Petritsch: The situation in the Western Balkans is close to escalation, KFOR troops are prepared
Diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch has said that the officials in Kosovo and Serbia should be verbally disarmed in order to escalate the situation created in the north of Kosovo.
In an interview for Radio Free Europe, Petritsch, the former envoy of the European Union for Kosovo and former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that the Government of Kosovo has made a wise decision to postpone the implementation of the decisions on license plates and Serbian documents.
According to him, the EU should do more for the dialogue it mediates between Kosovo and Serbia, and this example shows how delaying the process does not work.
Radio Free Europe: The government of Kosovo has postponed the implementation of the decisions on Serbian license plates and documents, after the local Serbs have removed the barricades in the north of Kosovo. The NATO mission, KFOR, has considered the situation tense. How have you seen all these developments?
Wolfgang Petritsch: It is very important to reduce tensions. This is the most important issue now. I’m talking about the broader picture that includes Eastern and Southeastern Europe, because because of the war in Ukraine, the situation has become much more emotional and volatile. Of course, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine also has an impact on the Balkans, as we know that major actors, Russia, the United States and the European Union, are involved in the Ukraine issue. They are also external actors in the Balkans. So, there is a kind of connection that makes it even more important to reduce tensions and sit down at the negotiating table, under the mediation of the European Union.
Radio Free Europe: Before the decision of the Government of Kosovo, it was the United States that requested such a postponement, saying that there is a circulation of misinformation and such a step would help in better understanding of the decisions of the Kosovo authorities. Did the Government of Kosovo make the right decision?
Wolfgang Petritsch: I think it is a wise decision that contributes to reducing tensions. I think this is the most important thing, because in this case, attempts to implement the decisions will not help to stabilize the situation, otherwise, the situation can quickly turn into a serious conflict.
The troops of the NATO mission in Kosovo, KFOR, are prepared. And, this shows how important the international military presence is in Kosovo. However, it is necessary to continue the dialogue. This is important. The only way I see as a diplomat is for the parties to talk and engage with (the special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Miroslav) Lajçak and find a solution to this dangerous situation.
The decision for the Association was right
Radio Free Europe: The dialogue between the two states, which is mediated by the European Union, is blocked. The Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, and the Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, met for the last time last year. Who should be blamed?
Wolfgang Petritsch: I don’t want to blame anyone. This situation is another example of how unresolved issues can quickly get out of hand, and speaks to the persistence of unresolved issues. These situations must be addressed. It is a serious situation and it can be managed with serious efforts, political efforts, mediated political efforts.
Radio Free Europe: A hot topic between the two parties is the Association of Serbian Majority Municipalities. Kurti has declared against the ethnic association, but Serbia insists on implementing the agreement reached for it in 2013. Do you see any solution in this regard?
Wolfgang Petritsch: I think it was the right decision. I think it is necessary to have some kind of Association based on the agreements of 2015. It should be implemented. However, I see that Kosovo clearly does not want to have a Republika Srpska. The line of Washington and Brussels is that they do not want another Republika Srpska in Kosovo, but an association of the Serbian community there, when it comes to issues that can improve the lives of those people.
This initially concerns the Serbian community, but something like this would also serve the Albanian community, because they are living together. A compromise must be found. So, it should not be on an ethnic basis, but at the same time it should give rights to the minorities where they are, which in this case is the Serbian community in the north of Kosovo.
The war in Ukraine has created a cold war
Radio Free Europe: Currently, there are tensions in the north of Kosovo, but also in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. In your opinion, is there a common factor for such an atmosphere?
Wolfgang Petritsch: Undoubtedly, it is the war in Ukraine, which has created a kind of cold war. It is not just the armed conflict in Ukraine. There is also a cold war between Western Europe and the United States on one side, and Russia and its proxies on the other. In the Western Balkans, the demarcation line is along this region. Therefore, the situation is so volatile and close to escalating into another military conflict. Something like this should be avoided under any circumstances and KFOR has an important role to play.
In the Western Balkans, unlike the war in Ukraine, NATO is involved through KFOR, after the mission it has in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the membership of Montenegro and other countries in the region that are members of the North Atlantic Alliance. .
