25 years after war

The process of regional and internal consolidation of Western Balkan (WB) countries remains incomplete, with the legacy of conflict still exerting significant influence. Since the beginning of Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2022, the European Union and the US have shifted their focus towards security issues. The Western Balkans exemplify how post-conflict societal transformation is as crucial as war prevention.

Today’s geostrategic landscape differs significantly from the time of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, which marked a turning point for Serbia. Besides the weak internal capacities of Western Balkan nations, the Euro-Atlantic integration roadmap faces obstacles due to malignant Russian influence in the region. Russia seeks to keep the entire region within its sphere of influence by pressuring Serbia, aiming not only to impede NATO integration but also to obstruct EU enlargement. The official Serbian narrative, propagated by Russian-influenced media, portrays Serbs as victims, stoking anti-Western sentiments in favour of Russia.

Unchanged policy: Serbian stance towards Kosovo

Serbia’s position on Kosovo has remained unchanged over the past two and a half decades. Two predominant options persist: partitioning Kosovo (annexing the North) or maintaining the status quo (waiting for a more favourable international context). The concept of partition, dating back over four decades, remains on the Serbian agenda. Dobrica Ćosić, a key ideologist of Serbian nationalism and former president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, wrote in his diary as early as 1981: ‘If we cannot liberate Kosovo again, then it should be divided between us and the Albanians.’

Nationalist prime minister Vojislav Koštunica advocated for the cantonization or division of Kosovo into entities. The Serbian parliament adopted the ‘Plan for the Political Solution to the Situation in Kosovo and Metohija’ in 2004, proposing territorial autonomy based on the connection of Serb-dominated settlements and the return of Serbs displaced during ethnic cleansing operations. In areas with a significant Serb population, territorial autonomy would be established in the form of a region with unified rights, powers and institutions.

The Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, in partnership with the former prime minister of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi nearly succeeded in dividing Kosovo (2018–2019). They had support from EU facilitator Frederica Mogherini, the Trump administration, Albanian prime minister Edi Rama, and various American and European lobbyists, as well as a substantial portion of Serbia’s opposition and civil society. However, the possibility of border changes was eliminated at the Berlin summit in April 2019, where Germany, which was always staunchly opposed to partition, was joined by France in opposing it as well.

Belgrade nurtured unrealistic expectations among Kosovo Serbs regarding partition, leading to the erection of barricades in the North and their eventual withdrawal from Kosovo’s institutions. Following in the footsteps of Serbia’s wartime leader Slobodan Milošević, Vučić alienated both Kosovo Serbs and Albanians, significantly worsening their position. Since 2013, the EU has made considerable efforts to integrate Serbs into Kosovo’s institutions, but recent actions from Belgrade have undermined these efforts.

President Vučić had a unique opportunity to implement the Brussels Agreement but hindered its execution. Despite international warnings that the Association of Serbian Municipalities (ASM) cannot function as a ‘state within a state’, Belgrade has insisted on granting it executive powers.

Drawing from past experiences, territorial autonomy based on ethno-national principles in the Balkans leads to unwanted migration and the neglect of minority communities living outside autonomous entities or local communities (similar to the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina). This pattern is also evident in Vojvodina, where Hungarian minorities cluster along the Hungarian border, causing migration from southern to northern Vojvodina.

‘Ahtisaari’s plan’ in 2007 guaranteed rights for Serbs in Kosovo across various sectors but was not supported by Serbia, raising doubts about Serbian sincerity in advocating for Kosovo’s Serbs and the implementation of Kosovo’s laws.

Concessions regarding Kosovo

Serbian elites perceive northern Kosovo as part of the ‘Serbian world’, a sentiment dating back to the mid-1980s when Serbia initiated the Kosovo issue, seeking to recentralize Yugoslavia with Serbian dominance – a proposition the other republics opposed. The Bosnian-Herzegovinian entity Republika Srpska (RS) was seen as a military gain in the 1990s and compensation for the loss of Kosovo. The separatist aspirations of RS leadership are not condemned by Serbian political and cultural elites. On the contrary influential circles in Serbia advocate annexation of RS in case of Kosovo `loss`.

