The frequency of discussions about the plan for future relations between Serbia and Kosovo (the so-called Franco-German plan) marks the entry into the final stage of multi-year negotiations. Talks between the intermediary “five” from the US, the EU, France, Germany and Italy with the leadership of Serbia (on January 20), and previously with the leadership of Kosovo, opened the final phase of the dialogue and regarded specific solutions from the so-called Franco-German plan. This was at the same time an occasion for, in addition to Serbian state officials, opposition and non-governmental actors to talk about the proposed solutions.
Alternative to the official policy shows that there is no support for the diplomatic solution advocated by the international community in that circle.
Belgrade’s policy in relation to Kosovo is facing increasingly strong resistance from conservative groups, who sense that negotiations with Pristina are entering their final phase and want to prevent it. A front of opponents of the compromise with the Albanians has been formed in Kosovo, among the Serbs, but also at the level of national politics.
On the one hand, it is shaped according to the Russian interests and is actively supported by Russia. On the other hand, it includes parties that stay away from the Kosovo issue, do not want to participate in it, have no policy on the issue and hope for the collapse of Vučić’s Kosovo policy.
The first aspect is more dominant, more extreme, more organised because it is under the direct leadership of Russia. The goal is to prevent any agreement between Serbs and Albanians, and to incite conflict, which would reflect on Russia’s primary interests in Ukraine.
It has been noticeable from before that as the solution is within reach, the resistance to compromise will strengthen, and this is exactly what is happening now. The past few months have been marked by subversions on the ground, but also by the political formatting of the block that opposes the Serbian-Albanian compromise.
The following months, and the period after reaching a compromise, will be marked by an even greater radicalisation of this resistance. This will directly be affected by Russian positions in Ukraine, according to the principle of communicating vessels – the more problems for the Russian campaign in Ukraine, the stronger and more extreme the pressure around Kosovo.
The political bloc led by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is the only one on the scene that is focused on cooperation with Western representatives regarding reaching a compromise on Kosovo. All of his opponents, although ideologically diverse, have a common interest: the collapse of the negotiation process and the status quo, that is, a return to the conflicting positions of 10-15 years ago.
2. Russian influence
Russia is the biggest supporter of preserving the status quo in Kosovo, as an area of constant tensions and frozen conflict, which can escalate at any moment. This has been Russia’s policy since the 1999 bombing, and Russia benefits from it through its political influence on Serbia and its ruling groups in the previous 23 years.
Russia is aware that any long-term agreement between Serbs and Albanians would sharply accelerate their integration into the EU and, in the case of Kosovo, NATO, and its influence on the entire region would become insignificant.
To this end, Russia has systematically and for a long time nurtured, supported, financed and controlled political groups in Serbia, as well as extremist groups, media and influential figures, who fulfil that agenda.
The main features of that agenda are opposition to any diplomatic effort by the West (EU and the US) to reach a compromise, insisting on the UN Security Council resolution 1244 as the only basis on which the Kosovo issue should be resolved, and returning the case of Kosovo under the UN auspices.
This is a broad strategy and allows a very diverse ideological circle of actors to gather around it. Most of them fulfil that agenda consciously and as a matter of interest. The other part does it in the capacity of “useful idiots”, hoping to weaken Vučić and his bloc, as the primary goal. These motives in no way exempt them from responsibility in participating in the realisation of Moscow’s political and security interests in the region.
Russia is pursuing this agenda on three levels simultaneously. First level works by profiling the political bloc that will represent the anti-compromise strategy in political life, in institutions, the public and on the ground (in Kosovo). The second level means the support to extremist groups for destructive operations on the ground, causing conflict, but also propaganda in the “online underground”. The third level is direct. It bypasses the “intermediaries” in Serbia and is conducted from Moscow (and St. Petersburg) through the statements of officials, their contacts with Serbian officials, and particularly through hybrid operations of spreading fake news, disinformation, intelligence influence and pressure.
All levels of influence have intensified, particularly since the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine.
2.1. Political platform
A political bloc was finally profiled in the fall of 2022. Its basic strategy is the opposition to the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, under the mediation of the EU and the USA. This bloc does not want an agreement. It believes that Kosovo cannot be separated from Serbia and its constitutional order and that it is necessary to wait for international circumstances to allow a return to the situation before 1999.
This bloc’s programme framework was adopted in June 2021, when a group of right-oriented intellectuals, gathered in the Movement for the Defence of Kosovo and Metohija, promoted a document called the Project of the reintegration of Kosovo and Metohija into the constitutional and legal order of the Republic of Serbia. Among the initiators were politicians, university professors, priests from the Serbian Orthodox Church, and other public figures. The main promoters were Slobodan Samardžić, Dušan Proroković and Miloš Ković, distinctly pro-Russian intellectuals.
