It’s completely incomprehensible to people who do not live in the Balkans and do not sufficiently know it, that a major crisis and even bloodshed can happen because of something as trivial as replacing car license plates. Starting from themselves, they probably see it as a communal decision, easy to implement, without it being in the news.
However, it was precisely the problems surrounding the replacement of license plates that led to a new escalation in Kosovo, to a crisis that once again threatened to rekindle an old but still unextinguished hot spot in the middle of Europe. This time, the conflict would not only be in the Balkans, its outbreak would have an impact on global relations, and it would become part of the Ukrainian crisis, one of the factors that would have to be resolved in that broad context.
The leaders in Pristina, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and President Vjosa Osmani did not understand this. Moreover, they ignored more than loud warnings that things in Kosovo must not escalate, but that negotiations with Belgrade regarding the normalization of relations must be accelerated. The Ukrainian crisis encouraged Western mediators to put additional pressure on the Balkan negotiators to quickly reach a final agreement after more than a decade.
Recognizing the risk of tensions, Western negotiators – the American senior diplomat Gabriel Escobar and the European team around Miroslav Lajčák – asked the Kosovo authorities in October to postpone for 10 months the replacement of license plates, which the local Serbs refuse, because they do not recognize Kosovo’s national symbols. This was a very clear signal from the West that it wants a not-so-long time frame to bring the ten-year negotiation process between Belgrade and Pristina to an end and for that time to pass without the conflicts that have often hindered the dialogue so far.
Pristina rejected this proposal, they said “no” to those countries that are the main and most influential patrons of Kosovo’s independence and their closest allies, so important that former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said that Kosovo does not have its own foreign policy, but implements the United States foreign policy. Aside from the fact that the government in Pristina was dominated by nationalistic arrogance over their willingness to solve a historical problem, this is not the first time this has happened. But this is the first time that Pristina is making moves that directly conflict with the interests of the US and the European Union, in a situation where they are focused on supporting Ukraine in resisting the Russian invasion, as a top priority in which they are investing huge resources.
With such a turn, conscious or just short-sighted, Pristina became an important “useful idiot” of the Kremlin’s policy, which longs and at the same time works hard for a new conflict to explode in the Balkans. No one except Moscow has such a strong interest in a new destabilization in the Balkans, because that crisis would without a doubt divert a lot of attention and huge diplomatic, media, and maybe even military resources of the West from the Ukrainian to the Balkan “front”. Russia showed this very clearly just two months ago, when it intended to incite armed conflicts between Serbs and Albanians with a massive hybrid operation, using again as a reason – the unresolved problem of car license plates. In just a few days at the end of August and the beginning of September, a huge amount of disinformation was broadcasted from Moscow, saying that the armed conflict had already begun, that the Serbian Army was on its way to invade the north of Kosovo, inhabited by Serbs, and that there were already casualties, all of which were supported by statements of high Russian officials expressing support for Serbia and Serbs, even offering military aid for the conflict with the Albanians.
Their expectations were for the Serbian Army to directly confront not only with the Kosovo Albanians, but also with the NATO mission in Kosovo (KFOR), which would be a great relief for the Russian campaign in Ukraine. At the same time, it would be a confirmation of the Russian propaganda mantra that it is not at war with Ukraine, but with NATO and the “collective West”, as they call it in Moscow.
Unfortunately, this more than clear demonstration of real Russian interests in the Balkans and around Kosovo was not enough of a warning for the leaders in Pristina, so they lightly rejected the West’s request to postpone the resolution of the problematic issue of license plates and speed up the negotiation process with Belgrade. The State Department announced that they were “disappointed” with Pristina’s actions, which is a phrase that has never been heard from the United States in Kosovo.
It is only seemingly paradoxical, for many who follow the events in the Balkans from a safe distance, that in the current crisis the usual black-white division does not apply. The fact that Russian flags were displayed at the recent Serb protest rally (due to license plates) in Kosovska Mitrovica does not mean that their placement in this crisis, and especially the official Belgrade that provides them support, is on the side of Russia’s interests. And the fact that Pristina unquestionably believes in partnership with America and its patronage of national independence does not mean that the decisions of the government are in line with the interests of American and European friends.
At the centre of this fictional paradox is a team of experienced American and European diplomats, whose job it is to bring Serbia-Kosovo “frozen” conflict to an end, as soon as possible, so that it does not explode in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis, which, on the other hand, would make Moscow very happy. Gabriel Escobar and Miroslav Lajčák, as the leaders of this team, found themselves in a hard-to-explain situation, that as trouble-makers they have Pristina and Prime Minister Kurti, whom they cannot convince of the obvious – that every day of maintaining the status quo in relations with Belgrade is contributing Russia, and that every new conflict is more valuable than gold to Moscow.
The Kosovo conflict has always had the potential to drag its surroundings, sometimes closer, regionally, and sometimes much wider, into problems. At this moment, the radius of its influence is perhaps greater than ever. If it is solved positively, by agreement and compromise in the short term, it will bring relief to Serbs and Albanians, but also a huge benefit to the political and security interests of Europe and America. If, by some accident, it moves towards a new escalation, everyone will suffer the damage, but the only smile will appear – in Moscow.