Alicia Kearns: ‘The UK must find its backbone in the Balkans’

Impunity breeds contempt for the rule of law and order. We are seeing this in the Balkans, where organised attacks on law enforcement and increasingly frequent communal violence by Serbian secessionists in Kosovo and Bosnia require urgent international attention. 

The consequences of failure for a region that has already suffered so much so recently do not bear thinking about. We urgently need the international community to reassess its approach, prioritise accountability, and strengthen security measures to re-open the way for a peaceful and prosperous future free from the conflicts of the past.

The recent events in Kosovo have unveiled a deeply troubling escalation of violence. A police officer was tragically murdered this weekend during a brazen attack in the north of the country. Looking at the roughly thirty belligerents responsible we see individuals more akin to soldiers, armed with personnel carriers and military grade systems. I previously warned of the danger of such groups operating in the North of Kosovo in a Parliamentary speech in July.

Given the type of equipment the militants had there are serious questions as to whether they were supported and organised by the Government of Serbia directly. The leader of the armed group – who has taken responsibility – was Milan Radoicic, the Vice President of the Serb List party, and a confidant of President Vucic. If the attack was conducted with support serbiafrom Serbia – which he claims it was not – there must be firm action taken by the UK, US and EU. There is no room for ‘both sideism’ if as it seems, the Vice President of a political party has taken up arms and committed a murder of a serving police officer.

Accountability for these actions is paramount, particularly for Belgrade, which has consistently evaded repercussions. Concerningly, the Radoicic is claiming he is happy to be taken to Serbia to face prosecutorial engagement, but not Kosovo where the crime was committed and where a family is mourning. Radoicic must face justice in Kosovo where the family whose loved one was stolen, can face him in court. But accountability extends beyond this immediate act. 

Despite Kosovo’s commitment to collaboration with the UK, US, and EU, it has faced a series of unjust recriminations, beginning after the Serbian Government supported a boycott of municipal elections by Kosovan Serbs in the north. We and our allies voiced our support for the elections to be held before backtracking and punishing Kosovo for installing the mayors, due to the lack of turn out from ethnic Serbs. There was little to no criticism of Serbia’s Government despite their well-documented links to the Serb List party and their support for the boycott.

It is time for an urgent revaluation that puts fairness and balance at the heart of our approach to Serbia – Kosovo relations. The recent trend of punishing Kosovo and pandering to the increasingly autocratic Vucic is leading us deeper into a cycle of violence, instability, and ill-feeling, whilst the light at the end of the tunnel of normalisation and EU membership for both dims ever more.  

It is also worth remembering that Serbia has a GDP of $63 billion and a military budget of $1.4 billion compared to Kosovo’s GDP of $9.4 billion and military expenditure of just over $54 million. This is not an even competition, and our approach should recognise Kosovo’s vulnerability and need of assistance.

First, we must strengthen security measures. The UK, as a member of the Quint, should assume a more active role in the peace dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. Our current passivity is untenable in the face of such a volatile situation. The US and the EU should also adopt a resolute posture when addressing Serbia’s leadership for their role in stoking instability, aligning with Putin, and increasingly autocratic tendencies at home and abroad. President Vučić should not be exempt from criticism. Indeed his first meeting the morning after the murder of the Police Officer was with the Russian Ambassador to Serbia. 

Striking a balance between incentives and consequences is vital to ensure accountability and progress. Swift and equitable accountability for acts of aggression is crucial in discouraging further violence and dispelling any notion of appeasement. These basic tenants of negotiations should be remembered and reintegrated into the Quint’s collective approach.

We must also negotiate from a position of strength by increasing deterrence measures and augmenting KFOR’s 4,500 troops. Also, the UK should re-join the EUFOR peacekeeping force in Bosnia when it is renewed in November. If Russia vetoes its renewal NATO should be ready to deploy an alternative peacekeeping force to Bosnia to avoid a power vacuum. 

Any escalation in the Balkans would have ripple effects throughout Europe, making the reinforcement of security measures imperative. EULEX should conduct an impartial investigation, devoid of political interference, to shed light on the involvement of Belgrade authorities or actors in the murder of the Kosovar police officer and the alleged orchestrated road blockades. If Belgrade is found to be in any way involved there must be swift and robust repercussions. Additionally, KFOR should share intelligence on arms caches and movements with participating member nations to effectively combat illegal activities.

We must promote dialogue and inter-ethnic understanding. The government of Kosovo must outline its unwavering commitment to supporting Serb-Kosovan communities, ensuring their representation and active participation in democracy without unwarranted foreign interference. Engaging the five EU states that do not recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty will provide a substantial boost to Kosovo’s trajectory towards EU and NATO membership, while solidifying the inviolability of its territorial integrity. 

Finally, the establishment of a security alliance between the US, UK, other willing NATO member states, and Kosovo until Kosovo attains full NATO membership should be explored. Such an arrangement would address immediate security concerns and pave the path for long-term stability in the region.

The current state of affairs in Kosovo and Serbia calls for a resolute and statesmanlike response. Impunity for acts that breed contempt for rule and order cannot be tolerated. Accountability, open dialogue, and robust security measures are imperative to ensure enduring stability in the region. It is time for the UK to adopt a more muscular policy in the Balkans. We are no longer constrained by EU consensus and non-recognisers and must be more inventive in our diplomacy, so we must find not just our voice, but our backbone, stop standing on the sidelines, and take action where we have a duty to support our allies.

We own the success and potential failure of Kosovo and have more responsibility than most to stand by them and ensure we do not see a return to the brutality of the 1990’s.

Failure is not an option in the era of deterrence diplomacy, and action must be taken now to prevent further escalation and secure a peaceful future for all in the Balkans. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.