A conflict frozen for two decades could erupt again in the wake of the new systemic cold war in Europe
Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina occur regularly, as the Kosovo issue has not been resolved since 1999, when the province gained de facto independence after the US-led NATO campaign against the former Yugoslavia.
However, this time there is a risk that more or less routine friction will escalate into a dangerous conflict, as the context has changed dramatically.
The problem of Kosovo was solved at the end of the 20th century in strict compliance with the then dominant approach and with the apparent absence of an alternative. Disputes in most of Europe (i.e. outside the former USSR) were settled according to EU ideas of fairness, and where they could not be settled amicably, pressure was exerted on those who rebelled, down to the use of military force (mainly American, as always).
The most recalcitrant actors were in the Balkans – in the first half of the 1990s, the Bosnian war took place, and in the second – the Kosovar conflict.
Without evaluating the quality and moral aspects of politics over the past 25 years, we can talk about the most important thing. The region developed under conditions where the only future roadmap for individual states was eventual EU membership – the prospects of which ranged from relatively near to very distant, but inevitable.
There were no other options, no Plans B, C or D. As a result, it was the EU that regulated the processes taking place locally and, in general, this configuration was taken for granted.
On the other hand, other powers traditionally active and important in the Balkans – Russia and Turkey – have indicated their presence (sometimes quite clearly), but have not claimed to have a decisive voice in the organization of things. This framework also defined the room for maneuver of the countries of the region, including those who were the most dissatisfied, such as Serbia.
Now two main circumstances have changed. First, the EU is in such a vulnerable state that it is not ready to take full responsibility for the extremely complex political situation in its immediate periphery. It cannot promise membership, and more precisely – even if such a promise were made, it does not guarantee anything.
The EU’s handling of central Balkan issues – in Bosnia and Kosovo – has not led to the desired outcome over the past quarter century. Thus, it is all the less likely that it will work now. Because the second circumstance is that Russia and the West (the EU plus the US and NATO) are in a state of acute confrontation.
Accordingly, there is no reason to wait for help from Moscow to resolve the situation (whether in Kosovo or Bosnia). At present, the preferred practice of Westerners “selective interaction” (we work with Russia where we need it, we refuse to engage on other issues) can no longer apply. There will be no cooperation: Russia and the West will be everywhere on either side of the barricades, whatever the problem to be solved. We are in a systemic cold war. And this reality can greatly influence what will happen in the Balkans.
The question is to what extent regional players have retained their passion for arm wrestling, revenge or expansion. It is suspected that this zeal was exhausted and emasculated. But if it burns again, outside forces will enter the fray this time, supporting the opposing sides.
By Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Presidium of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council and research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
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