[Opinion]: Stiffening the approach to Serbia

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


“Those responsible for Balkans policy in both capitals (Washington and Brussels) are unwilling to admit failure of their efforts to lure Serbia westward. Instead, they are urging a quick return to ‘the dialogue’.”

By Daniel Serwer,  @DanielSerwer ,

Washington, 19 September 2023, / – Kosovo police and NATO forces in the Serb-majority north of the country over the weekend foiled an armed uprising. One Kosovo policeman and three terrorists were killed and others arrested. But most seem to have escaped. Serbia and its Srpska Lista political proxies in Kosovo have declared a day of mourning. That confirms their support for the insurrection. The little green men appear to have found safe haven inside Serbia.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic met subsequently with the Russian Ambassador. Vucic complained about “brutal ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo, for which there is no evidence. We have no confirmation that Vucic ordered the armed uprising. But one of his mainstays in northern Kosovo was involved. Such things don’t happen without Belgrade’s knowledge. Vucic could have stopped it in advance or denounced it after the fact. He did not do either.

What this incident tells us

This incident is confirmation that Vucic does not intend to normalize relations with Kosovo. The Belgrade/Prishtina dialogue with that objective is a cover for his real goal. He wants separation of the four northern Serb-majority municipalities. He would prefer de-jure partition and hopes that Russian success in annexing parts of Ukraine will validate that objective. But he would settle, for now, for de facto separate governance, in the form of an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities.

Prishtina has demonstrated that its police can handle, with NATO backing, a heavily armed group of several dozen determined militants. But it is just as clear that Serbian armor could move into Kosovo with ease. It is less than 25 miles, maybe an hour’s tank drive, from the nearest Serbian border crossing to north Mitrovica.

NATO has recently beefed up its forces in Kosovo. But it is not clear whether they are equipped or trained for anti-armor warfare.

American and European diplomats think Serbia will not attempt such a move because of the political consequences. But Vucic knows better. He is trying to convince the world that Serbs are being ethnically cleansed from Kosovo. That could validate a claim his tanks protect civilians. That is why he repeatedly claims, without evidence, that such ethnic cleansing is ongoing, as he did yesterday in a meeting with the Russian Ambassador.

The American and European response

The Western response has been weak so far. Brussels and Washington have appealed to “both sides” to prevent further violence and escalation. This implicitly equates the sterling performance of the Kosovo police with an illegal armed uprising that could have caused instability throughout the Balkans. Those responsible for Balkans policy in both capitals are unwilling to admit failure of their efforts to lure Serbia westward. Instead, they are urging a quick return to “the dialogue.”

An alternative approach would denounce Belgrade’s support for the armed uprising, labeling it a terrorist act and levying sanctions against Vucic and his defense and national security officials. NATO would prepare its forces in northern Kosovo for defense against an armored invasion. The West would praise the Kosovo police and urge a fair and speedy trial for the perpetrators in Kosovo courts. Ambassadors to Belgrade would be withdrawn for consultations.

A new policy is needed

They could be sent back quickly with a single message: the era of appeasement is over. If Belgrade wants EU membership, Serbia needs to quickly:

– arrest and turn over the terrorists to the Kosovo authorities;

– drop its insistence on separate governance of Serbs in Kosovo;

– align with Ukraine sanctions on Russia;

– support Kosovo membership in international organizations, including the United Nations.

If Belgrade refuses, the EU should announce it is freezing accession talks. The US should suspend military cooperation with Serbia, including cooperation with the Ohio National Guard.

Washington and Brussels should also prepare to spur Prishtina to reach out to northern Serbs to find alternatives to Srpska Lista. In addition, Prishtina should seek to ensure that there are no anti-Serb incidents throughout Kosovo, in order to invalidate Vucic’s claims of ethnic cleansing. Prishtina should promptly investigate any incidents that do occur. The courts should promptly try perpetrators.

It is time to reconfigure Western policy on Serbia and Kosovo. Renewal of the current approach will bring new failures. A firmer approach with Belgrade is the necessary first step.


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. 

It was first published at Mr. Serwer’s webpage.

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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