So, this distinguishes it from Ukraine, where NATO is not involved and should not be involved, so as to avoid a world war and a war in European dimensions.
What is happening in the Western Balkans is a preventable conflict, but one that has the potential for escalation. Therefore, I am convinced that the diplomatic efforts of the European Union, supported by the United States, are of great importance in the region.
Radio Free Europe: Do you think the United States and the European Union should do more to combat Russian influence in the Western Balkans?
Wolfgang Petritsch: Of course, it is important to let Russia know that for the neighbors of NATO member countries and EU countries, Russia’s efforts to destroy the peace process are unacceptable.
Radio Free Europe: A member of the ruling party in Serbia, Vladimir Djukanovic, has claimed that Serbia will be forced to start the “denazification of the Balkans”. The term “denazification” has been used by the Russian authorities as a reason for the invasion of Ukraine. How do you comment on this?
Wolfgang Petritsch: Verbal disarmament is much needed. I urge both sides not to escalate verbally, because as we have seen with Ukraine, verbal escalation has quickly turned into military escalation.
Therefore, self-restraint – when it comes to rhetoric – is very important. I hope that Prishtina’s decision to postpone the implementation of the decisions will help to improve the situation.
Radio Free Europe: How dangerous is the use of the term denazification?
Wolfgang Petritsch: It is used in the wrong way, as in the case of Ukraine.
Serbia is in a delicate position
Radio Free Europe: The Serbian President, Vucic, has thanked the Russian Foreign Ministry for the approach to the situation in the north. The Russian authorities have blamed Kosovo for something like this. Serbia continues to support Russia and does not impose sanctions due to the start of the war in Ukraine. How do you see this attitude?
Wolfgang Petritsch: Serbia is in a very delicate position due to energy supplies, as it is almost completely dependent on Russia. Therefore, I see this as a pragmatic approach on the part of Serbia, so that it does not face an even more difficult situation, in which Russia would stop the supplies.
Radio Free Europe: One can say that the EU is also in a delicate situation, because, for example, Germany is somewhat dependent on Russian energy sources.
Wolfgang Petritsch: Yes, but not completely. I think the European Union should create a pan-European energy plan. This crisis should serve as an example of how important the enlargement process is. Only when Europe is united will there be no debate about where Russia has more influence. Seeing the mindset of the conflict since 2014, I have always said that a call should be made to Brussels and the member countries to speed up the integration process of the Western Balkans. Membership is the only guarantee for the Western Balkans to avoid Russia’s revisionist policies.
Radio Free Europe: Are you assuming that energy resources are the only reason why Serbia has such an attitude towards Russia, or are there other reasons?
Wolfgang Petritsch: It’s not the only reason, but I think it’s the most important. If you analyze the situation in Belgrade, you can see how Serbia is trying to balance the difficult situation it is in, without giving up its European aspirations. This is a difficult situation for all involved. It is therefore important to move forward with mediation efforts, to implement agreements that are compatible, in order to stabilize the region. We don’t need another war. Ukraine is already getting enough.
“Dialogue must not stop”
Radio Free Europe: Do you think that developments, like the recent ones in the north, can be repeated until the final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is reached?
Wolfgang Petritsch: Potentially it will be, unfortunately. For months now, not enough has been done in the dialogue process. And here is the result. Not much has happened in the past months, in fact nothing has happened. These types of conflicts between Kosovo and Serbia must stop. The European Union has a lot of responsibility for this. (Miroslav) I believe that Lajcak is busy day and night to resolve the situation, but he must also achieve progress in terms of implementation and resolution of the conflict.
Radio Free Europe: Are you saying that the EU is in control of whether something will happen within the dialogue?
Wolfgang Petritsch: The European Union has been accepted by both sides as a mediator. Therefore, the European bloc is in a leading role, it seems to be active and present in Belgrade and Pristina, so that we can see results. The EU must increase its commitment. This is one of the most dangerous examples of how procrastination doesn’t work. The dialogue must not stop. If it stops, we slide into conflict. Moving forward is the strategy that can prove successful.