Playing with the Balkan powder keg

Bosnia and Kosovo as the hottest spots in Europe... after Ukraine

Creation of paramilitary units in Bosnia, a political assassination in Kosovo – everything indicates a worsening situation in the Balkans. Who may benefit from playing with “Europe’s powder keg”?

THE TRAIN THAT DID NOT MOVE ANYWHERE

A year ago, The Day wrote (https:// day.kyiv.ua/en/article/topic-day/belgrade-war-train) about a provocation involving a train from Belgrade to Kosovska Mitrovica, which, after a long break in services on that route, set off on the road in the festive days of the so-called Serbian New Year (Old New Year). Passengers were welcomed inside its cars by photos of frescoes from the UNESCO-listed Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo. On the outside, the train (Russian-produced, by the way) was painted with the Serbian tricolor and ‘decorated’ with enormous inscriptions “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages. Its first passengers included Serbian government officials, politicians, journalists, and public activists, in particular, those known for their far-right and nationalist views.

The “agitation train” did not reach the Serbian-Kosovo border then, as due to the threat of riots, it was returned to Belgrade.

Independent observers regarded the sending of the “Kosovo is Serbia” train from Belgrade to a destination in Kosovo as a provocation, which became another symptom of the overall worsening of the situation in the Western Balkans.

Today, exactly one year after those events, provocations are again taking place in the region, and they are becoming more threatening.

THE “SERBIAN HONOR” AND THE “NIGHT WOLVES”

On January 9, the Republika Srpska (RS) – an autonomous entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina – solemnly celebrated the Republic Day, which was essentially the Independence Day. Celebration of this date is prohibited by the Constitutional Court of the country, as it is believed that the declaration of independence by the Serbs in early 1992 was one of the causes of the bloody war in the former Yugoslav republic. However, in spite of the ban and displeasure of the international community, a solemn march with the participation of RS residents, cadets, and local emergency services took place in the republic’s main city Banja Luka. Journalists noticed among the celebrators members of the Serbian Honor unit... and an international scandal erupted.

The Serbian Honor is formally a rescue organization. It was founded at the Russian Humanitarian Center in the city of Nis (Serbia) and, accordingly, is funded by the Russians. The Serbian Honor has branches in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, namely in the RS, and it was members of this unit who participated in the celebration of January 9 in Banja Luka.

An investigation conducted by Bosnian media has shown that the rescue squad of the Russian humanitarian center is in fact a paramilitary formation. The unit’s members undergo military training, and their functions in the RS include providing security to the president of the RS, pro-Russian politician Milorad Dodik, who is known for his efforts to make the Republika Srpska, with Russian backing, into a de facto sovereign state.

Increasingly, the media point to information about the organization’s links with Russian structures which are close to the Kremlin. These are military veterans, the Cossacks, and the Night Wolves biker club... One of the leaders of the Serbian Honor organization is Bojan Stojkovic, a former Serbian paratrooper who was trained in Moscow. He has told the media that he received a Russian order for organizing protests against NATO in Serbia. According to the Voice of America, Stojkovic wrote under Vladimir Putin’s photo in Instagram: “For such a president, it is worth to give one’s life.” Under the photo of Dodik, he left the following comment: “Nobody can do us any harm, we are stronger than destiny.”

The leaders of the Serbian Honor unit and the leaders of the RS have denied allegations of the organization’s military character and filed a lawsuit against journalists. Meanwhile, the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina has already collected documents on the Russian-backed paramilitary unit and is studying them.

“Apart from Ukraine, I keep saying Bosnia has the greatest conflict potential of any country in Europe. This is scary: Russian-trained mercenaries back Bosnia’s Serb separatists.” Thus, according to the Voice of America, Michael Carpenter, a former high ranking official at the Pentagon, reacted to the news from Banja Luka.

But a few days later, events elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, in Kosovska Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, changed observers’ opinions about the hottest spot in the Balkans.

BACK TO THE PAST

On January 15, leader of the Kosovo Serbian civic movement “Liberty, Democracy, Truth” Oliver Ivanovic was shot dead on the doorstep of his office in Mitrovica. As a Serb, he has traditionally been opposed to local Albanians. He described the current head of the Kosovo government and former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army Ramush Haradinaj in such words that they cannot be repeated without incurring charges of using hate speech. But at the same time, the politician also opposed the “Serb criminals” whom he believed to have started lately to take control of the life in the Serbian districts of northern Kosovo. In particular, Ivanovic harshly criticized the leading party of the Kosovo Serbs, the Serb List, and its leaders, although this force was openly supported in Belgrade and Moscow. And even in Kosovo itself, the Serb List entered the governing coalition, surprisingly, with Albanian radical parties.

