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Ukraine is a ‘Sarajevo in the making’, warns Kosovo’s PM

The Independent logo The Independent 03/03/2022 Anna Isaac

Albin Kurti doesn’t want to talk about war. He would rather be drumming up foreign investment and courting the Kosovan diaspora in London.

Kurti was elected as prime minister of the country in March 2021, and he’s keen to emphasise its healthy economic growth; its relatively high vaccination rate compared to other Balkan states and its new commercial court aimed at encouraging investors to the small country.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given fresh urgency to Kosovo’s sense of insecurity and drive to join the transatlantic defence pact, Nato.

“We would like to join Nato as soon as possible,” Kurti says, leaning forward for emphasis. The political leader has used meetings with British officials in London this week to lay out his case for membership.

Brexit has not dented close ties between Pristina and London, officials on both sides claim. British diplomats and military personnel have not forgotten that amid talk of a no-fly zone in Ukraine triggering a third world war, an incident in Kosovo’s capital’s airport in 1999 is considered a historical near-miss for live engagement on Russian and Nato forces.

Still, despite Nato’s historical interventions in the western Balkans, Kosovo is unlikely to be submitted to the defence pact any time soon. Four members, Spain, Romania, Greece and Slovakia, do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. While more than 100 states do recognise it, Kosovo is not a member of the United Nations, thanks to a block from Russia.

It has not stopped historical comparisons between Ukraine and Kosovo from politicians, however. British prime minister, Boris Johnson, has compared the attacks on Ukraine to the Serbian atrocities carried out in Sarajevo in the 1990s.

It’s a parallel that few in the western Balkans had failed to notice, not least Kurti himself. A political activist before seeking election, he did not fight in the conflict that engulfed the western Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia, but he was imprisoned and, according to sources close to him, tortured in Serbia.

“It looks as if this is another Sarajevo in the making. We are looking at a siege of the capital [in Ukraine],” he says.

Kosovans do not see a TV screen when they look at Ukraine at the moment: it brings back sharply their experiences of the recent past, Kurti says, when Serbia carried out massacres and mass expulsions of Kosovan Albanians.

Fear for the elderly and children becomes all-consuming: “Not just every day, but every hour, maybe even every minute. And that amount of anxiety that deteriorates your being, its integrity. You turn yourself into the living dead, you consider yourself already dead,” he says.

Seeing a country carved up on a map displayed by Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday, along with the recent shelling of Kharkiv in Ukraine, has also painted a clear picture for Kurti of what Kyiv now faces.

The places Ukrainian refugees are seeking shelter (Press Association Images) © Provided by The Independent The places Ukrainian refugees are seeking shelter (Press Association Images)

“When a northern bigger power wants to frighten you and exterminate you. I see genocide taking place, where they see a territory without you. That’s what’s going on in Ukraine,” he says.


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“This Russian invasion, this military aggression is not political anymore. It is genocide.”

The invasion’s tactics are informed by a dark combination of logistics and demographics, he adds.

But more than the nature of war, the means are also troubling for Kosovo, Kurti says. His country can see some of the same Russia-made tanks at its border. Last autumn, there was a build-up of troops, tanks and MiG fighter aircraft, an escalation over a dispute involving number plates with Serbia.

Politically and economically, Serbia has close ties to Russia. That also means it will likely not escape Moscow’s economic hurt from sanctions, something which Kosovo fears could harden hearts on its northern border.

Serbia refused to impose sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine, out of step with European peers. Its president, Aleksandar Vučić, suggested the step was payback for support from Russia in blocking Kosovo from the UN.

Artist Alkent Pozhegu works on the final touches of Volodymyr Zelensky's portrait made with grain and seed, in Gjakova, southwestern Kosovo (AFP/Getty) © Provided by The Independent Artist Alkent Pozhegu works on the final touches of Volodymyr Zelensky's portrait made with grain and seed, in Gjakova, southwestern Kosovo (AFP/Getty)

Kurti and fellow Kosovan politicians also see parallels in president Putin’s rhetoric and distorted history which suggests a responsibility to protect “ethnic Russians”, in arguments used by Serbia regarding the ethnic Serb minority who live in Kosovo. Serbia also claimed historical and cultural ownership of Kosovo as a basis for wiping out Kosovan Albanians in the 1990s.

“They don’t acknowledge crimes from the past. And at the same time they have a very strong and wide variety of ties with Russia, so of course we are very vigilant and worried but we are not afraid,” Kurti says.

Still, Kosovo alone cannot manage what he believes is a growing threat: “I also insist that Nato be way more vigilant than it already is,” the prime minister says.

Kosovo is “in danger” because Putin is cutting off his own escape routes for de-escalation, Kurti says. He has to move forward rather than pursue peace in order to secure his political future, Kurti suggests.

Rather than open up a fresh military front himself, via Moldova or the Baltic states, Putin is more likely to leverage Serbia as a proxy, and use its military for expansion in the western Balkans, Kosovo fears. This would “outsource” the effort to paint Moscow’s drive to grow its territory, Kurti claims.

For now, the state of just around two million citizens is limited in what it can do in the face of Russian aggression in its tense neighbourhood. It needs friends and allies with a sense of history, and a potentially less secure future Kurti says:

“Experience has shown that autocracies are much faster [to grow] than democracies. That’s why I really welcome the decision of the German Bundestag on Sunday, to have completely another view on security and defence on European wellbeing, rights and freedoms.

“I want to see other countries within the EU and Nato taking the situation very seriously, and taking a leap forward.”

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