[Opinion] : Maybe it would work the other way around

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer

Washington, 31 May 2023, / – Vesna Pusic, a Croatian sociologist and politician, tweeted today:

Let me get this straight: US is sanctioning Kosovo because:

1. The Serbian List political coalition, which by their own admission is completely loyal to Serbian President Vučić and follows all his instructions, has boycotted local elections in the north of Kosovo.

2. Because of that ethnic Albanians were elected mayors of the 4 municipalities with majority Serb populations in the north of Kosovo

3. The mayors tried to take the posts to which they have been elected

4. Kosovo state authorities attempted to secure the process

5. Ethnic Serb demonstrators attacked Kosovo state authorities

6. KFOR, NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo came in to prevent further escalation of violence

7. KFOR was attacked by Serb demonstrators and cca 30 peacekeepers were injured. All amply video documented

8. The tensions & violence in Kosovo coincided with mass antigovernment demonstrations in Belgrade triggered by 2 mass shootings & killings in Serbia

9. Kosovo is sanctioned by the US & reprimanded by NATO Secretary General

10. Please explain @JoeBiden @ABlinken @jensstoltenberg

The bad bet

The short explanation is that the US and EU have doubled down on a bad bet: by appeasing Belgrade, they hope to get President Vucic to abandon his growing links to Russia and China.

He isn’t going to do that. Vucic may send some ammunition to Ukraine and vote for a UN General Assembly resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion. But he is now an elected autocrat who sees his future in the East, with other autocrats. Money from China and security support from Russia are his current interests. The EU is a much larger funder and investor, but the Union’s failure to effectively condition its assistance on maintaining democracy has allowed Vucic to talk the talk without walking the walk. The Americans have been tweeting his embrace of democracy without ever insisting on it.

And pressure your friends

Instead, the State Department has decided to try to pressure Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti. His small country has been perhaps the most pro-American on earth. It really has little alternative but to “bandwagon” with the US. The Americans know it. Ambassador Hovenier’s admirably calm but tough talk (above) aims to get Kurti to agree that the mayors won’t try to return to their offices and that the Kosovo police will not try to enforce the law in northern Kosovo. The diplomatic sanctions pinch but do not yet bite hard, as the Kosovo Security Forces have other things to do and the Americans haven’t done much lately for Kosovo’s membership in international organizations.

The illogic is blatant. The Americans mouthed support for the election but don’t want to implement the results. They support rule of law but don’t want the Kosovo police to enforce it. They want Kosovo to be sovereign but aren’t willing to see its institutions operate from the mayoral offices. Secretary of State Blinken criticizes both sides when Belgrade-sponsored thugs attack and injure KFOR soldiers. The US said not a word about the heightened alert and deployment of the Serbian Army to the country’s border/boundary with Kosovo.

This isn’t really about the mayors

What’s worse is that this isn’t really a conflict over the mayors. The first issue is Belgrade’s determination to maintain its control of northern Kosovo. That’s why it required the election boycott and why it sent the thugs who attacked KFOR. Vucic fears that loss of control over the north will make real problems for him in Belgrade, both with the right-wing ethnonationalists who constitute his main opposition and with the security services that enjoy their no doubt lucrative role in keeping northern Kosovo a law-free zone.

A second issue is the domestic political situation. Vucic is facing massive street demonstrations against his increasingly authoritarian rule. Shifting the focus to Kosovo and appearing to defend Kosovo Serbs is a tried and true technique for distracting attention from domestic discontent. So too is calling an early parliamentary election, quickly enough that the liberal opposition will not have a chance to organize. Vucic knows that well, as he served Slobodan Milosevic in his heyday. He won’t be calling an early presidential election–that’s what brought Milosevic down.

Re-evaluation is needed

In their effort to win Serbia for the West, the Americans have wrapped themselves in contradictions. It won’t be easy to break out. But it is high time that they re-evaluated, just as they are asking Kurti to do. Neither is getting what they want. Even if they bend Kurti with sticks, they won’t have bent Vucic with carrots. Maybe it would work better the other way around?


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 of his was originally published at his website.          

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

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