Skip to main content
Monthly Archives: June 2019

Serbia-Kosovo Relations: An Ethnic Dilemma

Kosovo Serb youths shout slogans and wave Serbian flags during a protest in the ethnically-divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica on February 24, 2008. Kosovo’s parliament declared the province’s independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008 giving Europe a new nation and marking an historic turning point in the volatile Balkans. AFP PHOTO / ROBERT ATANASOVSKI (Photo credit should read ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Peace Prospects for Kosovo and Serbia: A Historical Context.

Government leaders from Serbia and Kosovo are scheduled to meet in Paris in July to discuss a potential deal that would define the countries’ relationship amidst rising tensions (Jancarikova). President Hashim Tahaci of Kosovo has expressed an optimistic outlook towards a future deal while members of the Kosovo government, the EU, and the people of Serbia and Kosovo have all expressed their disapproval of such an agreement. The prime concern of all these skeptics: border changes have been discussed as a potential part of the deal. It has been longstanding EU policy to not allow border changes in the Balkans in fear that one instance of border changes will spark others, leading to violent ethnic conflict that engulfed the region at the turn of the century. The people of Kosovo and Serbia, and the Prime Minister of Kosovo share the EU’s viewpoint (Surk). Being well informed on the Kosovo and Serbia’s past will illustrate why so many are concerned with border changes today.

Strong National Identities

Though Kosovo is largely recognized as a sovereign Country, many of its people feel a strong loyalty to the Albanian or Serbian nation. Peoples’ national identities were amplified following the rise of Slobodan Milošević, President of Serbia, who violently oppressed ethnic Albanians living in Serbian terriotry.

At the beginning of his presidency, Kosovo had a special autonomous status within Serbia, laregely a result of a strong desire for independence demonstrated by riots in 1981 protesting the then Yugoslavia (Binder). Milošević disregareded this special status and persecuted ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo through control of the police and govermnet apparatus. Milošević gained large support for his oppresive measures by dialing up Serbian nationalism, which lead to a war in Bosnia from 1992-1995, pitting ethnic groups against each other (Simons and Small). This same natioanalist approach motivated ethnic conflic in Kosovo throughtout the 1990s. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) throughout the decade carried out attacks on police and government buildings and by 1998, were in a full frontal war with Milošević’s Serbian paramilitaries (Perrit).

The conflict grew severe as Serbian forces engaged in ethnic cleansing, pushing ethnic Albanias out of Kosovo, trying to creare a purely Serbian state. This provoked a response from the International Community, as NATO lead an air campaing on the side of the KLA and defeated Milošević’s forces. Following the war, Kosovo was goverend by a transitional UN administraion and secured by NATO peacekeeping forces (Perrit).

Large ethnic migrations occurred following the war. Estimates vary, but roughly 200,000 Serbs who called Kosovo home left the region along with Serbian forces (Perrit). A small minority stayed which is relevant to today as there have been increasing conflcits between Serbs and Albanians within Kosovo. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and laregely received international regognition from the west while Russia, Serbia and other nations currently consider Kosovo to be a rebel province of Serbia (Surk).

Recent Talks

Nearly eleven years since independence, tensions between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo continue. Serbian names on road signs are commonly blacked out in Albanian neighbourhoods, and Albanian and Serbian flags are more common than the flag of Kosovo (Santora). Two weeks ago, Kosovo police carried out raids on Serbian neighborhoods; in response Serbia put their entire army on full-alert for a potential conflict (Stojanovic). Recent tensions have demonstrated a need for a new agreement between the two countries.

President Thaci and Serbian President Alesander Vucic made clear last August at a disucssion panel in Austria that they are considering border changes as part of a peace agreement. Such a move would break the status-quo policy to not redraw borders in the Balkans, an unwritten rule established after the 1995 Dayton Accords which settled the Bosnian war (Heath, Gray). Both leaders met with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Minister to discuss a peace agreement; both Western European leaders expressed a disaproval of redrawing borders but encourgaed that an agreement be made. These leaders hold some leverage as acscension to the European Union requires both nations to “resolve bilateral disputes” (Surk). Yet the Trump administration suggested last year that it is open to border adjustments. This statement carries significant weight as the US has high credibility in the region because of their involvment with negotiating peace in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars (Santora).


Though there is no current official plan, the redrawing of borders would be along ethnic lines bringing Serbs into Serbia and Kosovo-Albanians into Albania. Creating a political border between two nations that live in close proximity often emboldens the groups to engage in conflict. This principle should weigh on the minds of Presidents Thaci and Vucic as they approach their July negotations in Paris.

Works Cited

Binder, David. 1981. “One Storm has passed, but others are gathering in Yugoslavia.” The New York Times. April 19.

Gray, Andrew, and Ryan Heath. 2018. “Serbia, Kosovo Presidents Broach Border Changes for Historic Deal.” Politico. August 28

Jancarikova, Tatiana. 2019. “Kosovo President Says Deal on Ties Possible This Year.” Reuters. June 7.

Perritt, Henry H. 2008. Kosovo Liberation Army: The Inside Story of an Insurgency. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Santora, Marc. 2018. “Talk of Ethnic Partition of Kosovo Revives Old Ethnic Ghosts.” The New York Times. Sept. 19.

Stojanovic, Dusan. 2019. “Russia, Serbia, Blame NATO for Kosovo Tensions.” Associated Press. May 29, 2019.

Surk, Barbara. 2019. “Push for Deal Between Kosovo and Serbia Puts National Divisions on Display.” The New York Times. April 19.

Simons, Marlise, and Alison Smale. 2006. “Slobodan Milosevic 64, Former Yugoslav Leader Accused of War Crimes Dies.” The New York Times. March 26.