Tactical Maneuvers in Kosovo

The EU attempt to loosen Serbia’s ties to Russia with tactical maneuvers but got stuck. Experts demand that China’s influence in Serbia also be weakened.

BERLIN/BELGRADE (Own report) – The EU’s attempt to use tactical maneuvers in Kosovo to loosen Serbia’s traditional ties to Russia have gotten stuck in the runup to today’s EU summit meeting. Trying to win Belgrade over to the West, the EU and the USA have unexpectedly taken Serbia’s side in the recently escalating violent conflict between the Serbian-speaking and Albanian-speaking populations in northern Kosovo. Serbia’s recent activities of scaling back its purchases of Russian raw materials and weapons appear to be an attempt to somewhat detach itself from the traditional Russian influence. However, the EU has so far failed to defuse the conflict in northern Kosovo to Serbia’s advantage. The Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) has now warned that not only Russia but also China has considerably increased its influence on non-EU members in Southeastern Europe and has become the single largest investor, particularly in Serbia. To oust China, SWP recommends that the EU denounces "dirty" investments from the People’s Republic.

Wooing Belgrade

The EU and the Unites States have used a tactical maneuver in the recent escalation of the conflict in northern Kosovo (german-foreign-policy.com reported [1]) to attempt to loosen Serbia’s ties to Russia and draw it closer to Western countries. Following a contested election in Kosovo boycotted by the Serbian-speaking minority, violent clashes broke out in the majority Serbian-speaking northern Kosovo, when the Pristina government tried to inaugurate Albanian-speaking officials, elected with only few votes from the Albanian-speaking minority of the region. In this conflict, Brussels and Washington have not sided with the Kosovo government, apparently for the first time, but instead demanded that it repeats the election and takes further steps to calm the situation. When this did not happen, initial punitive measures followed. The USA has excluded Kosovo from participating in the Defender Europe 23 exercises, the EU has canceled meetings with Kosovo politicians on short notice.[2] Observers unanimously see this as an attempt to woo Serbia, which is a protective power for the Serbian-speaking minority in Kosovo, and thereby to lure it away from Russia. Belgrade has traditionally cooperated closely with Moscow.

Alternatives to Russia

The West’s wooing of Belgrade was sparked by Serbia’s recent activities that could be interpreted as signaling an attempt to somewhat detach itself from Russia’s influence. For example, even though Gazprom still maintains a majority share in Serbia’s Naftna industrije Srbije (NIS) oil company, Belgrade has reduced its Russian share of oil imports from around 84 percent in 2015 to only 24.5 percent in 2021.[3] In addition, under EU pressure, it has begun to diversify its natural gas suppliers. Before it was almost fully dependent on natural gas deliveries from Russia, however, as of February 1, a new pipeline went into construction to deliver Azerbaijani natural gas to Serbia via Bulgaria. The EU is mostly funding the project.[4] Belgrade has signed military cooperation agreements with Moscow and China, and still mainly uses Russian – and now also Chinese – weaponry. However, it is currently planning to buy Rafale fighter planes from France rather than Russian jets, and even purchase US military cargo planes.[5] Questions are also being raised in Moscow, concerning how nearly 3,500 Serbian-produced missiles came to Ukraine – according to information from Belgrade, of course, without government knowledge.[6]

Fruitless Discussions

The EU and the USA are now bogged down in their efforts to lure Belgrade away from Moscow by supporting it against Pristina. Last Thursday they summoned Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić to Brussels under massive threats, to induce them to at least accept the demand for new elections in Northern Kosovo. However, Vucic refused a face-to-face meeting with Kurti, only an indirect exchange, wherein which Vučić and Kurti separately negotiated respectively with EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell.[7] No agreement could even be reached on the question of the modalities for early new elections in northern Kosovo. It is unclear how the conflict should be dealt with. Following Monday’s EU foreign ministers meeting, Borrell announced that Brussels would revert to hard sanctions, including financial sanctions, if there is no progress soon. It was reported that the EU summit that begins today could take up the question of the recent escalation of the Kosovo conflict.[8] Tensions are continuing to rise, where over the past few days, several bomb attacks – including at a police station – have been registered.[9]