This initiative got its full political profile a year later, in October 2022, when a group of right-wing political parties supported this programme – Dveri (Boško Obradović), People’s Party (Vuk Jeremić), Zavetnici (Milica Đurđević) and the New Democratic Party of Serbia (Miloš Jovanović ). This group later formed an informal coalition of 31 MPs (without the People’s Party) in the Serbian Parliament with the aim of preventing a compromise between Serbs and Albanians regarding Kosovo.
In the April 2022 parliamentary elections, this group won a total of 14 percent of the votes, and it has 12.4 percent of the seats in the parliament, so it is a relatively influential block, particularly when we take into account that it directed all its activities towards one goal, and that is opposition to the compromise with the Kosovo Albanians.
This group, through its representative in the north of Kosovo, Nebojša Jović, was the organiser of anti-government protests in Kosovska Mitrovica, where they demanded the abandonment of the current policy of Vučić and the government towards Kosovo. The protesters considered it “treason” and demanded the return of Serbian institutions to the north of Kosovo.
This protest served to destabilise diplomatic actions of the US and the EU, which led to de-escalation. Any so-called civil protest in the north of Kosovo, under the pretext of opposing the policy of official Belgrade, was actually the action of right-wing conservatives following the instructions from Russia.
2.2. Support for extremists
Serbian extremist groups have a long history of close ties with similar Russian organisations, which are controlled by the Kremlin. The agenda of most of them is strongly anti-Vučić, with two “ideological” postulates: Kosovo must be in Serbia, Serbia must be with Russia and Putin.
These groups have organised street protests in Belgrade in support of Moscow several times since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. As for Kosovo, their most notable action took place during the December crisis in northern Kosovo when local Serbs erected roadblocks.
Then they organised street protests three times in just one week – twice in Belgrade, including in front of the Presidency of Serbia, and once, on December 18, at the Jarinje border crossing towards Kosovska Mitrovica. They tried to confront Serbian police and penetrate into the north of Kosovo, but the police prevented such actions.
The main organisers were members of the so-called People’s Patrols, an organisation responsible for violent actions against migrants in Belgrade. Their leader, Damjan Knežević, is a frequent guest of Russian extremist organisations, including the Wagner formation. Extremists from Serbian Action, also under Russian control and a partner of the Russian organisation Imperial Movement, which is listed by the State Department as a global terrorist threat, also participated in these protests.
2.3. Direct hybrid operations from Russia
Since the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine, Russia’s direct participation in events related to Kosovo has become more frequent, particularly its interference during crisis situations. This is a combination of a large number of official announcements by Russian state officials accompanied with massive campaigns of disinformation and the distribution of fake news through communication channels controlled by Moscow, with the common goal of inciting conflict.
A very illustrative example of such synchronised action happened in the last days of August and the beginning of September 2022, when a crisis broke out in the north of Kosovo due to the threat of the government in Pristina to confiscate the license plates of Kosovo Serbs and their personal documents.
A large amount of disinformation followed from Russia in a short period of time, with the “collusion” of people from the highest levels of government in Moscow, and their public appearances. Through highly monitored communication channels, Russia broadcasted fake news, such as the one that a Serb was wounded at the blockade near Jarinje, that the Serbian Army is moving its military units and aircrafts along the border with Kosovo, and that an attack by Pristina forces on the Serbs is expected. Statements of the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić were also falsified.
The messages were broadcasted through a large number of websites, accounts on social networks, and private channels, with hundreds of thousands of followers, recognised for their strongly pro-Russian views. Many of them belong to extremist organisations in Russia and Serbia.
Behind all of them were organisations and people with close ties to the Kremlin. The amount of disinformation was so great that a part of it spilled over to some mainstream media in Serbia, which served as an additional channel for spreading disinformation, which was of great importance for Russian goals.
This hybrid operation was so strong and so dangerous that the Ministry of Defence of Serbia was forced to urgently deny the rumours that the Serbian Army had entered Kosovo. That operation was not fabricated only in cyberspace; it was publicly supported by almost everyone important in Moscow – Putin’s press secretary Peskov, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova, high Duma officials, the ambassador in Belgrade Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, and even Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
A similar thing happened during the last crisis in the north of Kosovo last December.
3. Silent opposition – useful idiots of Russia
Part of the opposition in Serbia chose not to intervene, advertise and take positions regarding Kosovo, which is a manner that has existed on the Serbian political scene for 30 years since the introduction of multi-party system. We are talking about parties, movements and their leaders who emphasise their civic and pro-European orientation.
They do not want to support the diplomatic process of negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina regarding Kosovo, because that would mean giving support to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, against whom they are fighting. They don’t have an alternative policy, and that’s why they decided to avoid this issue and leave it to Vučić to “solve the matter”.
This regards their expectation for Vučić to lose the key voter support on the Kosovo policy, on which he is seeking a compromise, hoping that he would emerge from it weakened and then it would be easy to defeat him.
