The European press is sounding the alarm bells. Russia would be trying to turn the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo into open war. This is more than just propaganda. Less than two weeks ago, Russia took advantage of a new gesture of harassment by the Kosovar government against its Serb minority to launch a disinformation campaign that put the Serbian government on the ropes and placed its own ally on the brink of war.
Serbia caught between Kosovo's racist politics and Russian information warfare
Picketing on a Kosovo road in protest against measures to harass the Serbian minority
In late July the Kosovo government banned cars with former Yugoslav license plates and documents issued in Serbia from crossing the border. The Serbian-speaking population that remained within the Kosovar border after independence and who continue to conduct their social, family and economic life in Serbia, suddenly found themselves locked into a border they neither recognize nor want with documents that were not going to be recognized as legal...a step prior to legally losing all rights of citizenship.
With good reason, Serbian towns and villages in northern Kosovo saw a new form of ethnic cleansing in the Baltic countries' fashion coming. Protests were immediate and took the form of road pickets. The Kosovar police, in response, closed the border crossings.
And then the situation began to get complicated, or at least the narrative of the situation. Rumors quickly spread that a Kosovar-Serb demonstrator had opened fire on the border police. The international press quickly picked up the story without checking the source... which turned out to be the Russian intelligence intoxication apparatus, which also applied itself to spreading the news that Serbia had mobilized its army around the border. Immediately the NATO mission said it was ready to intervene... which was not reassuring at all. Tension was rising by the minute.
Meanwhile, Serbian President Vučić assured local press and correspondents in Belgrade that he was mediating with the Kosovo Serbs to prevent an escalation inside Kosovo.
I call for peace, I pray for peace. I appeal to both Serbs and Albanians: keep the peace. The atmosphere is boiling, the Serbs will not tolerate more cruelty, I almost knelt before them and begged them, and in the end I received the promise. The situation is very complicated.
But it was difficult, not least because the same Russian networks were broadcasting that at that very moment the Serbian army had crossed the theoretical borders of what officially for the Belgrade government is only a region of its territory.
The Serbian Ministry of Defense denied it as soon as it perceived the move and began to receive threats from the NATO mission.
Due to the large amount of misinformation about certain clashes between the Serbian army and the so-called Kosovo police, the Ministry of Defense informs that the Serbian army did not cross the administrative border and in no way entered the territory of Kosovo and Metohija.
The statement was not picked up by European and American media, which gave it little credibility as they considered Belgrade an ally of Moscow, but by the relevant Russian agencies, which strikingly were the most objective at all times in reporting what was going on.
Another thing was happening, however, with the Russian agencies dedicated to propaganda, which took over from the disinformation columns on the Internet. Cuban, Algerian or Venezuelan media pulled from these unreliable sources, falsifying and distorting Vučić's statements to turn them into the opposite of what they were intended to be: a threat of war.
From the above paragraph for instance, they left only the sentence in which Vučić said that "the [Kosovo] Serbs [but that was not said either] will not tolerate more cruelty" and the sentence in which he said that the Kosovar move was "a new aggression" was recontextualized to make it look as if Vučić was warning of a Kosovar military attack.
When after three days of tensions NATO troops reopened the roads without major incidents, the balance of the think tanks did not value Serbian prudence, but the power of Russian disinformation that confused them - by reinforcing their own prejudices - and came to the conclusion that Kosovo would be the next Russian war front. A message endorsed today by the Kosovar prime minister himself.
But does Russia really have the interest and the capacity to start a new war in the Balkans? And why in Serbia of all places?
Kosovo: a NATO protectorate
Kosovo border police
Pristina is the only city in the world where a Clinton Avenue takes you to Trump Square. And the fact is that Kosovo emerged as a de facto state by NATO military imposition and intervention in 1999 and has only enjoyed any political existence and some international recognition thanks to the US.
NATO's intervention followed a decade of escalation between the Belgrade government, which revoked regional autonomy in 1990, and the Kosovar Albanian leaders, who proclaimed in 1991 an independence on paper never recognized by Serbia.
At the end of the decade, in the context of the imperialist realignments that were taking place with the wars of Yugoslavia's decomposition, tensions escalated. On the one hand, the Kosovar guerrillas, KLA, appeared, financed and nurtured by soldiers from abroad. On the other, as had happened before in Bosnia, paramilitary forces organized by Milosevic's secret services such as the sinister Arkan Tigers. The latter initiated in 1999 a real offensive of terror to send the Albanians to Albania and rescue what for Serbian nationalism is the cradle of the nation.
