Burak Yalım, Director of TUIC Academy, is privileged to sit down with Rada Trajkovic, an influential Serbian politician from Kosovo and former Member of Parliament. In a wide-ranging interview, they discuss the current tension between Serbia and Kosovo, the role of international actors, and potential paths to peace.
We are joined today by Rada Trajkovic, a prominent Serbian politician from Kosovo and former Member of Parliament. Thank you for being with us, Ms. Trajkovic.
Recently, we have seen a surge in tensions in northern Kosovo, particularly in the town of Zvečan where violent confrontations occurred between ethnic Serb protesters and NATO’s KFOR troops. The root cause of this conflict was the Kosovo government’s decision to appoint ethnic Albanian mayors in municipalities with a majority ethnic Serb population, despite their boycott of the elections.
Furthermore, the situation intensified when Serbian police arrested three Kosovo police officials, leading to a clash of narratives between Kosovo and Serbian authorities over the location of the arrest. The Kosovo government has retaliated by banning all imports and car entries from Serbia.
In the midst of this escalating conflict, Serbian President Alexander Vucic is also dealing with internal protests from the opposition. There are arguments that this escalating conflict might be overshadowing his internal issues.
Burak Yalım: As a Serbian citizen of Kosovo, and considering your experience and knowledge about Northern Kosovo and central parts like Gračanica, how do you perceive these developments? How do these tensions impact the Serbian communities in Kosovo, especially those outside of the northern region? How do you interpret President Vucic’s role and response in this complex situation?
Rada Trajkovic: The situation in the north of Kosovo is the result of the northern Serbs’ deeply held belief that they will never truly be a part of Kosovo and its system. This misplaced belief has for many years been nurtured and encouraged by Belgrade, and it is also a consequence of their fortuitous geographic position and demographic compactness. This means that the northern Serbs are now poorly prepared for the actions by Pristina to round off Kosovo’s territorial wholeness. As a result, the northern Serbs remain highly sensitive and reactive, and as a group can be easily mobilised, manipulated and misdirected to their own detriment – but to the political benefit of the regime in Belgrade.
Sadly, the current crisis is further exacerbated by the leaders on both sides who lack sincerity in their commitment to the implementation of both the Ohrid agreement and its predecessor, the Brussels agreement. Both leaders – in their own way – make efforts to disrupt the implementation of past agreements and continue to thrive politically on the instability born out of their actions (or lack thereof). Kurti is avoiding the implementation of the association of the Serb majority municipalities, while Vučić does not want to end institutional links between Belgrade and the Serbs in the north.
This situation hurts the interest of Kosovo’s entire Serbian community as it creates existential uncertainty and motivates Kosovo Serbs to leave Kosovo for good. In addition, the Kosovo government fails to reassure our community but instead adds to their fears further through the divisive rhetoric. For example, the Kosovar government officials often describe Kosovo Serbs as “the most privileged minority in Europe” that enjoys a myriad of unique constitutional rights. But what they fail to mention is that these right were hard earned through many years of discrimination and ethnic violence experienced since 1999. And it was the UN special envoy Kai Eide – a great friend of Kosovo – who first recognised this.
In addition, our community has, sadly, also lost the formerly constant and wise support of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which always played a crucial part in enabling our community’s survival regardless of the political circumstance. But the Church is now almost completely under control of Belgrade, and its activities are harmonised with the regime’s political aims. President Vucic exerts a strong influence over the Serbian Patriarch who, in turn, sanctions all dissent and limits the freedom of our Diocese in Kosovo. Let’s remember that our Diocese used to be a very constructive local actor, always prepared to find authentic, creative and functional solutions to improve lives of our community members in Kosovo. The Diocese used to be an excellent and sincere partner to Kosovo’s institutions. On the other hand, Kurti contributed to the demise of this constructive, stabilising influence of our Diocese by unreasonably declining to implement the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Dečani Monastery’s land ownership. These actions by Kurti and Vučić diminished the role of our Diocese to the detriment of the interests of the Serbian community in Kosovo.
But all of this is also not without consequence for the majority Albanian population in Kosovo. The recent events have disrupted their lives too. The increase in tensions is putting both the Serbian and the Albanian community in Kosovo into a sort of regional ghetto. With the recent escalatory actions on both sides, Kosovar Albanians have become isolated from the longest land border that Kosovo has. They cannot use the border crossings towards Serbia for fear of retaliation, and their freedom of movement is thereby severely limited. This also has a significant negative effect on the Kosovar Albanian diaspora whose members are preparing to visit family over the summer holidays. Furthermore, the recent actions by Kosovo’s government have turned even Kosovo’s relations with Albania more frosty. We urgently need a positive discussion to overcome this situation.
Burak Yalım: International actors such as Russia, the EU, and the US have traditionally had a significant influence on the politics of the Balkans. In your perspective, what role are these actors playing in the current escalation between Serbia and Kosovo? Are their interventions and policies serving to exacerbate the situation or are they helping to mediate?
