What's going on in Northern Kosovo?
We have been asked whether the recent ethnic tensions between Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs in Northern Kosovo, which have led to Kosovar Serbs installing roadblocks between Northern Kosovo (de facto controlled by the Serbs) and the rest of Kosovo (de facto controlled by the Kosovar Albanians) is likely to give rise to a destabilising or even dangerous regional geopolitical conflict.
The answer is no. But you need to keep reading this anyway. The Balkans, ineptly handled, can lead to massive quantities of death and destruction.
The arrangement by which Kosovo declared unilateral independence from Serbia in 2008, with the backing of many but not all states in the West, and against the wishes of all of Serbia, Russia and the United Nations, was a delicate one. An EU mission would supervise Kosovar independence. That mission would suffer Serb control over Northern Kosovo, where a predominance of the population are Serb, until a more permanent solution acquiesced in by all parties was found. (It still has not been.) Serb laws would apply and be applied by Serb administrators in North Kosovo, so Kosovo would, in the interim, be de facto and de jure partitioned.
From 2008, the various Kosovar Albanians leaders in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, sought to undermine this compromise by taking creeping measures to undermine North Kosovo's autonomy. However each time they did so those leaders would be reminded of the compiling evidence that they were involved in acts of war crimes during the Kosovo conflict in 1998 to 1999, and the prospect of their being extradited to The Hague to face war crimes charges for harvesting Serb captives' organs, and the like. Hence those leaders, under pressure, withdrew the nuisance-makinf pressures they had in mind to pursue unification of North Kosovo with the rest of Kosovo.
Eventually the bulk of those Kosovar Albanians political leaders were in fact extradited to The Hague on war crimes charges. Hence a new style of political leader came to power in Pristina in the name of Mr Albin Kurti (whose photograph adorns this article), who had been imprisoned by the Yugoslav communists for Albanian nationalist agitation during the relevant period and hence had been deprived of the opportunity to commit war crimes. In other words his reputation was clean. And he was all the more ruthless a political player for that reason. Mr Kurti came to office in 2020.
Mr Kurti saw no reason not to use the force of the Kosovar state to reunify Kosovo. One of the principal symbols of North Kosovo's political independence from Pristina is the fact that Serbian vehicle registration plates are used there, in defiance of Kosovar law in Pristina that has a country-specific system of licence plates developed by a prior international mission. North Kosovo ignores this system.
Mr Kurti therefore built up an all-Albanian Kosovar Special Police Force and used it for incursions into North Kosovo, initially as a pure display of force; then to attempt to seize the borders between North Kosovo and Serbia (something about which we have written earlier); and now to attempt to enforce a dictate that vehicles in North Kosovo use Pristina licence plates.
Each time Mr Kurti has attempted such a stunt, two things have happened:
Serbs have used it as an excuse to reform unorthodox Serb militias, a form of Serbian combat operation on which Serbs are particularly skilled, and has deployed them into North Kosovo or onto its borders.
The Russian Armed Forces have used it as a pretext to deploy next-generation Mig fighters; S-400 surface-to-air missiles; and Krasnopol laser-guided artillery systems, capable of razing Pristina, inter alia, ever closer to the Serbian southern border proximate to Kosovo.
Hence were conflict between Kosovar Albanian Special Police Forces and Kosovar Serb Special Militias to escalate, with a range of Russian armour facing off against NATO troops comprising KFOR (the international peacekeeping force for Kosovo, based across Kosovo), we would be at risk of World War III. Obviously this must not be allowed to happen in respect of a territory as small and geopolitically insignificant as Northern Kosovo (barely 200,000 people), whose principal politico-economic point of interest is as a narcotics smuggling warehouse and transit point.
Hence the Serb militias simply blocked all the roads into Northern Kosovo, to prevent the Kosovar Albanian Special Police Forces from entering Northern Kosovo to enforce Albin Kurti's dangerous and misguided writ.
Moreover the Serbs did this in coordination and agreement with the various Kosovar Albanian criminal groups that exercise real power in the country, because both sides understood that conflict in Northern Kosovo would undermine their substantial drug smuggling revenues that they share between them for the most part fairly amicably.
Hence the EU and the United States have managed to persuade themselves and the international media that a crisis was averted through their placing political and financial pressure upon Mr Kurti, threatening to withdraw their diplomatic support for his premiership and their fiscal subsidies for his disorganised Pristina central government; whereas in fact the stabilising deal was undertaken through the coordination of various trans-ethnic criminal groups keen to preserve their drug money profits by manufacturing a climbdown agreement. And everyone is relieved that Russia is not given a pretext to start engaging her laser-guided Krasnopol artillery systems. But Russia is given a pretext to defend her intimate ally Serbia from unlawful international aggression by sending ever more Russian military hardware to Serbia.
This is a perfectly stable situation. Like all Balkan politics, the politics of Northern Kosovo are so easy - until they explode in the face of mystification on the part of foolish and ignorant western officials who have not been watching what has been going on. This is what happened to Balkan politics in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by an obscure Serb nationalist called Gavilo Princip, giving rise to a domino effect of events resulting in World War I.