By Luciano Hoxhaj
On September 24, 2023, more than 30 armed Serbs attacked a monastery in Banjska, a village near Kosovo’s northern border with Serbia. The attack saw four dead, including three Serbian attackers and Kosovar Albanian policeman Afrim Bunjaku. A shooting of this caliber has not been carried out since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and peacekeepers are watching the situation closely. According to the BBC, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti blamed the Serbian government for the attack in Banjska, claiming that Belgrade gave the attackers arms and ammunition, financial support, and a haven in southern Serbia for the attackers to flee to. Belgrade and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic quickly replied, denying that the Serbian government supported the attackers and claiming that the attackers were provoked after months of political tension, in which Serb-majority municipalities were not given more autonomy from Prishtina. Nevertheless, the United States and the European Union are monitoring the situation to ensure conflict does not escalate.
Tensions escalated in May when Kosovar Albanian mayors were appointed in majority-Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo. Belgrade quickly criticized the Kosovar government, claiming they were infringing upon the political freedoms of Serbian inhabitants in the North. Serbs in these municipalities boycotted the elections with an astonishingly low 3.5% voter turnout, and protests quickly ensued, prompting NATO to send 700 troops to maintain peace in the region. Although the situation improved slightly after the mayors agreed not to return to their offices, the attempt to mitigate conflict seemed futile.
The tension in Kosovo existed long before this recent attack. Kosovo’s statehood continues to be a dividing issue. More than 90% of Kosovo’s total population is ethnically Albanian, however, many Serbians believe that Serbian civilization centuries ago originated in Kosovo, which is why they maintain the position that Kosovo is a part of Serbia. During the strict rule of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s longtime dictator, the Kosovar Albanian population had more autonomy than under Slobodan Milosevic, who took power after Tito died in 1980. For example, Albanians were allowed to speak their language freely in their region, a freedom that other parts of Yugoslavia didn’t always have. However, when Slobodan Milosevic took power, he constantly promoted Serbian nationalism, which fueled the Yugoslav Army. A research officer at the International Court Tribunal of Yugoslavia observed that “He [Slobodan Milosevic] turned nationalism, a paranoid, disorienting perception of reality and a dangerous primitivism, the lowest form of social consciousness… into state policy which in a state he came to control” (Bogoeva 4). After Kosovo sought more autonomy from Belgrade, war broke out. The war in Kosovo ended after NATO conducted a bombing campaign on Belgrade, which resulted in Serbia surrendering in 1999. However, the damage was already done. The war saw thousands dead, millions displaced, and numerous war crimes committed. It has caused resentment on both sides and because of this recent attack, tensions are at an all-time high since the independence of Kosovo in 2008.
Serbia has become more authoritarian since Aleksandar Vucic became president in 2017. This has been displayed by the erosion of political rights and civil liberties, and the pressure put upon independent media sources in Serbia (Freedom House 2023). In February of 2022, Vucic dissolved the Serbian Parliament to hold legislative elections early. Additionally, protests have been forcibly repressed numerous times, infringing upon the freedom of expression of Serbian citizens. Along with this, corruption plagues Serbian politics. Although high-profile arrests in recent years have been made in Serbia, numerous critics have claimed that Vucic and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) are connected to organized crime groups and engage in cronyism (Freedom House, 2023). As a result, Serbia only scores 60/100 on Freedom House ratings—a two-point decline since 2021.
Political scientist Nancy Bermeo’s theory on democratic backsliding perfectly illustrates how Serbia has become more authoritarian over the years. In a 2016 article, Bermeo proposes a theory of executive aggrandizement. Executive aggrandizement is a process that sees democracy deteriorate very slowly, and this is done by dismembering institutions that challenge the executive through legal means (Bermeo 11)—something displayed in Serbia in recent years.
As Serbia became more authoritarian, its leaders deepened ties with other authoritarian countries. Russia, Serbia’s main ally who also does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, has blamed the West for the attack that took place on the 24th, claiming that the West has not paid enough attention to Serbs living in Kosovo. Fears in Kosovo are circulating that Russia is using Serbia as a proxy to shift attention away from the Ukraine War.
Critics are also worried about the potential rise of nationalism in the Balkans. According to a 2023 report from Freedom House, “In Hungary and Serbia, entrenched illiberal nationalist leaders reasserted their power” (Freedom House). For example, the Serbian government is forcibly shutting down protests, however, one of the protests they decided not to shut down was a pro-Russian protest conducted by a far-right anti-immigrant party named the People’s Patrol (Radio Free Europe). According to the same article, protestors chanted “Crimea is Russia, Kosovo is Serbia”. A protest of this magnitude, which also included protestors throwing smoke bombs in front of the President’s Building in Belgrade, definitely makes observers wonder why the Serbian police did not interfere.
This event shows that young democracies such as Kosovo are at risk. External forces can threaten their existence, causing war to break out, which is why the world is watching closely to see what happens next. Both sides are throwing accusations at each other, and any kind of compromise will likely not be happening soon. However, if some dialogue is not found between the two sides, a new threat to the world besides Russia’s war against Ukraine will present itself.
Bogoeva, J. (n.d.). From Lies to Crimes: The Milošević Switch from Communism to Nationalism as State Policy. https://www.toaep.org/pbs-pdf/19-bogoeva
Bermeo, N. (2016). On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy, 27(1), 5–19. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/607612
Ellyatt, H. (2023, October 5). A second war could easily erupt in Europe — while everyone’s distracted by Ukraine. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/10/05/serbia-and-kosovo-could-easily-slip-into-war-analysts-warn.html
Kosovo accuses Serbia of direct involvement in deadly clashes and investigates possible Russian role. (2023, September 28). AP News. https://apnews.com/article/kosovo-serbia-russia-tensions-vucic-kurti-eu-573d0b142b3985084ec868f80a6c7000
Kosovo monastery siege ends after heavy gun battles. (2023, September 24). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-66905091
Kosovo-Serbia row leaves Nato peacekeepers under attack. (2023, May 30). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65754211
Marking 50 Years in the Struggle for Democracy FREEDOM IN THE WORLD 2023 Highlights from Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties ANNIVERSARY EDITION 50. (n.d.). https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2023-03/FIW_World_2023_DigtalPDF.pdf
Serbia: Freedom in the World 2023 Country Report. (n.d.). Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/country/serbia/freedom-world/2023
Service, Rfe. B. (n.d.). Pro-Russian Right-Wing Serbs Hold Another Demonstration In Belgrade. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/serbia-ukraine-russia-right-wing-un-human-rights-council/31805557.html