Rada Trajkovic: When it comes to the influence of the international community, I would say that the international community is a more important influence in Belgrade than in Pristina. This is especially the case as Vučić is more susceptible to outside pressures due to his and his regime’s deep corruption. For many years, the EU supported ‘stabilocracy’ in Serbia, during which time Vucic’s ‘dossier’ of wrongdoings had been filled to the brim. He has used his absolute power to devalue and disenfranchise all institutions but his own presidency. And what he cannot control through his presidential powers, he controls in a non transparent way through the criminal milieu with which he is affiliated. The international community has sadly turned a blind eye to this for far too long.
Kurti does not have such ‘baggage’, but he has a different problem. His government clearly has revolutionary and radical tendencies, which means that its members are often ill-equipped for dealing with complex, long-standing problems. Instead, his government often prefers quick and radical solutions – an approach which is not always useful in times of crisis. ln addition, there is, sadly, also one part of the current Kosovo government that is burdened by ethnic intolerance and has a deep distrust towards Serbs. Although Kurti holds several technically correct positions in the current crisis, his approach is too heavy handed. You can be technically right and yet cause damage to your cause. And his recent actions have created serious security issues on the ground and increased interethnic tensions. This has been made even worse by Belgrade’s decision to encourage the Serbs in the north to abandon the local institutions – especially Kosovo police. As a result, Kosovo police – which are tasked with maintaining the law and order – are now perceived by the Serbs in the north as ‘ethnically Albanian’. Their actions are seen as ethnically or politically motivated, even when that is not the case. Locally, maintaining the rule of law has become a responsibility of one ethnic group – and this is unhealthy. Furthermore, instances of excessive use of force by the police towards the Serbs in the north have also further eroded the trust into this institution. This is a very precarious situation, which puts Kosovo policemen in grave danger and adds to the potential for escalation. The international community continues to prioritise political negotiations but it is clear that solving this security crisis – and ensuring the return of northern Serbs into the institutions, especially the police – must be urgently prioritised instead.
On the other hand, the international community is currently distracted away from the Balkans, fighting fires on multiple fronts. Maintaining the European consensus on Ukraine is requiring a lot of effort. On the other hand, the US as the anchor NATO power remains the key regional influence. We are all waiting for the US to take a more active part in solving the current crisis as there has been a lack of clear messaging from Washington DC towards both Kurti and Vucic. This vacuum is being readily filled by Russian intelligence services who exploit local frustrations and work on strengthening their menacing influence among Serbs. Russians cannot help the Serbs in any real way but can definitely disrupt, distract and damage. An example of this is the recent attack against NATO-KFOR by the Serb protesters in Zvečan. This was a wholly illogical and self-destructive action as NATO-KFOR is the sole guarantor of the safety and security of Kosovo Serbs in the north, especially since the withdrawal of the Serb policemen. This attack was likely inspired by some extremist elements inspired by Russia. On the other hand, Kurti has a strong anti-Russian rhetoric but, ironically, his actions open up a space for malign Russian influence in the north to thrive. This has been noticed by Kosovo’s NATO allies and as a result has damaged Kosovo’s standing with them. Furthermore, this led to a significant distraction for the NATO, and the deployment of additional soldiers from Türkiye – for whose reassuring presence we are all very grateful.
Burak Yalım: Given the severity of the tensions and the stakes involved, what do you believe could be the potential steps toward de-escalation? Are there any initiatives or mechanisms, whether political, diplomatic, or community-led, that could help to ease the current crisis and build a pathway towards sustainable peace?
Rada Trajkovic: Sustainable peace requires a constructive environment where healthy ‘tissue’ of democracy can grow and multiply freely. Currently, criminal elements and extreme ideologies are still strongly influencing our debate. This has to stop. And this requires a joint effort of all parties: Pristina, Belgrade and the international community. Kosovo’s approach so far has been to adopt an aggressive rhetoric and make arrests of some people in the north suspected of involvement in criminal activities – but it is clear that the individuals who are arrested have no real power. The real seat of criminal power in the north is outside of Kosovo – in central Serbia. The main strongmen in charge of the northern Kosovo already sought refuge in central Serbia due to their closeness to Vučić’s regime. They are safely out of reach to Kosovo’s authorities. So, instead of encouraging the largely symbolic arrests of minor figures in northern Kosovo, the international community should urge Belgrade to bring to justice the key criminal strongmen located on the territory that Serbia controls.
On the other hand, Kurti must soften his ideological stance and stop trying to police the heart and minds of Kosovo Serbs. They will always feel a loyalty and love for Serbia, just as Kosovar Albanians feel a special bond with Albania. This is completely natural. But his aggressive efforts to stifle Kosovo Serb’s ethnic identity is counterproductive. Before the recent crisis, there were many people in the north who were willing to integrate into Kosovo’s system. Today, this number has fell significantly. No state can win the war against people’s personal ethnic identity. The US DAS Gabriel Escobar recognised this and has encouraged Kosovo to embrace the Kosovo Serbs’s right to dual citizenship and links to Serbia.Overall, people on all sides are craving normalcy and want to see the tensions decline. Maintaining the radical course is counterproductive as it encourages only the most harmful extremes on both sides. Instead, we need more compassion for one another and our respective positions.
Burak Yalım extends his deepest gratitude to Ms. Trajkovic for taking the time to share her valuable insights on these complex issues. The insightful conversation with her contributes greatly to our understanding of the current state of affairs in the Balkans, and we are incredibly grateful for her input.