[Opinion] : A cold shoulder might get more results

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer,  @DanielSerwer ,   

Washington, 15 December 2023, / – This is one of those moments in the Balkans when what is not said is more important than what is said. The Americans and Europeans have so far failed to publish the results of their announced investigations of the September 24 failed Serb uprising in northern Kosovo.

On that occasion, Serbia sent a well-armed group to ambush the Kosovo police, killing one officer. The Serbs also tried to draw the police into a firefight at a monastery compound. The perpetrators intended this incident to provide an excuse for Serbian military intervention. Presumably the goal was to seize the four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo.

No doubt

There is really no doubt about what happened and why. The only real question is who authorized this terrorist plot. It was either Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić or not. I have no evidence on that issue. But we know that Vučić usually makes all the really important decisions in Belgrade. If he did not make this one, that is only a marginally better reflection on his rule than if he did.

Ever since the failed plot, Vučić has cozied up even more than usual to anti-democratic forces in the region and beyond. His besties lately have included Bosnian secessionist Dodik, Hungarian would-be autocrat Orban, illegitimate Belarusian chief of state Lukashenko, Azerbaijani dictator Aliyev, as well as Russian and Chinese autocrats Putin and Xi. Here is Vučić siding with Putin in Ukraine.

 When discussing Milosevic legacy, he implies that on Kosovo, Serbia should learn from former and current President of Azerbaijan, father and son, Heydar and Ilham Aliyev: “They waited 27 years for special geopolitical circumstances” to return Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. (Demush Shasha @DemushShasha , December 12, 2023 )

He also intends to follow Aliyev’s lead in taking Nagorno-Karabakh back by force. When geopolitical circumstances permit, he will do likewise with Kosovo.

Vučić did belatedly fire his security and information agency chief Vulin. But he did it in response to US sanctions, not the September 24 events. Milan Radojičić, a close political ally of Vučić as well as Kosovo political and criminal kingpin, has taken responsibility for the plot. The authorities arrested but quickly freed him. The courts will take their time getting around to a trial.

Nor should Serbia try him, since his September 24 crimes were committed in Kosovo. He should be handed over to the Pristina authorities.

So why the silence?

Some diplomats will attribute the silence to preoccupation in Washington and Brussels with the Gaza war. That certainly merits priority and slows high-level decisions on other issues. But the State Department and the EU foreign policy apparatus are both geared to deal with problems worldwide, not just today’s top issues.

More likely they have hesitated because of the Serbian parliamentary elections this Sunday, which won’t bring big surprises. President Vučić would not have called an early poll if he thought he would lose it. There is ample evidence he is using the government’s media dominance, state institutions, patronage, and largesse to ensure a friendly outcome. But no one in Washington or Brussels at this point should want to help him.

The EU has another handicap. It requires consensus for any serious reaction. Most of its 27 members might be ready to do something. But Hungary and perhaps now Slovakia will be prepared to block consensus on sanctions on Serbia.

I might also hope that the State Department is re-evaluating its policy in the Balkans and needs a bit more time to get it right. It has officials devoted to the notion that he has succeeded in getting Serbia to embrace the West. It is sometimes easier at State to change personnel than minds, but it takes time.

Here are three nudges

Maybe Brussels and Washington need a nudge in the right direction. They no doubt have this Kosovo government preliminary report on the September 24 plot. But to my knowledge no one has published it outside Kosovo.

Preliminary Report: Initial Analysis of Serbia’s Paramilitary Aggression on KosovaDownload

I offered a summary more than a month ago. It is high time that someone make it widely available. Along with the investigation the EU has promised. Read please, and tell me whether Serbia has embraced the West.

Or try this statement from Serbia’s Prime Minister reneging on commitments the US and EU say are legally binding:

Meanwhile, the EU has levied “consequences” on Kosovo that are long past their sell by date. Some Europeans are anxious to say so:

Note that it is the same police who foiled the September 24 plot that the US and EU have wanted withdrawn from northern Kosovo. That would have been a big mistake.

Hedging only works if we play the game

Serbia’s foreign policy relies on hedging between East and West, in the tradition of the non-aligned movement founded in Belgrade in 1961. This makes sense for Serbia, which thereby extracts value from both directions. The game is to lean hard one way and see how much the other side will ante up for you. Vučić has been leaning hard towards the East and collecting bounty from the West. Don’t take it only from me–read what people in Moscow are saying.

But if the West refuses to play the game, the hedging fails, and Serbia lands in the arms of Putin and Xi. That is no great loss to the West, which hasn’t gained much for all the goodies it has rained on Belgrade. Let’s assume though that Vučić is sincerely committed to hedging. A cold shoulder would then make him do a bit more to please the West. Wouldn’t that be nice?


Daniel Serwer is a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management as well as director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.      

This opinion was first published at website.                    

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of  

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