The war in Ukraine and its reverberations in Kosovo

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For more than two decades, Kosovo has been a contentious issue between the West and Russia. During the 1990s, Russia openly supported Serbia despite the fact that the Serbian state had launched and waged a number of wars in the Balkans, including the last war in Kosovo. NATO military humanitarian intervention in Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 was the biggest rift between the West and Russia. Since then, Russia has not ceased opposing developments in Kosovo, especially since Kosovo declared its independence. Blocking every initiative in the Security Council (where Russia is a permanent member) to amend Resolution 1244 is the clearest evidence of the Russian state’s opposition to Kosovo. Russia’s position towards Kosovo was further cemented with regard to initiatives for Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, such as: Council of Europe, Interpol, UNESCO, etc.

Just days before Russia’s military strike on Ukraine, President Putin, during a joint conference with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Kremlin, recalled NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999 seeking to justify the attack on Ukraine.

In addition to justifying the invasion of Ukraine, Russian officials from Putin to Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that mercenaries from Kosovo are fighting in Ukraine. These statements were widely disseminated in the Russian state-controlled media, which have unhindered reach in Kosovo as well. Kosovo institutions increased security alertness and imposed sanctions on Russia, which partially affected the field of information too, blocking a number of Russian channels. Moreover, the alarms were raised that the Russian occupation of Ukraine could jeopardize Kosovo’s security, especially in the north where the full reach of sovereignty is lacking.

The war in Ukraine rekindled the diplomatic battles and mutual Kosovo-Serbia accusations. They were manifested mainly on social networks, and fake news was not lacking.

Misinformation and accusations about mercenaries from Kosovo

Kosovo was not immune to Russia’s hybrid war after the latter launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine. The recurring tensions have resulted in Kosovo being viewed as a country with the potential for destabilization due to poor neighborly relations with Serbia. Thus, Kosovo became the target of statements by senior Russian officials, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who stated that Kosovo was recruiting people to send them to war in Ukraine. In an interview with “Russia Today” channel, Lavrov stated that there was information that the countries of the Western Balkans were “recruiting mercenaries for US-instigated military conflicts.” Meanwhile, the Russian News Agency (Tass) quoted Lavrov as saying that: “Kosovo and some other parts of the Western Balkans are becoming a fertile ground for crime. There are terrorists and drug dealers there.

Putin reinforced his subordinate’s statements after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, when he said that the number of “mercenaries from Kosovo” was increasing in Ukraine. “Russia is registering a growing number of mercenaries from third countries, in particular from Albania and Croatia, militants from Kosovo and even jihadists with war experience from Syria,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

However, these allegations were denied by Kosovo institutions as misinformation of Russian officials. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recalled that Kosovo citizens are denied by law to participate in foreign wars, the law provides for severe penalties for participation in foreign wars. While the news coming from Russia, the MFA has described as a fierce Russian campaign against Kosovo and other Western Balkan countries whose goal is to escalate the situation through Serbia. “The statements of TASS news agency and Minister Lavrov are part of a fierce campaign of Russian propaganda whose goal is to divert the attention of the entire democratic world away from the anxiety that the Russian hegemonic politics and diktat is causing over the rights of peoples to a free and sovereign life. This fierce Russian campaign against Kosovo and other countries of the Western Balkans aims to, among others, create a tense situation in Kosovo and wider in the region through the Russian satellite in the Balkans, Serbia”, is said in the statement of the MFA.

In an effort to blame NATO, media outlets such as Russia TodaySputnik and the State News Agency TASS aired Putin’s and Lavrov’s statements accusing the North Atlantic Alliance of bombing Serbia in ‘98-99. According to Lavrov, Russia finds it difficult to believe that NATO is merely a defense alliance, “given its bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia in 1999.” Lavrov said that the bombing campaign did not bring prosperity to Kosovo. He made these remarks while talking about the meeting between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 15.

Meanwhile, in a joint conference with his Polish counterpart Zbignier Rau, Lavrov said he hoped that the countries that wanted to withdraw from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had good reasons to do so, in order that “the bad experience of 1999 not be repeated.” Here Lavrov was referring to the Reçak massacre which he, in the same vein as Serb officials, called a fabrication.

Russian channels temporarily blocked

To prevent the spread of misinformation, the Independent Media Commission temporarily removed from broadcasting channels originating in the Russian Federation.