In addition to this, Ivanovic was at one time accused of war crimes against Albanian civilians during the armed conflict in Kosovo. The court initially sentenced him to a prison term, but then had him acquitted and released from custody.

The assassination of a controversial politician marks the first major crisis in Kosovo since the riots of 2004. Then, due to children dying in unclear circumstances, first a Serb boy, and then Albanian children, there were clashes involving thousands of local residents. The KFOR peacekeepers were forced to use tear gas and rubber bullets... Still, they did not prevent fatalities (several people were killed), other casualties (hundreds of victims suffered injuries), and pogroms (110 houses of local residents and religious buildings were destroyed).

Now, after the murder of the Serbian politician, people in the region are talking about sliding back to the past, and international institutions, including NATO and the EU, simultaneously began to nervously repeat the mantra about the need to maintain peace and tranquility.

FARTHER FROM THE EU, CLOSER TO...

It seems at first glance that no one would benefit from the worsening situation in Kosovo. But this does not apply to those forces who want to prevent Serbia’s rapprochement with the EU and block a solution to the problem of the final recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

On the day that Ivanovic was killed, technical talks between Serbia and Kosovo at the level of working groups were to begin in Brussels, whose ultimate goal was normalization of relations. Were the two governments to succeed in reaching a compromise in bilateral relations, Serbia would have got a chance to become a member of the EU, and Kosovo would have received international recognition.

After the shots were fired in Kosovska Mitrovica, the talks in Brussels were broken off. The Serbian delegation has returned to Belgrade, and Serbian authorities have said they would return to the negotiating table only after the murder of Ivanovic is solved.

Consequently, at this stage, there is no way of building a new Kosovo-Serbian relationship. Serbia still has to deal with the unresolved issue of Kosovo and Metohija, while Kosovo will continue to live as a partially recognized country. It is clear who will benefit from this situation, and this is certainly neither the pro-European Serbs nor the Kosovars who want to obtain a state of their own.

The Day already wrote (https:// day.kyiv.ua /en/article/topic-day/how-russia-protects-serbias-integrity) that the prospects for reestablishing a relationship between Serbia and Kosovo caused a real scare in Moscow. The development of pragmatic Serbian-Kosovo cooperation is not beneficial to the Kremlin in any way. Firstly, a source of persistent instability may disappear in the Western Balkans, thus leaving the Russians unable to play the role of the “big brother who comes to help at a difficult time” to the “fraternal Serb people,” the role that the Russians have become used to over many centuries. Secondly, calming down the Kosovo issue would allow Serbia to get a real chance of integration with the EU, and, accordingly, any further rapprochement between that country and the Russian Federation would be out of question.

WHO IS TO BLAME?

In that earlier contribution, The Day cited several examples of Russian activity in the region as well. In particular, the most “interesting” aspect of the Russian intervention is the creation of the “Balkan Cossack Host” – an organization with paramilitary characteristics which has offices in Serbia and other countries of the region, including Kosovo. The Balkan “Cossacks” are led by a former commander of one of the Russian volunteer units that fought in Bosnia in the 1990s. It was stated that the newly formed Balkan Cossack Host, which intends to operate in Kosovo as well, will have as its curator... one Alexander Borodai, former “prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic” and then chairman of the Union of the Donbas Volunteers.

The article then stressed that Russia was not going to sit idly and look on as Serbia and Kosovo are looking for opportunities for coexistence. This means that implementing the plans for a final and complete solution to the Kosovo issue and, in particular, its international status, and the reconciliation of the Kosovars and Serbs will face the Kremlin-backed opposition.

Regarding the recent events in Kosovska Mitrovica, Balkan media are quoting lawyer and political analyst Azem Vllasi, who believes that the “Serbian and Russian extremists” who are free to roam in the north, that is, in the Serbian enclaves of Kosovo, are responsible for the murder of Ivanovic. It is clear that this statement caused a flurry of indignation in Serbian media and Serbian-language Russian media. However, whatever the truth about the latest sad events in the Balkans is, one thing is clear: this region is still far from being stable and tranquil. Quite possibly, it is so due to an external hybrid intervention...