Once Upon a Time…Never Again? Why Kosovo is crucial to European security.

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Little precious things

In central Pristina, not far from the bustling main strip, there is an exhibition dedicated to the 1133 children who were killed or remain missing because of the Kosovo War. It is a quiet, understated shrine. Every child casualty is listed on a wall and, in a second room, personal items are displayed: Schoolbags, sweatshirts, storybooks, football jerseys, a bicycle, teddy bears. Suspended in their glass cabinets, they remain as they were found- crumpled, heart-wrenchingly small, and some still stained with the blood of their owner. 

It is hard to look at. The room is a distillation of tragedy, carefully put together by Kosovo’s Humanitarian Law Centre, who meticulously record victims and educate the public. The exhibition is called Once upon a time…never again. These ‘little precious things’ floating peacefully in their glass boxes tell the story of an ‘interrupted childhood’, and the horrors endured by those children living in a fairytale-gone-wrong. They are, like their owners, suspended in time- forever young, eternally innocent, dressed in their bright 90s colors.  

It is an unfortunately necessary reminder of what happened here, and of what is at stake in contemporary political discourse. The bloody ethnic violence that erupted in the 1990s and the following NATO intervention have left deep scars and wounds that are yet to heal. I came to Pristina as part of a summer academy about ‘peacebuilding in post-conflict areas’.. Over the next ten days, under the sweltering Balkan sun, I became infatuated with and haunted by this country. The Kosova capital almost seems like a city that has moved on, looking  much the same as any other in the region- a mismatch of Soviet-era brutalist blocks, new developments, Mediterranean farmhouses and Orthodox Churches, Cathedrals and Mosques surrounded by breathtaking mountains. However, there are plenty of subtle signs that all is not well. Memories of war here are fresh and ever-present. The pain, pride, and propaganda remain.

Back in the News

Kosovo briefly returned to Western media last May because of controversy surrounding its Mayoral elections. Boycotts in Serb majority areas led to Kosova-Albanians being elected with very small numbers of votes. They were installed into their positions with the help of armed police who also removed Serb flags. This led to violent protests from the Serbian population, attacks against NATO peacekeepers, and a diplomatic crisis between Kosovo, Serbia, and EU and US observers. 

Recent violence, and the NATO/EU response, have ratcheted up anxieties and tensions. On the 29th of September, NATO authorized additional peacekeeping forces for Kosovo after a gunbattle between Kosovo police and heavily armed Serbs who barricaded themselves in a Monastery. Relations between the two countries are at the worst they have been for years.

Unease on the Ground

It is easy for  Westerners to  think that those involved in the wars of Yugoslavia have moved on, and we can too. However, the task of creating a lasting peace in the Balkans is not a done deal. Kosovo has come remarkably far as a multi-ethnic representative democracy and society. However, there are signs of underlying ethnic tensions and memories of the past loom large. Over the summer, there was a palpable unease that occasionally surfaced: The road signs in Serbian and Albanian had the Serb crossed out by black graffiti and the beautiful Orthodox monastery was surrounded by barbed wire. The same is true when you talk to the locals: We chatted with a taxi driver about football, food, and life in his country. We ask if he lives in Pristina. He says yes, but he drives all over, including to Serbia. One of the braver members of our group asks what he thinks about Serbs. He replies calmly, “I killed Serbs”.

This tension is most noticeable in the Northern city of Mitrovica. We arrive on a sweltering, sweaty day and the Ibar River which splits the city in two is sparkling under dappled trees. North of the river is the Serb majority area, easily identified by the sun-washed flags fluttering in the breeze. The South is Albanian, and there are just as many flags. Between them is the bridge over the Ibar, guarded by the Carabinieri. We cross the bridge, as we are told people regularly do, but are met with suspicious stares and a few jeers from the Serb side. Ironically, I notice a small sign on the bridge displaying the EU’s motto, ‘united in diversity.’ This could not be further from the truth. Inter-ethnic tensions remain in Kosovo, and the alliance of Western states that led the nation building process have a duty to ensure there is not a descent into further violence. 

Shifting Alliances

The West has been Kosovo’s strongest supporter. It came to its rescue in 1999 and invested money and time into building its economy and political system in its own image. It became something of a model state, with the V-Dem index calling it a ‘full electoral democracy’ ranked at the top of states in the Western Balkans. However, this support has started to waver. The West has been courting the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and has sanctioned Kosovo. This is in part due to accusations that Kosovo mishandled the mayoral election crisis, as well as a distaste for the ruling Vetëvendosje party. The party is left-wing, skeptical about too much foreign interference, and has been accused of being populist. It is also part of a strategy to ‘Westernize Serbia’ and bring it out of Russia’s sphere of influence.

