The consequences of appeasing Vučić
While everyone who cares about Kosovo hopes the murder of police officer Afrim Bunjaku will be the last of the violence, the situation has degenerated so sharply and so quickly over the past twelve months that it now appears increasingly likely that large scale violence could erupt.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s attack, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić began to set the stage with a series of claims that range from false to delusional. He blamed Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti for the violence, alleged that KFOR, the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, had given the Kosovo police a “blank check” to kill as many Serbs as they wished, and claimed that Kosovo Serbs were rebelling against “Kurti’s terror” which was enabled through “help from the international community.” The next day he met the Russian Ambassador to Serbia, telling him that Kosovo was committing “brutal ethnic cleansing” against Kosovo Serbs. The government of Serbia declared a day of mourning for the Serb paramilitary members killed during the attack and in Kosovo, Srpska Lista declared three days of mourning.
Vučić’s intent seems clear: softening up public opinion in Serbia to create space for a potential armed intervention in Kosovo, should he decide he wants to go down that path. His actions and rhetoric are eerily similar to Milošević’s tactics in Bosnia and Croatia (and Putin’s in Ukraine): encourage local militia, stoke unrest, deny any involvement and wait for a pretext to intervene.
How did the situation reach this ominous juncture? Much of the blame must be attributed to the West’s appeasement of Vučić.
The Scorpion and the Frog
A frog sits beside a river when a scorpion comes by and asks the frog for a lift across. Naturally the frog is reluctant. The scorpion assures the frog that he wants to cross the river — he won’t sting him because then he’d drown. The frog agrees and allows the scorpion to climb on his back. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. As they both sink the frog croaks, “Why? Now we will both drown.” The scorpion replies, “I can’t help it. It’s my nature.”
The fable warns against trusting those who are constitutionally incapable of changing their ways regardless of what promises they make. It is a lesson that has much resonance for the situation in Kosovo. For too long the U.S. and the EU have trusted Vučić. On Sunday, his true nature emerged and he stung them.
For many years, Western leaders have ignored Vučić’s growing authoritarianism as they cheerily posed with him and celebrated his electoral victories. The logic driving this policy appeared to be that appeasing Vučić would pull him away from Russia’s influence and foreclose Moscow’s capacity to sow instability in the Balkans. Despite his past and his overtly nationalistic political views, Western leaders believed Vučić could be tamed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 increased their desperation to embrace him and the appeasement intensified.
This was disastrous for Kosovo. In their bid to demonstrate their support for Vučić, U.S. and EU leaders and diplomats turned on Kosovo, castigating it for its unwillingness to “compromise” and demanding it bow to Vučić’s wishes. The EU-facilitated dialogue became a farce. Vučić would refuse to sign anything, Kurti would offer to sign, and Borrel and Lajčák would then lament Kurti’s intransigence. Implementing the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities became a sine qua non; demands to create it were pursued with a near manic zeal without any supporting rationale, despite the widely held view that it would create a Republika Srpska inside Kosovo. Kosovo was bullied, the government’s authority was openly threatened, and eventually the EU imposed sanctions.
Vučić has become more authoritarian domestically and continues to stoke instability regionally.
That this was patently unjust was clear to all who understand the situation in Kosovo. But from a broader geopolitical perspective, maybe casting Kosovo aside was a price worth paying to enable Vučić to embrace the West, deal a blow to Russia and maintain stability in the Balkans? While we may recoil at the moral bankruptcy here, international relations is dirty business. Yet, even leaving aside matters of ethics and justice, purely on the basis of its geopolitical impact, the West’s strategy has been a catastrophic failure.
Vučić and the West
Judged according to all the key criteria, Vučić has not aligned with the West’s interests since the appeasement began. He has become more authoritarian domestically. Regionally, he has stoked instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina through his support for the Putin-loyalist President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik, a man who openly seeks to dismember Bosnia. Internationally, he has refused to align with Western sanctions against Russia — because Serbs “love Russia” — and he has maintained close relations with the Kremlin. He has also allowed Serbia to become China’s “regional hub.”
During his speech at the United Nations General Assembly meeting on Thursday, Vučić castigated the West for “brutally attacking” Serbia in 1999 and “cutting my country into pieces.” Referring to criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he charged Western states with hypocrisy because they “had used the same narrative, the same words and the same explanations” in 1999 which he described as “lies and nonsense, in order to justify the violence.” Since then he’s raged that “almost all western powers brutally violated both the UN Charter and the UN Resolution 1244.”
Clearly, despite the West’s overtures, Vučić has not been seduced. Rather than tame him, the appeasement strategy has emboldened him. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Kosovo.
As Western states have appeased him, Vučić’s stance towards Kosovo has become significantly more hostile. His rhetoric has become increasingly inflammatory: he has denied that massacres occurred in Kosovo, described Milošević as “a great Serbian leader who undoubtedly had the best intentions,” threatened to “take all measures to protect our people and preserve Serbia” during the license plate protests and described Prime Minister Kurti as “terrorist scum.”
But it’s not just words. Vučić has control over Kosovo Serbs through his proxy Srpska Lista. Opponents have been bullied into submission or murdered. Vučić’s links with criminal gangs are well known and they have become more active in the north of Kosovo under his tenure.
Those in the West who have criticized Vučić and his activities in the north of Kosovo have met his ire; earlier this year, the Chair of the U.K.’s Foreign Affairs Committee Alicia Kearns stated that the British Army believes arms are being stored in Serbian monasteries in Kosovo. Vučić responded by threatening her. Evidently spurred on by the West’s shameful reluctance to confront him, Vučić has escalated his efforts to destabilize Kosovo; in May mobs of Serbs attacked KFOR troops and in June Serbian police were alleged to have kidnapped three Kosovar police officers inside Kosovo.
Given this build-up, the violence on Sunday (Sept. 24, 2023) was essentially inevitable. Whether this was a planned or botched operation, the scale and nature of the arms cache recovered suggests that Serb paramilitaries in the north of Kosovo are readying themselves for a major action. More than that, it is implausible that the arms came from anywhere other than Serbia. And now we learn that there is video evidence that deputy head of Srpska Lista Milan Radoičić was one of the attackers.
If there is any hope for peace in Kosovo, and the wider region, the appeasement of Vučić must be swiftly reversed. The naivety of those in the West who believed they could tame and trust Vučić — a man whose entire political career has been built on stoking aggressive sectarian nationalism — is now apparent. Their fate, much like the fabled frog, is now bound to his. With Vučić’s true nature now starkly revealed, those who embraced him are irredeemably tainted by association and should no longer have any role in guiding relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
Aidan Hehir is a Reader in International Relations at the University of Westminster. His research interests include transitional justice, humanitarian intervention, and statebuilding in the Balkans. He is the author/editor of eleven books and co-editor of the Routledge Intervention and Statebuilding book series. In 2022 his novel “The Flowers of Srebrenica” was published by Qendra Multimedia.