According to the IMC’s press release, the decision was made in order to stop Russian propaganda and protect Kosovo’s public safety. Although the IMC did not specify which channels were affected by the decision, it was reported that they include: Russia Today (RT), Russia 24 and Planeta RTR.

The Russian channels were broadcast through the operator MTS, which is operational in Serb-majority municipalities in the north. This company was founded in 2015 based on an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. The Russian channels were also broadcast by local operators, such as Platforma TELKOSI with two Russian channels, but which it had removed before the IMC’s decision.

In any case, this decision was not extended to online platforms and social networks. Web-pages owned by the Russian state, such as Russia Today and Sputnik are still accessible. After the Russian aggression in Ukraine, numerous articles and news were distributed that made analogies between the war in Kosovo in 1999 and the developments in Ukraine. In one of them, criticizing Russia for the invasion of another country was described as hypocritical, as according to them, NATO had done the same when it bombed the former Yugoslavia.

The oversight of online space in Kosovo is under the purview of Electronic and Postal Communications Regulatory Authority (EPCRA). Through internet operators (ISPs), it can technically block the Russian websites from being accessed within the territory of Kosovo. But for that to happen, an official request from the government has to be made to close the pages originating in Russia. According to officials of this authority, no request has been made so far.

The Press Council of Kosovo has also warned media officials to be as careful as possible when reporting on the war in Ukraine.

Governmental sanctions

Kosovo Government in sync with the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Russia. Sanctions consist in the freezing of assets in the Republic of Kosovo of sanctioned individuals or entities; travel ban in the territory of the Republic of Kosovo for sanctioned individuals; prohibition for individuals and entities in the Republic of Kosovo to make funds available, either directly or indirectly, to sanctioned individuals and entities.

Kosovo Assembly also discussed about the crisis in Ukraine and in the end, it adopted a 12-point resolution. In addition to condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Assembly opposed the approach and conduct of countries aligned with Russian aggression and terror against Ukraine, starting with the northern neighbor, Serbia.

The Assembly asked the Government that in addition to the willingness to house 20 Ukrainian journalists, to coordinate all further actions with international partners, as well as to express readiness for the eventual accommodation of up to 5 thousand refugees from Ukraine. It was also requested that a special fund is set-up for assistance to the Ukrainian people, as coordinated between the two respective governments, Kosovo – Ukraine.

The situation in Ukraine also brought back on the agenda Kosovo’s requests for membership in international organizations, which for more than a year had been suspended. Kosovo had continued to implement the moratorium tacitly by not filing any applications. On the eve of the expiration of the moratorium, the US encouraged the parties to continue it to give the dialogue with Serbia a chance with the aim of reaching a final agreement.

The agreement of September 4, 2020, reached in Washington. It provided that until September 4, 2021 Kosovo will not apply for membership in international organizations and Serbia will stop its derecognition campaign.

Now the Assembly has asked the government to take all the necessary measures to submit applications for membership in NATO, the EU, the Council of Europe and other international organizations. The Assembly has also instructed the Speaker of the Assembly that, in coordination with the government and international partners, it address the highest state institutions of Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus, with the request to recognize Kosovo’s independence. The neighboring countries were invited, too. “The Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo, taking into account our common aspirations for membership in the European Union and the consolidation of democracy and security in the region, invites the Parliament of the Republic of Albania, the Parliament of the Republic of Northern Macedonia, the Parliament of the Republic of Montenegro, The Parliament of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina to join this initiative and express their support”, the resolution concludes. The resolution was not voted on by the MPs of the Serb List, who left the hall when the document was put to a vote.

In support of Ukraine, a number of civil society organizations held a march condemning Russian aggression. The President Vjosa Osmani joined this solidarity protest stating that the war in Ukraine recalls to our minds what Kosovo had experienced in the years 1998-1999.

Tensions resurface

At the height of crisis in Ukraine and [amid] warnings that a similar scenario could be repeated in northern Kosovo, an increased KFOR presence there was requested. Currently this force is in charge of Kosovo borders. Members of the American contingent patrolled the administrative border line of Kosovo and Serbia near the village of Jarinje. This was announced by KFOR, saying that patrols are needed to gather information for decision-making and planning future missions.

In addition to the presence of KFOR, Kosovo officials proposed building a permanent American base in Kosovo.

A wild-scale campaign for Kosovo’s membership in NATO has begun in media and social networks. Since the declaration of independence, Kosovo has expressed the unequivocal goal to join this alliance. The #KosovoinNATO campaign launched by the Minister of Defense Armend Mehaj on social networks has been distributed by thousands.

