The vice president of the Serbian List party Milan Radoicic has confessed to organising an armed group of Serbs that clashed fatally with Kosovan security forces in September. However, many questions about the events of September 24 — including whether there was foreign involvement — remain unanswered.
Radoicic’s confession and his statement that he acted without Belgrade’s knowledge takes the heat off Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Although Serbian List’s links to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) still bring the events uncomfortably close to the authorities in Belgrade, it is clear that there was nothing for Vucic to gain from the clashes in northern Kosovo. On the contrary, Serbia has lost the high ground it briefly occupied due to Pristina’s failure to de-escalate tensions in the north by avoiding obligations from 2013 Brussels Agreement.
Suspicion thus turns to Russia, which has a large and longstanding intelligence operation in the Balkans, especially Serbia, that it uses to promote its own interests. The frozen conflict between Belgrade and Pristina and occasional dramatic events in which Moscow is not directly (or at least too obviously) involved give it room for various manoeuvres. Right now, the conflict in northern Kosovo distracts from the war in Ukraine. If the Western community focuses on Kosovo and turns against Serbia, Ukraine won’t be the centre of attention, and the bad guys will again be Serbs, not only Russians.
Radoicic, publicly known as “tzar of the North”, admitted via his lawyer Goran Petronijevic that he organised the incident in the north Kosovo village of Banjska that resulted in the deaths of four people, according to a statement read by Petronijevic at a press conference on September 29.
A Kosovan policeman and three ethnic Serbs were killed in the clashes between Kosovo’s police and the armed group of local Serbs on September 24. The immediate responses of the governments in Belgrade and Pristina were to blame each other. Even though their descriptions of the incident are identical, the two sides have different interpretations of the events and the causes.
For Pristina, it was a “terrorist attack” backed by the Serbian government and for Belgrade a consequence of Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s pressure on Serbs in Kosovo.
Vucic has denied Pristina’s accusations that Belgrade backed the group, and Radoicic underlined in his letter that he was acting without support from Belgrade.
“I haven’t informed anyone from the government in Serbia or local structure, I haven’t had any help from them because, by then, we have already had different positions,” Radoicic wrote.
Serbia’s reputation damaged
Radoicic’s motivation for publicly taking responsibility for the incidents is unclear — unless it was pressure from party circles because of potential damage that the incident could cause. Serbian List, the dominant political party in the north of Kosovo, is an unofficial wing of the SNS. Radoicic resigned from the party shortly before his letter was read out.
Linking Radoicic with the SNS was already jeopardising Serbia’s international position because of Radoicic’s previous reputation. The US Treasury Office’s of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions against Radoicic back in December, alongside 13 other individuals, for organised crime, BIRN reported.
By confirming accusations made by Pristina of official Serbian involvement, Radoicic’s confession makes it harder for Serbia or the international community to force Pristina to form the Association of Serbian Municipalities (ZSO).
Before the Banjska incident, Serbia had a slight advantage thanks to the stubbornness of Kurti, who refuses to fulfil the obligation from the 2013 Brussels Agreement to set up the ZSO. This — together with Kurti’s failure to de-escalate tensions in northern Kosovo in recent months — led to so-called ‘punitive measures’ imposed by the EU on Kosovo and a withdrawing of US support, which has been the backbone of Kosovo’s independence for years.
Kurti’s excuse is that giving that much autonomy to Serbs, would help them “join Serbia” but his real reason is to show his domestic public that he is not a man of compromise. In order to stay in power in Kosovo, he has to prove he is not like the politicians before him and that he doesn’t accept deals with Serbia.
Thus, Pristina’s most urgent goal is to soften the US and EU when it comes to the formation of the ZSO.
If Pristina finds a way to prove that the clash in Banjska was backed by Belgrade, that will likely lessen the international community’s pressure to set up the ZSO and give Kurti a pretext to exert tighter control over the Serb-dominated north.
The first step on that road is to get rid of Serbian List. If he manages to declare Serbian List a terrorist organisation, he gets rid of the ZSO because the ZSO cannot be formed without Serbian List.
Kurti calls for sanctions
Kurti has already called on the West to impose sanctions against Serbia. Vucic, meanwhile, seemed shocked by the incident on September 24, and appeared genuine when he denied any connection to it. Certainly, he won’t benefit from it. In fact, he can lose a lot. Not only is creating the ZSO impossible under the current circumstances, there are also new risks, from instability inside Serbia to potential international sanctions.
Well aware of the potential problems, three days after the incident in Banjska village, he begged the international community to not pressure Serbia. “You know whose fault this is,” he underlined on the evening talk show “Oko” (An Eye) on the public broadcaster Radio Televizija Srbije (RTS).
Neither the EU nor the US have yet taken any retributive steps against the two sides, though European Commission spokesman Peter Stano has said it is a possibility. Nato, meanwhile, authorised additional forces for its mission in Kosovo, KFOR. As part of this effort, UK forces will deploy 600 solders, reads the statement posted on the UK government webpage.
What the Kremlin gains
Even after Radoicic’s confession there remain questions about the events of September 24. Why were Serbs setting up a barricade? How did Kosovo’s police learn so quickly about what was happening in an exclusively Serb area where the main focus is on religious tourism? How did Radoicic get to central Serbia after the incident?
This opens space for suspicion that a ‘foreign factor’ meddled, and the only ‘foreign factor’ that could see benefits of conflict in Kosovo is Moscow.
As well as distracting from the war in Ukraine, it weakens the Serbian government on the domestic and international scene and damages its relations with the West. The more problems Serbia has with Kosovo, the more it turns away from the West and towards Russia. But this is bad for Serbia as it becomes less attractive to Western investors, and as a result quality of life falls and it turns even more towards Moscow.
