Russia, North Kosovo and Kosovo Serbs: What are the connections?

  • Daniel Heler
  • 12.12.2018 08:00

The position of Kosovo Serbs is an often overlooked factor in the Serbia-Kosovo dispute. Decisions are usually made in far-away conference rooms abroad and Kosovo Serbs are often left to feel that Russia is the only power that pays attention to their identity. With the current peace negotiations underway, it is more important than ever to consider the fate of Kosovo Serbs, perhaps by granting them significant autonomy in the Kosovo state.

Kosovo statehood, as well as the general state of economic and social affairs there, has been afflicted by a frozen conflict in the north, an unsettled status and a disputed sovereignty of the country/ province, and still an unclear relationship with the neighbouring Albania. Despite the official rhetoric on multi-ethnic democracy, Kosovo Albanians and Serbs live divided along ethnic lines, rather than together.

 

"One of the most Russophile populations in the Balkans can be found in Northern Kosovo or generally speaking among Kosovo Serbs."

 

Besides, Kosovo represents an experimental site of international politics, where the West-East cleavage has been showing since 1999. Thus, it is not surprising that Russia has been present there factually and even more in symbolic terms. Kremlin is most vocal in its support of the Serbian side of the conflict, earning credit among Kosovo Serbs, the Serbian public and political elites in general.

As a matter of fact, derived not only from my direct experience in the field, pro-Russian sentiments are the most vivid outside of Serbia proper among Serbs in Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Perhaps one of the most Russophile populations in the Balkans can be found in Northern Kosovo or generally speaking among Kosovo Serbs. Just to remind the reader of events that happened 20 years ago, Russian troops were hailed with flowers by the local Serbs in 1999 when their army arrived into the war-torn province.

 

"The dominant political party of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo ‘Srpska lista’ appears to be well-connected with the Russian ruling party the United Russia."

 

In the recent years, we were able to observe a growing desire of local political leadership in the north to establish direct contacts with Russia’s governmental and quasi non-governmental bodies and vice versa. The dominant political party/ body of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo ‘Srpska lista’ appears to be well-connected with the Russian ruling party the United Russia. Also, Russian top officials have repeatedly expressed a strong and exclusive support for Srpska lista in municipal and parliamentary elections.

The Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) represents another influential pro-Russian factor in religious and cultural terms but it is also a highly respected ethno-national institution. The SOC maintains very exclusive fraternal relations with its Russian counterparts, as manifested in the upcoming ‘raskol’ in the world Orthodox community, which has very clear geopolitical connotations. Concerning the disputes on the church order in Ukraine, the SOC stands side by side with Moscow and not with the Ecumenic Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Serbian state-controlled, local and Russian media remain the main source of information for the Kosovo Serb population. Needless to say, these info channels have got a rather negative attitude towards the Western neoliberal order and often tend to portray Russia as the alternative.

It isn’t surprising that the Association/Community of Serb Municipalities as anticipated by the Brussels Agreement from 2013 (and most likely controlled by Srpska lista) is seen by the Kosovo Albanian power holders and also by the general public as a potential Serbian and Russian Trojan Horse comparable to the role that Republika Srpska plays in Bosnia. However, it is interesting that (regardless of the often heated rhetoric) Aleksandar Vučić, who commands the Srpska lista, is currently a junior coalition partner in the Kosovo government led by a former UCK commander Ramush Haradinaj.

 

"Kosovo Serbs have never really been consulted on important political issues, since decisions on their fate are made in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Belgrade or Pristina."

 

It is important to acknowledge that Kosovo Serbs, not only in the north, have never really been consulted on important political issues, since decisions on their fate are made in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Belgrade, Pristina etc. In fact, we can clearly observe an astonishing lack of the democratic right to decide about their own future, first of all regarding the right for self-determination and self-governance. When it comes to the decision whether to be a national minority in a hostile Albanian nation-state and one of the poorest countries of Europe, or to be a part of relatively prosperous Serbia, where they actually belong according to the dominant ethno-national logics, the Serbs of North Kosovo shall certainly opt for their kin state.

After all, the popular support for the ‘Eastern option’ among many Kosovo Serbs is nothing to wonder about, since they fought the war with NATO and the Western forces are still widely seen as occupiers of their homeland. A suitable path on the way towards a resolution of the dispute could perhaps be giving voice to the ones who have been so far ignored by Belgrade and Pristina as well as by the great powers. Granting large-scale autonomy to Kosovo Serbs, especially but not only in the north, might possibly be a small, but, considering the symbolic meaning of Kosovo in international relations, important contribution to a badly-needed ‘new détente’ in Europe.

 

This article was written as part of the project ‘Western Balkans at the Crossroads: Assessing Non-Democratic External Influence Activities,’ led by the Prague Security Studies Institute.

About author: Daniel Heler

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