Unveiling the Parallel: Serbia’s Failed Attempt to Imitate Russia’s Strategy with Neighbours

Serbian authorities attempted to legitimize the terrorist attack in the north of Kosovo by presenting it as an effort to protect Serb minorities from the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. This narrative draws parallels to the Russian Federation’s legitimation attempts for its aggression against neighboring countries, as in the case of Ukraine.

In the north of Kosovo, specifically in the village of Banjskë, a heavily armed and highly equipped terrorist group launched a military attack on September 24, resulting in one policeman being shot dead and another being wounded in a seemingly well-prepared and prearranged ambush. The well-organized armed assault clearly represented a direct act of aggression against Kosovo’s territorial integrity and national security.

The government of Kosovo has presented compelling evidence that this attack was meticulously planned and orchestrated by the Serbian government. 

The Kosovo Police have seized a substantial cache of weapons, including heavily armored vehicles, hundreds of firearms, explosives, machine guns, drones, rocket launchers, anti-personnel mines, uniforms, and logistical equipment, among other items. Furthermore, they have also discovered provisions that are expected to sustain the attackers for an extended period.

Furthermore, the evidence from the Kosovo security institutions indicates the involvement of Milan Radojicic, then-Vice President of the Serb List Party in Kosovo. Milan Radojicic confessed to his participation in the attack and subsequently resigned as Vice President of the Serb List Party.

On the other hand, Sosnja Biserko, the president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, declared that it was increasingly clear that there was a scenario at work to provoke a conflict so that the Serbian army would then enter to protect the Serbian people in the north and thus implement the division of Kosovo.

Similarity to Crimea annexation scenario

This military incident in the north of Kosovo bears resemblance to the military interventions carried out by the Russian Federation in Crimea in 2014. 

Vucic strategically utilized mainstream media to portray the terrorist attack in Kosovo as a defensive response to what he characterized as acts of terror against Serbian minorities residing in Kosovo. This narrative found support in Moscow, too, with claims that the Kosovo Police forces had “long ago discredited themselves due to systematic punitive actions against the Serb community.”

The same patterns have been followed by the military intervention of the Russian Federation in Crimea as responses to alleged threats faced by minority groups in these regions, illustrating a narrative of “protecting” these minority populations. Now, a similar narrative is being employed by the President of Serbia, Aleksander Vucic, who sought to legitimize the military attack in the north of Kosovo by portraying it as a reaction to the alleged acts of terror faced by Serbs in Kosovo. 

This framing attempts to justify the actions taken in the north of Kosovo to protect the Serb minority in the region.

Moreover, Vucic declared September 27, 2023, as a day of mourning for the groups that attacked the police in Kosovo, further reinforcing his narrative of victimhood and self-defense.

Under the pretext of safeguarding the Russian Federation minority residing in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the Russian Federation deliberately stoked conflicts in Ukraine to undermine its pro-Western political aspirations. This strategy ultimately led to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and the approval of Crimea’s annexation through a referendum.

In his speech on March 18, 2014, when Putin announced the annexation of Crimea to Russia, he asserted that, historically, Ukraine had been a part of the Russian Federation, emphasizing Russia’s responsibility to protect Russian citizens living in Ukraine.

Subsequently, the Russian Federation initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with Putin’s primary justification revolving around the need to protect Russian citizens whom he claimed were suffering under the oppression of a purported neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine. 

To bolster this argument, Putin exerted significant control over Russia’s mainstream media. By manipulating the narrative through media channel control, he effectively garnered support from ordinary Russian citizens, ensuring their endorsement of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

This manipulation of information dissemination proved highly effective in gaining support from ordinary Russian citizens, as they were presented with a carefully crafted narrative that rationalized Russia’s actions and portrayed them as necessary to safeguarding fellow Russians in Ukraine.

The recurring patterns we have observed in the Russian Federation foreign policy involve the dissemination of malign influences in post-Soviet countries, and their annexation. This annexation is typically rationalized under the pretext of preventing ethnic cleansing within these regions by the Russian Federation.

 A comparable pattern emerges in the case of the terrorist attack in the village of Banjskë, where substantial evidence points to support from the Serbian government. Furthermore, these terrorists, who attacked the police in Banjske, have been depicted as heroes in Serbia. 

For example, murals featuring the phrase “When the army returns to Kosovo” have seen a noticeable increase in Serbia, actively promoting and reinforcing the ultra-nationalist narrative against Kosovo. These murals have contributed to the pervasive climate of hatred towards Kosovo Albanians in everyday Serbian life. Simultaneously, human rights activist Aida Corovic was fined for “disturbing the peace” after she threw eggs at a mural celebrating Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

No sanctions for Serbia, yet

Serbia has not been subjected to any sanctions despite its  support for a terrorist attack in Kosovo. The absence of sanctions against Serbia may embolden it to potentially carry out further assaults on Kosovo’s territorial integrity.

Additionally, the growing prevalence of a radical nationalist narrative regarding the Kosovo situation within Serbian society not only represents a significant existential threat to Kosovo but also carries profound implications for the long-term peace and security of the entire region.

The failure of the Donbas scenario in the north of Kosovo has averted the division of Kosovo. Consequently, it is crucial that Serbia faces sanctions in response to the terrorist assault in Kosovo. These sanctions are essential to maintain a dialogue based on trust and to deter the replication of the Russian Federation’s policy patterns in the region.

What is urgently required is not just a revision of the nationalist narrative but a fundamental departure from the deep-seated radical nationalist politics that are undermining the coexistence between Kosovo and Serbia. Tackling these root political issues is vital for promoting reconciliation, stability, and enduring peace in the region.

Amid these challenging dynamics, sustaining a constructive dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia becomes progressively more complicated when one party refuses to acknowledge the existence of the other. 

Lastly, it is of utmost importance that sanctions are imposed on Serbia to ensure that these same patterns are not repeated in the future.

Adelina Hasani, is a researcher with the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, KCSS, and is actively involved in Horizon Europe research projects. Adelina holds a PhD degree in International Relations from the University of Ankara, and a Master’s degree in Human Rights and Democracy from the University of Sarajevo and the University of Bologna, ERMA. Adelina’s research interests include gender studies, political economy, and security issues. Adelina is also a co-founder of the initiative Femaktiv in Prizren and editor-in-chief of Prizma Medium.

The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.