After the armed clashes in Banjska on 24 September, Kosovo’s leadership, several Members of the European Parliament, and multiple observers of the Western Balkans have called for sanctions against Serbia. Governments of the European Union and the United States, meanwhile, are currently insisting that the full investigations against the perpetrators first take place, leaving potential ramifications for Serbia to hang in the air.
Immediately after the attack, Kosovo made it very clear that it regarded official Belgrade as responsible. Its government has released several findings which, it claims, prove that the group of Kosovo Serbs who clashed with the police was organized by Belgrade. On the other hand, official Serbia has denied all allegations and rejected the findings as proof of its involvement.
On Thursday, speaking to journalists at the European Political Community Summit in Grenada, President of Kosovo Vjosa Osmani stated that she did not intend to discuss any issues with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić until sanctions are imposed on Serbia. She added that her goal at the Summit was to gather support for sanctions among the allies of Kosovo.
So far, however, the capitals of EU Member States have not moved on this issue. Earlier this week, European Commission Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Peter Stano said that the EU is ready to consider measures related to Serbia if the Member States decide that they have enough information about the attack in Banjska. That, apparently, is still not the case.
Meanwhile, the United States has not officially weighed in on the issue of sanctions. According to the statement by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, after a phone call with Vučić on 29 September, the priority was to de-escalate the situation and hold those who committed the attack responsible.
Serbia seems to have reacted to the demands for responsibility this week when Milan Radoičić, Kosovo Serb politician and businessman, who admitted to having led the attack in Banjska, was arrested on 3 October. He was charged by the Serbian prosecution with illegal possession and transfer of weapons and being a member of a group that had committed a criminal act. He was released a day later, though his passport was confiscated.
Radoičić is regarded as having close ties to the Serbian ruling party. For those who argue that Belgrade was behind the attack, this serves as additional proof. Whether Radoičić will be sentenced for the action remains to be seen, with the lack of independence and efficiency plaguing the Serbian judiciary.
Nevertheless, the arrest of Radoičić, together with the decision of Serbia to withdraw part of its troops from the Kosovo border, has been described as “good steps” by the US Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill. As of the first week of October, therefore, it remains unclear whether Serbia will suffer any serious consequences for the attack in Banjska, despite the fact that, during a debate in Strasbourg on 3 October, several MEPs demanded the freezing of financial assistance Serbia receives from the European Union.
Sanctions currently unlikely
According to the interlocutors of our portal, chances for the sanctions are currently low. Some modification of the US and EU policy towards the Kosovo-Serbia issue, on the other hand, might take place.
Toby Vogel, senior associate of the Berlin-based Democratization Policy Council, says for European Western Balkans that all the signs are that the Western allies are doubling down on what he describes as their failed policy toward the issue. This policy, according to Vogel, is “to call for a continuation of the dialogue and to continue pressuring the weaker side – Kosovo”.
“The European Commission couldn’t even be bothered to send any relevant representative to the European Parliament’s debate about the incident and its implication for the dialogue on Tuesday night, and both the Commission and the Council representative called on ‘both sides’ to refrain from escalatory steps. The US, likewise, called for an immediate return to the dialogue”, Vogel stresses.
However, he says, there is mounting frustration with the fact that the dialogue hasn’t delivered any significant results, and also over the EU’s handling of the process. This frustration, according to Vogel, is increasing in some of the EU member states that, until Banjska, “bought into the narrative that Serbia is a linchpin of regional stability”.
“They are skeptical that Radoičić acted on his own and are outraged by the glorification of the attackers in Serbia and the Republika Srpska. While sanctions against Serbia or some of its officials seem far-fetched given that the regime has very close allies inside the EU, above all Hungary, there is a growing recognition that Vučić is not our friend and that any strategy that rests on his cooperation is going to be vulnerable to his blackmail”, Vogel says for European Western Balkans.
The EU needs unanimity to impose sanctions, as was evidenced by the measures adopted against Russia since last year. Bilateral sanctions are possible but, according to journalist Boško Jakšić, the behavior of Aleksandar Vučić will determine the reaction of the West.
“If he shows determination in dealing with the militant nationalists from the north of Kosovo, he will receive an amnesty. If he thinks he can continue sending one signal to the world and another to the domestic public, he will find himself in serious trouble”, Jakšić says.
He believes that the West is ready to exert some form of punishment for Banjska. However, the big question remains how to do this.
“If it opts for individual sanctions, it will do little good. There is even a danger of a boomerang effect: that, cornered, Vučić will turn to Moscow to a greater extent than now. Punitive measures against Serbia, which are already being sought by some EU members, proved to be unsuccessful in the case of Kosovo and can also be counterproductive because they would only contribute to the further decline of the Euro-enthusiasm of the Serbian public”, Jakšić points out.
The unsuccessful sanctions against Kosovo that Jakšić mentions were imposed in June and included the suspension of some funding programs, bilateral visits and Kosovo’s participation in high-level meetings. This is the maximum that can currently happen in the case of Serbia, believes Milan Igrutinović, Research Associate at the Institute for European Studies in Belgrade. He does not expect major policy changes of the EU and the US towards Serbia, but more of what he describes as the “tightening of the screws”.
“We should bear in mind that some restrictive measures against Kosovo have been in place for a few months, so we might see a drive to ‘rebalance’ the position of the EU against Serbia in a similar manner. But that would depend on the internal deliberations within the EU, where Hungary might play a ‘spoiler’ for Serbia if there is a near-consensus on restrictive actions against Belgrade”, Igrutinović says.
He says that Serbia’s position on sanctions against Russia has long been spilling over other policy areas and shaping the perceptions of Belgrade in various EU capitals, so not much of the goodwill is left there.
“Washington might be more satisfied thus far: president Vučić was responsive to Secretary Blinken’s request regarding the perceived Serbian army deployment, and the main culprit of the recent attack, Milan Radoičić, was, briefly, arrested and charged after President Vučić promised a judicial action in his CNN interview. Also, official calls by President Vučić for KFOR/NATO to fully provide security in the north of Kosovo will be read by the US as a minor step in the right direction, irrespective of any decision on that”, Igrutinović concludes.
The extent of ties between the group that carried out the attack in Banjska and the official Belgrade is still unknown, and, based on similar unresolved cases in the recent history of the Western Balkans, might not be close to uncovering. The ties might be sufficiently unclear for now to serve as a reason for the West not to impose sanctions on Serbia.
However, the fact that sanctions have become a topic of serious consideration, which was quite far from reality only a couple of years earlier, shows that the situation in the region is developing in an increasingly unstable direction. Maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans, whether they like it or not, is quickly rising on the list of foreign policy priorities of the US and the EU.