Finally, in 1999, in the midst of what clearly threatened a real ethnic cleansing and under the excuse of the collusion - which was true - of the army and the police of the still existing Yugoslav federation, NATO carried out a bombing campaign. The so-called "intervention", celebrated as a success for having avoided an ethnic cleansing, ended up handing over the region to the pro-independence leaders.
Since then Kosovo has been a small US protectorate rather than an independent country. It has only 1.8 million inhabitants.
The ambitions of Kosovar nationalism and Albanian imperialism
Edi Rama, president of Albania
But the new quasi-state had many weaknesses. For starters the US did not obtain its blessing by the UN for what officially remains an autonomous Serbian province. Even within NATO it did not get unanimous support.
Five countries, which are also part of the EU, are still actively opposing it: Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania. All of them are facing independence movements. To take it for granted that the bloc master can impose the break-up of regions without the dismembered state itself signing even a peace agreement would be to shoot itself in the foot. The same day the tension on the border began, Pedro Sánchez reaffirmed the Spanish position in Belgrade. "Spain is and will be on Serbia's side in the Kosovo dispute," he said.
Moreover, ethnically Serb areas remained on the new borders, representing 5% of the country's meager total population. The new Kosovar government, propped up by NATO, has not stopped harassing them since then. This year it was license plates and identity cards, last year it was cutting off electricity to all ethnic Serb-majority municipalities. The Kosovar state keeps pushing for Kosovar Serbs to leave their towns and villages and migrate across the border.
Unsurprisingly, the dream of internal ethnic homogeneity goes hand in hand with that of pan-Albanian unification, a Great Albania to be built with the existing Albanian state and the Albanian regions of North Macedonia. It is not just another nationalist dream. Albania takes it very seriously and does not hide it.
Nor is it merely declarative: both governments have opened the borders to the free transit of goods and automated, in the manner of the EU, work and residence permits for citizens of the neighboring country. And both want U.S. approval for a referendum. 80% of the Albanian population on both sides of the border would vote for unification today.
German and Turkish ambitions in Western Balkans
Vučić at the inauguration of a German factory in Serbia
Not only the Albanian ruling classes dream of their great Albania, Turkey, the old colonial power, has a long-standing bet on President Rama... which is mutual and does not only materialize in concessions, investments and aid. Albania is the only NATO member that regularly participates in Turkish army maneuvers and Ankara has not missed a beat in its role as a supplier of weaponry to both Tirana and the Kosovar army.
For Turkey, Albania is not only the jewel of its European legacy, from which historically a good part of its officials and bureaucrats came, but today it is the rearguard of its two great rivals in the Mediterranean: Greece and Russia. For Albania, the military alliance with Turkey is a guarantee against a Serbia rearmed by China.
Germany, for its part, sees the Western Balkans in general and Serbia and Albania in particular as its main alternative to the Chinese factories. Already before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine the bet was clear.
Brussels wants to shorten the production chains and locate the low value-added segments, i.e. low-wage industrial production in regions within reach of decarbonized transport (Green Deal mandates) of the large factories in the fertile crescent linking Northern Italy with Belgium and the Netherlands via France and Germany.
The energetic conditioning factors reduce the possible regions to become the European China to two: the Maghreb and the Western Balkans. That is to say, the imperialist goal, as almost always, is not reduced to markets and contracts, but to the possibility of making subaltern investments to its own production and internal markets in a safe zone and with low wages that assure its profitability.
It was not Merkel's plan. It is state policy in the service of German industrial interests. As soon as the traffic light government (Greens, FDP and SPD) was formed, its first European policy statement was to say that....
The next steps are to open the first EU accession chapters with Albania and North Macedonia, decide on visa liberalization with Kosovo, and continue negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia.
The Rama government in Tirana has clearly seen the opportunity for accelerated EU integration. It knows that the imperialist context favors it and that Brussels is ready to close its eyes to the discrimination of women in the labor market, the state racism against the Roma, the brutal control of the media and the constant police abuses.
