­ever, with the fail­ures of Brus­sels over the last few years, re­gard­ing the refugee cri­sis, debt cri­sis, etc. many Serbs have be­gun to ques­tion if they will ever be al­lowed in to the elite club of Euro­pean na­tions, or if they even want to be in that club.

While the Serbs re­treat from Brus­sels, they fall into closer or­bit with the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion, with whom they al­ready share a set of commonalities: a largely ortho­dox pop­u­la­tion, Slavic her­itage, and a com­ing to grips with the col­lapse of their for­mer na­tion and loss of much of what was once their ter­ri­tory. Rus­sia, seems a much more kin­dred spirit and is likely more at­trac­tive to the pop­u­la­tion, par­tic­u­larly con­sid­er­ing the air-cam­paign launched by NATO against Ser­bia. A re­cent ex­am­ple of this align­ment with the Krem­lin when fol­low­ing the un­rest in Kosovo, Vu­cic is re­ported to have called Moscow for ad­vice.

Into the arms of Alliance

Kosovo on the other hand, has firmly re­treated into the arms of the Alliance, and must rely on the po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary in­sti­tu­tions of the Transat­lantic sys­tem for their am­bi­tions of state­hood and re­gional peace. But Kosovo in­ter­rupted that peace, when their po­lice force was mo­bi­lized against Serbs in their ter­ri­tory and de­tained a Ser­bian of­fi­cial. These dis­rup­tions could be a spark that starts a much larger fire.

In such a once hot area, the fear is that this old flash­point in the Balkans is brew­ing back up. What has changed in the equa­tion this time is a Rus­sian na­tion deeply at odds with the West and as seen in the re­cent Mon­tene­grin elec­tions has a will­ing­ness to in­ter­vene in the Balkans, and to ex­ert their in­flu­ence. Rus­sia’s dan­ger­ous and reck­less be­hav­ior could em­bolden the Ser­bians to re­act to one of Kosovo’s provo­ca­tions, and con­sid­er­ing the pres­ence of Alliance sol­diers in re­gion, the West could quickly be drawn in to an­other con­flict it does not want in the for­mer Yu­goslavia.

Time will tell but an ex­er­cise of this na­ture, just days af­ter Kosovo used force against Serbs, is a clear sig­nal to Pristina, whether in­tended to be or not. Thus, the hope is that this rapidly es­ca­lat­ing sit­u­a­tion was just an in­con­ve­nience of schedul­ing and not the signs of a com­ing proxy war in Europe, which would rapidly in­volve out­side forces.

Rather than panic over a den­i­grat­ing sit­u­a­tion, de­fense an­a­lysts should see the pro­gres­sion as a con­trolled es­ca­la­tion through a sym­bolic pow­er­play, and not as an omen of im­pend­ing doom.

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