Russia already has a presence in the region. Even though Russian soldiers left the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) back in 2003, Russians never left Kosovo. Moscow doesn’t recognise Kosovo’s independence but was the first foreign country to open a representative office in Pristina. Russians are well accepted by Serbs mainly because the Western countries are seen as the main supporters of Kosovo’s independence and as such enemies of the Serbian population there.
When it comes to Serb-dominated north Kosovo, Russians’ popularity has been growing since 2011, when Serbs protested against the installation of administrative lines between Kosovo and central Serbia. The Russian embassy in Serbia supplied the Serbs on barricades with blankets, food and indoctrination. This was followed by modest donations to Serbian households in the four Serb municipalities of northern Kosovo, Zvecan, Zubin Potok, Leposavic and North Mitrovica. The opening of the Russian center for human rights NGO in North Mitrovica was announced in 2014.
Besides these formal steps, there are informal infiltrations. These have raised suspicions Moscow knew about the presence of the armed group and tipped Kosovan officials off. Videos and publicly available interpretations of the incident, mainly coming from Kosovan officials, indicate that they may have known that Serbs were going to try to do something and thus planned to intercept them.
Nikola Lunic of the Belgrade based Council for Strategic Policy (CFSP) called the incident in Banjska a “classic intelligence operation in which Pristina’s forces knew something was going to happen”. He claimed to the morning talk show Probudi se on Nova S, on September 27, that “foreign factors gave Pristina information and that’s how Pristina was so ready.”
“It could be seen [that they were ready] in the way police position snipers, real time broadcast from drones,” Lunic said. He added that the incident does not benefit Serbia or Serbs in Kosovo, but only Kosovo and certain “foreign factors”.
“Moscow obviously has an interest to diversify conflicts in Ukraine and to have the hot spots in other parts of the world,” Lunic added. Lunic is not alone in this belief. Besides analysts, there are many similar comments from ordinary people on social networks and news portals.
Since the incident, Belgrade and the international community have been trying to deescalate the tensions. However, the propaganda war that was launched has made this harder.
Platforms controlled by the Kremlin have been loud enough in glorifying the three killed Serbs to create a credible case for potential Russia involvement.
Telegram channels and pro-Kremlin media (whose names I have not provided in order to avoid promoting them in any way), overwhelmed the Serbian public with content created to trigger an emotional reaction — hate for Albanians and a rejection of the political West. While the Kosovan side loudly broadcast its success in thwarting a terrorist attack and killing terrorists, the three dead Serbs became heroes and freedom fighters to the Serbian public. There was even an initiative led by a popular anti-vaxxer and openly pro-Russian doctor to make a list of those who publicly said that the killed men weren’t heroes. This narrative started before their identities were even known to the public.
Glorifying the three men put additional pressure on the government in Belgrade; the public expected officials to join in with the glorification, while the international community expected Serbia to condemn the action. Vucic tried to do both. He declared a day of mourning at the same time as clearly distancing official Serbia from the incident, and repeated few times that he didn’t know and cannot assume what was going on. Many do not trust him, but if he is telling the truth, the tragedy only brings additional problems for him, at domestic and international level.
Within Serbia, opponents of Vucic see him as one of the main culprits alongside Nato (through KFOR) and the EU (through its mission EULEX). The opposition’s focus was on Vucic and, as usual, no one dared to speak about Russian involvement because it wouldn’t be a popular theory at a moment when the whole nation is crying for lost lives.
Serbs in Kosovo were always scared of being governed by Kurti, a leftwing nationalist, and their lives changed after he came into power.
From the other side, the latest incident has worsened Kosovar Albanians’ feelings about Serbs. Memories about repression by Belgrade are still fresh. Even though the number of Albanians in Kosovo grew significantly after many escaped from the harsh communist regime in Albania to Yugoslavia, in the decades after WWII they were never fully accepted by other national groups in Yugoslavia and were often marginalised by the government.
For decades Albanians were the ones forming parallel institutions, protesting against the government in Belgrade and refusing to perform their duties within state-owned companies and institutions (including hospitals). The repression of Albanians escalated during the 1990s after Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic lost wars in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
This culminated in hundreds of thousands of Kosovan Albanians fleeing Kosovo in 1999. Now the positions have changed. Since 1999, about 200,000 Serbs were displaced from Kosovo to central Serbia. The Serb minority in northern Kosovo is fearful, and many would like to leave .
The incident in north Kosovo took place just a week after Azerbaijan’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh that brought the separatist region back under Baku’s control. The Armenians that inhabited Nagorno-Karabakh have been fleeing for fear of Azerbaijani reprisals. This is unfolding despite Russia long being considered an ally of Armenia. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Armenia was expecting Moscow to help. However, it waited in vain.
Just like northern Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh is another frozen conflict in Europe. What scared everyone in the Balkans was that the destiny of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh — or the African states where Russia is seen as having had a hand in recent coups — could happen to Serbs from North Kosovo.
Armenia was an ally to Russia, but Moscow had been unhappy with Yerevan’s increased relations with the US. Serbia, while militarily neutral, is a friend to Russia but has been building ties with the West. The events in Nagorno-Karabakh — and potentially those in north Kosovo — showed that Russia is dangerous as a friend as well as an enemy.
Ann Smith has been following and writing about transitional justice, war crimes, human rights, security (defence and terrorism), European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations and international relations in the Balkans since 2000. She holds a masters degree in humanitarian international law as well as in journalism/political sciences.