This is a grave strategic miscalculation. Kosovars have the highest support for NATO and EU accession in the region,  but the lack of international support for this has caused widespread domestic frustration. The unfulfilled promises and dashed hopes have led to support for a party that advocates Kosovar self-determination and a break with Western neoliberalism. Although the party advocates for a more social-democratic economy, it is still well within mainstream Western politics. It is committed to parliamentary democracy and advocates for NATO and EU membership. The idea that Kosovo should in any way be punished for making use of its Western-inspired democracy is bizarre and self-defeating. Such actions can only lead to greater disillusionment and potential political extremism. 

The Courting of Serbia

Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began in 2022, the West has appeased and courted the Serbian government. The Western strategy (if one can even call it that) seems to be to try and win over Serbia and break its historic alliance with Russia. So far Serbia remains closely aligned with Russia, and has neither fully condemned its invasion of Ukraine nor joined the EU in enacting sanctions. Furthermore, under President Vučić the country has become more and more authoritarian, nationalistic, and aggressive. It has also refused to consider EU-brokered agreements regarding Kosovo and consistently blocked any move towards UN accession for the country. The government has documented links to organized crime and has signed a security agreement with Putin. Vučić has denied the massacres committed by Serbs in Kosovo and made false accusations that Kosovo is ethnically cleansing Serbs in the North. This is concerningly similar to Putin’s justification for his war against Ukraine. Nevertheless, Washington and Brussels put exclusive blame on the Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti for the failure of the EU negotiations.

Dr. Aidan Hehir, a reader in International Relations at the University of Westminster and an expert on transitional justice, humanitarian intervention, and state-building in Kosovo, told me that “we are currently confronted with a remarkable situation; the most popular government ever elected in Kosovo – one which is committed to EU and NATO integration and making great strides in tackling corruption, improving democracy, and managing the economy – is being punished for not accommodating the interests of Serbia, a country aligned with Russia, ruled by a corrupt elite intimately involved with criminal gangs, and actively stoking violent unrest throughout the region.” 

People Matter 

At the heart of this are the people of Kosovo. They have endured so much and done exactly what the West has asked of them. As Dr. Hehir went on to say, “The people of Kosovo should have been commended for the way they maintained hope for progressive change and acted to achieve this through the exercise of collective agency and grass-roots political mobilization”. However, due to Western strategic miscalculation and myopia, instead “they have been treated as pariahs; the way their democratically elected government has been bullied, castigated and punished by Western states since it came to power in 2021 is a damning indictment of the craven outlook and cynical priorities that now guide Western foreign policy”.

Now these people are exposed to the increasingly aggressive Serb regime without the essential support of the EU and NATO. History clearly shows that when nationalist sentiments are unleashed in this part of the world, the consequences are disastrous. The West cannot allow itself to turn its back on Kosovo now. If Kosovo’s erstwhile Western allies continue to appease Serbia, as Dr. Hehir put it, they will do nothing but “flaunt their own moral bankruptcy” and put the people of Kosovo at risk.

Never Again?

In the Balkans peace and prosperity must be the priority. However, currently, Western actors are failing to deliver this, and the risk of wider destabilization and conflict is unacceptably high. Liberal democracy’s closest ally in the region is Kosovo, and support for its independence and security must be unwavering. Flirtations with the Serbian regime are not only morally questionable but strategically inept and dangerous. 

What is needed is respect for Kosovo’s democratic decisions, uncompromising commitment to its territorial autonomy (backed up, if needed, by an increased NATO presence), and economic investment. As one young Kosovan told me in a bar in Pristina, you cannot expect to build ‘harmony in a shithole’- peace and moderation are rarely found in places with widespread poverty, unemployment, and chronic ‘brain drain.’ The most intense conflicts continue to dominate Western media, but the stakes between Serbia and Kosovo could not be higher. The echoes of the recent past can clearly be heard, and the West must be serious about preventing a repeat of the horrors of history. We take our eyes off this region at our peril.

Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation:  Kosovo Refugees; These boys carry their family’s bread rations. | Image sourced from Flickr | CC License, no changes made


Laurie is a student at King's College London in the United Kingdom studying history and international relations. He is a member of the YRIS international correspondents program in the 2023-2024 cohort. Laurie is an Applied History Fellow in the Center for Grand Strategy in the Department of War Studies at KCL, a graduate of the Kosovo International Summer Academy, and an editor for the KCL politics journal "Dialogue."