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Serbia-Kosovo: Recent Tensions Explained

The Balkans: Europe’s powder keg, as it’s commonly referred to. A region with a long history of ethnic tensions between Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Bosniak Muslims.

Serbia's recent military buildup on the border with Kosovo follows historical patterns in the region, prompting instability and ethnic friction that could materialize into a realized conflict on the ground.

When Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991 following the demise of the wider communist bloc and the Soviet Union, the confederation of ethnic republics erupted into open war. After ten years of bloody conflict, mainly instigated by Serbia to maintain its influence in the region, the fighting came to an end in 2001 after NATO airpower forced Serbia to its knees. Although the gunfire has ceased, tensions between ethnic groups remain on a knife’s edge. 

Kosovo, previously a region of Serbia composed of Albanian Muslims as the ethnic majority, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Ever since, mutual feelings of distrust have undermined any progress towards the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries. The Serbs have long felt indignant about the loss of their former territory, and to this day don’t recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Kosovo remains a poor country fractured along ethnic lines. Ethnic tensions remain high between the majority Albanian and minority Serb populations.  

Recently, a Serbian paramilitary group ambushed a police patrol in northern Kosovo, resulting in a shootout between Kosovar authorities and the Serbian partisans. Three Serbs and one Kosovar policeman lay dead in the aftermath of the violence. In customary fashion, the Serbian and Kosovar authorities attempted to assign blame to one another.

Serbian President Alaksandar Vucic stated that the repressive tendencies of the Kosovar government prompted the uprising by Serbian minorities. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti retorted by claiming that Serbia continues to finance organized Serbian crime against the Kosovar state.

Just days later, White House spokesman John Kirby stated that Serbia was amassing an unprecedented number of troops and military equipment near its border with Kosovo. Following a conversation between Vucic and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Vucic agreed to withdraw some of the troops he had sent to the border, signaling the aversion to immediate conflict in the short term.

The incident suggests that tensions in the Balkans are not yet a relic of the past. 

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