And the real keys to Albanian Europeanness, which Rama is playing to the hilt, are unappealable in the face of the ideological discourse that Brussels is trying to sustain: ceding sovereignty to NATO in order to build a new base at the gates of the Adriatic, gas and more gas.
Germany and Austria were the first to realize the significance of the opportunity and even the nitpicking and nordist Dutch government surrendered to such democratic arguments. That is why, this July, the accession process of Albania and North Macedonia has already begun.
Serbia is running out of room for maneuver.
Aleksandar Vučić, president of Serbia, during the latest crisis, in early August, with Kosovo
Both Germany and Brussels on the other hand made much tougher demands on Serbia:
- Condemn Russia, its historical ally and the only one as well who did not abandon it during the NATO bombings;
- To join the EU position on the Bosnian Serb republic - whose pro-independence tendencies Belgrade has been encouraging hand in hand with Hungary and Russia- and
- Normalize the relationship with Kosovo.
But if Vučić, after intense German pressure, agreed in May to the first two in exchange for a prospect of access to markets and capital, the last, Kosovo, was too internally destabilizing. It had to be addressed by deeds and step by step and that required some German complicity.
But Vučić knew he was going to get the opposite and played Kosovar castling to at least keep the internal front under control: Serbia was never going to recognize Kosovo's independence he assured once and again despite German pressure while the US demanded that he impose sanctions on Russia.
But the Ukrainian war was making itself felt in the Balkans. In Serbia in June there were already shortages even of potatoes. And EU sanctions against Russia cut off gas, which had been arriving by ship until then, overnight. And in desperation it signed a supply agreement with Gazprom which saved it from energy collapse.
So when last June the EU gave the go-ahead for Ukraine's accession procedure leaving Belgrade on the sidelines again, the frustration in the Vučić government with its so-called European partners was palpable: "it is indecent, not to say shameless, how the EU is now pushing the new wunderkind Ukraine to the front of the stage," declared one person in his team.
A critical August
Albin Kurti, prime minister of Kosovo
When, in late July, the Kosovo government decided to give a new shove to the Serb minority it supposedly rules, it knew perfectly well what it was doing. So did Russia when it started the campaign of intoxication in the media. They are all betting, each for their own reasons to destabilize Serbia by taking advantage of the weakness in which the Vučić government has been left in the shifting European imperialist balances.
Vučić and Kurti, the Kosovar prime minister, will meet in Brussels on August 18. Predictably both Kurti and the EU representatives will press the Serbian president to normalize the situation by recognizing independence or taking solid steps toward such recognition.
Vučić knows that should he yield he may be faced with an internal revolt. Political first and perhaps military later. There has been no lack of saber rattling in these months. The army and a part of the bourgeoisie, which has benefited, especially since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, from the Russian capital flight and the privileged access to the Eurasian Economic Union, would be more than tempted to attempt a coup. In fact it would not even have to be armed. Parliament itself could oust him if he takes such a step, especially if nationalist groups manage to fill the streets, which is likely.
If Vučić instead sticks to his guns, the accumulated tensions may not be easily contained by the close-to-France and Germany sector of the Serbian bourgeoisie nor by the political apparatus. The temptation would then be, once again, to turn towards Bosnia, where the Bosnian Serb republic remains on the brink of the war abyss.
There is no doubt that Serbia could then count on Russia, which would thus respond to the strategy of prolonging the war in Ukraine with the multiplication of hotbeds of conflict on European territory. But this does not seem to upset either the USA or the EU, which seem to see the situation as an opportunity to bring Serbia once and for all into their sphere of influence.
What is certain is that we have reached a point where war is becoming normalized in Europe as a tool of inter-imperialist relations. Kosovo and Bosnia are already two extremely dangerous hot spots and, indeed, possible triggers for a new war that seems to fit in with the plans of both Russia and NATO.
But we must not forget the other players. First of all Kosovo itself and its closest allies, Albania and especially Turkey. The two Albanian states are directly interested in destabilizing Serbia. And Turkey, which presses Greece militarily and territorially with one hand while trying to erode Russia in the Caucasus, might find in supporting Kosovo a way to consolidate the regime vis-à-vis the US and the EU.
There is no doubt that August is going to be a critical month in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. But there is no room for optimism. In this sinister game there is no government or ruling class that is betting on anything other than war. The future of this Europe held by its ruling classes is that of a gigantic battlefield.