However, NATO still does not recognize KSF’s changed mandate in 2018 from a Security Force into an Army. Thus, the deployment of KSF in the north can be done only with the special permission of the KFOR Commander. In this respect, there were false news that the government might even send KSF to Ukraine. The portal published an article claiming in the headline that the Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti has sent KSF to Ukraine in the conflict with Russia. The news of March 3, 2022 with the title: “The whole world is talking about him, Albin Kurti sends Kosovo Army in the war against Russia”, was published by the news308media portal. But the content of the text does not mazatch the title and the date of publication was before the war in Ukraine, on December 9, 2021. It mentions a statement by Prime Minister Kurti, who had expressed his willingness to send the KSF to Ukraine, if required from NATO. “First of all, I wish that there are no new conflicts, and I am following closely until late hours what is happening at the border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. NATO has alarmed about this, in particular the United States and the EU, and whatever NATO deems necessary we are of course ready,” said Kurti.

In February, the government decided also to set-up the Security Fund in order to strengthen the army. The funds raised are intended to be used in accordance with the state security strategy expected to be approved by the Government of Kosovo. The operation of this fund will be regulated by relevant procedural acts and will be used exclusively for the purpose set by the government.

Serb-dominated northern Kosovo continues to be sensitive to Pristina’s efforts to strengthen control in that part. Actions taken to combat smuggling have also met with resistance.

The escalation of the situation in Ukraine, after the Russian attack, has increased the vigilance of security mechanisms. Kosovo police sent logistical equipment and containers to the Brnjak border crossing, which was closed for several days last year after Serbs set-up barricades there. Controls have also been stepped up on the mountain roads that Serbia has used for smuggling in the north.

This police move was interpreted by Serbian officials as an attempt to fuel tensions in the north. The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, stated that Serbia will not “accept the game of provocations.”

The Office for Kosovo in the Government of Serbia also said that the police action in the north of Kosovo is contrary to the Brussels agreements and that it constitutes a “dangerous provocation” and a destabilization of the situation on the ground. The head of this office, Petar Petkovic even accused Kosovo politicians of wanting to disrupt the peace in the Balkans, which the Serbian president will maintain at all costs.

The detention of Serbs with KLA insignia

Suspicions that a plan is being prepared to provoke tensions in the north, following the Russian scenario, have led to the arrest of five people by the Kosovo Police. The action was preceded by a Kosovapress report that the detainees were planning to make a video as if some soldiers in KLA uniforms were ready to invade northern Kosovo. According to reports, Serbia through this tactic is planning to have a pretext before the international community to intervene militarily in the name of protecting Serbs in Kosovo. Although the reasons for the arrest were not revealed, the police report states that the necessary verifications are being made against them, in coordination with the Office of Special Prosecution.

However, less than 48 hours later, they were released in due process. According to the prosecutor of the case, there was no evidence to proceed in Court.

This situation revealed the contradictions between the political and security institutions. The Minister of Justice Albulena Haxhiu called a press conference, where she said that the prosecution’s negligence constitutes an indifference to the threat posed towards the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo. According to the Minister, security institutions have information that at least one of the persons escorted by the police has numerous communications with persons from the Russian Federation and the structures of the Serbian intelligence service, “raising suspicions that the persons in question together with Serbian structures are planning activities that would jeopardize security and incite inter-ethnic tensions.”

There were also warning statements from state leaders that there could be a Serbian aggression on Kosovo. Moreover, according to the Speaker of the Assembly, Glauk Konjufca, there should be extra caution due to the fact that the state relationship with Serbia is worse than that of the Russian Federation with Ukraine.

On the other hand, Serbian officials were also active in alarming against the danger posed to Kosovo Serbs. As a pretext were taken some graffiti with the inscription “UQK” placed in Serb houses. The director of the so-called Kosovo office in the Serbian government, Petar Petkovic, posted on Twitter asking the rapporteur on Kosovo in the European Parliament if she was aware that “Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija are still waking up to terrorist KLA threats?”. The Serb official jumped to conclusions despite the fact that law enforcement agencies have not identified the reasons nor the authors of the graffiti. Residents of the Serb community themselves said they did not know who did that.

In conclusion, we can add that during this two-week period a general opinion has been created that if the war in Ukraine continues for a longer period of time, we will see more attempts to misinform public opinion and create situations that would jeopardize public safety in Kosovo.