Beijing is Gaining Influence

Even if it were possible to somewhat loosen the bonds between Serbia and Russia, the situation in Southeast Europe would still not be satisfactory for the EU. Germany’s Berlin-based Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), for example, concludes in a recent study that not only Moscow (still) has considerable influence in Belgrade but Beijing as well. According to the study, in the course of the past 12 years, over 50 percent of the project funds invested by China in Southeast Europe, and four-fifths of the investments in infrastructure went to the non-EU member nations of Southeast Europe, (Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, as well as the illegally separated Serbian province of Kosovo). Sixty-one of the 136 projects carried out by China in these countries between 2013 and 2021 were contracted with Serbia. Their total value amounted to €18,77 billion.[10] This made the People’s Republic of China Serbia’s largest single investor in 2022, closely trailing behind the entire EU. The combined investments by EU member countries for 2022 came to €1.46 billion. Beijing’s influence in Serbia is therefore obvious.

“Dirty Investments from China”

SWP recommends a targeted approach be undertaken to obtain a reduction, not only of Russian, but also of Chinese influence in the non-EU countries of Southeast Europe, generally, but particularly in Serbia. It proposes for example that the countries of the region should be oriented toward “a gradual EU accession” – with early initial partial steps to show rapid success. It also recommends that Brussels specifically reinforce its “investments in solar and wind energy” and “use these as strategic instruments” for positioning itself as a favorable factor of influence vis à vis Russia and China. This could particularly win points with Serbia’s ecology movement, which, for example has a negative view of the Chinese investments in Serbia’s natural resources, due to the ecological pollution they cause. SWP states explicitly that “the opportunity” should not be missed to use investments in renewable energy sources, “also as a narrative instrument against ‘dirty’ investments (e.g. from Russia or China).”[11]

No Longer Credible

Experts, at a distance from the government, admittedly see the EU’s chances of success as negative. “The problem” confronting the EU is that following decades of fruitless accession promises, it is no longer “credible,” when it promises rapprochement to the non-members of Southeast Europe, explains Florian Bieber, a political scientist at the Karl Franzens University in Graz. This kind of enticement attempts are simply “no longer realistic” today.[12] Brussels is thus lacking a key lever for attempting to entrench its influence in Southeast Europe.


[1] See also Unrest in Kosovo (II).

[2] Thomas Gutschker, Michael Martens: Keine Freunde mehr? Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 15.06.2023.

[3] Marina Vulović: Wirtschaftliche Beziehungen zwischen dem Westbalkan und Nicht-EU-Ländern. SWP-Aktuell 2023/A41. Berlin, 26.06.2023.

[4] Bulgaria and Serbia diversify energy supplies. apnews.com 01.02.2023.

[5] Aleksandar Vasovic, Ivana Sekularac: Serbia discusses price of French rafale jets, in shift from ally Russia. finance.yahoo.com 09.06.2023.

[6] Liefert auch Serbien Waffen? Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 07.06.2023.

[7] Alexandra Brzozowski: No breakthrough at EU crisis talks with Kosovo, Serbia leaders. euractiv.com 23.06.2023.

[8] Alexandra Brzozowski: Early elections in north Kosovo next step, EU says. euractiv.com 27.06.2023.

[9] Alice Taylor: Explosions, and attacks continue in North Kosovo. euractiv.com 28.06.2023.

[10], [11] Marina Vulović: Wirtschaftliche Beziehungen zwischen dem Westbalkan und Nicht-EU-Ländern. SWP-Aktuell 2023/A41. Berlin, 26.06.2023.

[12] „Die EU ist als Vermittlerin nicht glaubwürdig". tagesschau.de 26.06.2023.