Putin is plotting a new front in his war on the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Eritrea's President at the Kremlin in Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Eritrea's President at the Kremlin in Moscow

As a child of the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s, the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic must well understand how the bitter sectarian and religious divisions that continue to haunt the Balkans can so easily result in violence. Bosnia, after all, is where the horrors of the First World War began after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated while driving through Sarajevo.

In his 2013 biography, Serve to Win, Djokovic movingly recalled how, as an 11-year-old, he was asleep in his bed in Belgrade when he was awoken by loud explosions. They were caused by the Nato bombing offensive against the Serbian capital, aimed at ending the Kosovo conflict, where Serbian troops were accused of conducting ethnic cleansing against local Albanians.

The Serbs have always regarded themselves as the victims of Western attempts to prevent them from safeguarding their heritage. It is an attitude that no doubt explains Djokovic’s ill-advised intervention at the French Open tennis championship this week, where the 22 Grand Slam titles winner wrote “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the Violence” on a camera lens in Serbian.

Djokovic appeared to be responding to the latest eruption of violence in Kosovo earlier this week when 25 Nato peacekeepers were reported to have been injured in clashes with ethnic Serbs.

This came in the aftermath of recent local elections, which were boycotted by local Serbs who comprise the majority in northern Kosovo and have never accepted the country’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia. While ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 per cent of the population in Kosovo as a whole, the Serb minority has long demanded the implementation of an EU-brokered 2013 deal for the creation of an association of autonomous municipalities in their area.

In a move that subsequently drew criticism from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the US, ethnic Albanian mayors occupied offices in the Serb-dominated region, prompting fierce clashes between ethnic Serbs and Albanians.

While the clashes represent the latest manifestation of the long-running tensions that resulted in the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s, they should also serve to remind Western leaders that they ignore this strategically important region of southern Europe at their peril.

With Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine not going according to plan, there is nothing Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, would like more than to see a new conflict erupt in Europe. It could oblige the Western alliance to divert crucial resources that are currently being channelled towards the Ukrainian military.

In this context, the Balkans provides fertile territory where the Kremlin can indulge its appetite for political meddling with the aim of provoking further unrest in Europe.

The desire of post-Soviet Russia to expand its influence in the Balkans dates back to the collapse of Yugoslavia, which revived the great power competition in the region that had existed for centuries. Moscow has been alarmed at Western efforts to grant the former Yugoslav republics membership of institutions such as the EU and Nato.

To arrest this trend, the Russian intelligence services have been actively seeking to undermine pro-European regimes, most notably in Montenegro where Moscow was accused of trying to carry out a coup d’état during the 2016 parliamentary elections. More recently, the Kremlin has sought to exploit the unresolved tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, as well as those affecting Bosnia and Herzegovina, to expand its leverage, cause further instability and weaken the influence of the EU and Nato.

Thus, while the recent disturbances in northern Kosovo are a relatively parochial matter, they have all the potential – with Moscow’s help – to escalate into a far bigger crisis, especially when people such as Djokovic, whose father Srdjan hails from the area, is willing to jump on the pro-Serbian bandwagon. The Djokovic family’s sympathies certainly seemed evident at the Australian Open in January, when Srdjan was seen posing with fans holding Russian flags.

Nor is it just Russia that is keen to thwart Western efforts to stabilise the Balkans cauldron. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long cast covetous eyes over the Balkans, where he still nurtures ambitions of restoring Turkey’s Ottoman-era dominance.

The EU has been increasingly concerned over Erdogan’s attempts to expand Ankara’s influence in the western Balkans, especially in countries such as Kosovo and Bosnia that have significant Muslim populations. By far Erdogan’s most outrageous attempt to stake his claim to the Balkans was his plan, prior to the 2018 Turkish presidential elections, to hold a rally in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.

With both Russia and Turkey keen to consolidate their presence in the Balkans, this is no time for the West to ignore a region that has all the potential to create a new conflict in the heart of Europe.

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