During the last December crisis in the north of Kosovo, there were almost no reactions from this bloc. Particularly among activists from the parliamentary organisation Do not let Belgrade drown and the Movement of Free Citizens (a total of 13 parliament members).
Two days before the removal of the barricades in the north of Kosovo, the leader of the Party of Freedom and Justice, Dragan Đilas, supported that action and accused the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, of being the culprit of the escalation.
The former president of Serbia, Boris Tadić, was somewhat more active during the crisis period, but his criticism was directed towards the government’s move to request the return of up to a thousand Serb personnel to Kosovo from KFOR. As a former president, he interpreted that move as futile, given that he had never made such a move when he was the president and while his party controlled the government.
During that time, Tadić did not comment or evaluate the actions of the Kosovo Serbs to block roads, because he himself, as president, took the same actions in 2011 – first, through his associates, he initiated the erection of barricades on the roads in the north of Kosovo, and then demanded that they be removed.
During the crisis, Boris Tadić, however, reacted most actively and protested against the detention of politician Rada Trajković at the Merdare border crossing, between Kosovo and Serbia.
This bloc does not act as a single entity, in the Serbian parliament or on the public stage. They have one thing in common. They do not want the diplomatic success of Aleksandar Vučić in reaching an agreement with the Kosovo Albanians, and they expect him to experience a fiasco in the process.
In this regard, these parties and leaders have conservative and nationalist elements, activated from time to time, in order to prove their “patriotism” and the protection of Kosovo within Serbia, which Vučić is allegedly working against.
For example, Slaviša Ristić, the president of the People’s Movement of Serbs from Kosovo and Metohija, Fatherland, one of the opponents of the government’s policy in the north of Kosovo and the former mayor of Zubin Potok, was elected to the Serbian parliament on a list led by Dragan Đilas.
Ristić is a long-time DSS leader in Kosovo, a representative of the “hard” policy towards the Kosovo Albanians, which was implemented by his then leader and Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica. In terms of goals, he does not differ from the nationalist group in the parliament gathered around the platform Reintegration of Kosovo and Metohija to the constitutional order of Serbia.
In his public appearances, Boris Tadić continues to defend the policy he advocated when he was the president of Serbia, not to abolish the Serbian para-state structures in the north of Kosovo. He still considers it a quality of his former policy, even though because of it he had lost the support of the West and brought the dialogue process to a dead end.
These groups will not support the dialogue process even at the cost of passively responding to Russia’s interests around Kosovo, which is exactly what they are doing. A strong demonstration of this policy was seen in the reaction of SSP leader Dragan Đilas to a statement by the US ambassador to Serbia, Christopher Hill, during the days when the crisis in the north of Kosovo was being resolved.
Đilas attacked the US ambassador for his statement that there will be more American investments in Serbia in 2023, because investors find inspiration in what is happening in Serbia. Through a series of public questions, Đilas asked the ambassador to answer what it is that American investors consider an inspiration in Serbia. His reaction was completely politically inappropriate because it was sent at the moment when the extremely complicated security crisis in the north of Kosovo was being resolved. On the other hand, it clearly underlined Đilas’ political strategy that he does not want to “interfere” in the problems surrounding Kosovo, but also that he does not want to leave the political field to Vučić, so he tries to divert the topic to some other issues.
4. Conclusions and recommendations
With the approach of an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, resistance to that agreement has been growing, taking shape politically and becoming an aggressive threat on the internal political scene in Serbia.
Russia is the architect of this political front against the agreement between Serbs and Albanians. It has been working on it for years and during the aggression against Ukraine, it managed to profile it in a political coalition of several right-wing parties, which represent about 14% of citizens in the parliament.
Russia is behind the actions of extremist groups in Serbia, which are activated in crisis situations in Kosovo, and their job is to cause conflict. In this, they have the strong support of the Russian propaganda industry, as well as the highest officials from Moscow.
Russia is also behind the protests and all other activities in the north of Kosovo, which are taking place under the alleged opposition to the policies of the government in Belgrade and Aleksandar Vučić. This is not about any civil action, but about activities under the control and with inspiration from Moscow.
The rest of the opposition, which is considered liberal and pro-European, is working for the same Russian interests, because it is reluctant to support the diplomatic efforts of the Serbian government and president, not even the diplomatic efforts of the EU and the US to reach a compromise. They are leading a policy of waiting and expecting the dialogue process to fail, and thus for the policy of Aleksandar Vučić to fail, on the most sensitive issue, Kosovo.
On the political scene, apart from the ruling bloc and its leader Vučić, there is not a single factor that wants the dialogue process between Serbia and Kosovo to succeed. The moment it is achieved, it will be attacked from all opposition parties, regardless of their ideological differences.
The implementation of the future agreement will be as politically sensitive as reaching it, and for its success it will be important to ensure maximum support for its implementation.
The Government and the President of Serbia are the only factors that can lead to a compromise with Pristina and have enough legitimacy to implement it.