In this context, messages from Belgrade must be taken seriously. Numerous agreements between Serbia and the Republika Srpska challenge Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty. The Easter Assembly of Serbs, scheduled for May 2024 for the first time, was announced with a photo featuring Aleksandar Vučić, president of the Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik and Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije, raising concerns among Serbia’s neighbours about regional stability due to potential implications. The meeting, as announced, aims to make important decisions ‘on the survival of the Serbian people in their hearthstones, their economic progress, the preservation of the Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet and common cultural heritage’. Such messages are perceived by Serbia’s neighbours as part of a strategic document of the ‘Serbian world’, namely an effort by Belgrade to exercise control over the neighbouring states or their parts: Montenegro, the Bosnian entity Republika Srpska and the North of Kosovo.


After historical mass crimes and brutality, Serbia has failed to establish a new ethical framework for understanding the past and present. Instead, nationalism and identity politics continue to dominate, capturing society and hindering objective discourse on wartime events. The struggle for truth about war crimes has dwindled to a few civil society organizations and individuals, with any condemnation of crimes met with harsh attacks, threats or isolation – a state-endorsed strategy.

The Hague Tribunal’s indictment against Slobodan Milošević and other high officials in 2001 aimed to catalyse Serbia’s post-conflict transformation but failed to do so. For example, the discrediting of prosecution witnesses, like former Kosovo high official (removed from political life in 1981) Mahmut Bakalli, in Serbian media exemplified Milošević’s influence and dictated the tone of public discourse. Milošević interrogated Bakalli in the courtroom, requiring the witness to answer only with ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Attempts to stage serious conversation on the war crimes against the non-Serb population were foiled within the realm of the media in Serbia. Ultimately, the faction which repudiated discontinuity with the Milošević regime and legacy prevailed.

Serbia’s reluctance to acknowledge responsibility for the war primarily stems from internal factors, fostered within influential institutions like the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Nationalist programmes mobilized the nation by creating a narrative of threat to Serbs in Yugoslav regions, justifying territorial ambitions. This expresses the essence of the ‘Memorandum of Serbian Academy of Science and Art’, a non-paper published in the Serbian press in 1986, which served as a programmatic and strategic document for Serbian intellectuals advocating for ‘Greater Serbia’, and which implied the redrawing of the borders of Yugoslavia. These intellectuals played a pivotal role in the preparation for war in former Yugoslavia. Neither the Serbian leadership nor  Serbian Academy of Science and Art have ever denounced this document.

Breaking the cycle

Breaking the cycle of nationalism necessitates strategic EU engagement. The accession process offers prospects not only for economic recovery but also for long-term peace. The revival of the Berlin process instils hope that the EU remains committed to enlargement, offering a win-win scenario for the Balkans

Challenges to the Ohrid Agreement[1] and threats from Belgrade raise concerns about Serbia’s European trajectory. The consequences of rigid nationalism include institutional decay, government ties to organized crime, attacks on freedom of expression and societal moral erosion.

By engaging strategically, the EU can play a pivotal role in steering Serbia towards reconciliation and European integration, fostering lasting peace in the region.

Building citizens’ resilience to propaganda is crucial for the transformation of society: not only countering disinformation, but also revealing nationalistic narratives and myths. It is essential to open public space for objective narratives that explain the sequence of events in the last 40 years. Furthermore, the improvement of minority rights in the region should be rooted in its integration, and not in territorial solutions that lead to segregation and make them susceptible to the malignant influences of the kin states.

The new European strategy for achieving lasting peace in the Western Balkans requires intensive discussions of a broad coalition of local, regional and EU stakeholders, who envision the future of the region in the European Union and societies founded on the values of human rights. It necessitates a strong involvement of civil society, professional media and scholars.

Izabela Kisić is the Executive Director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

The article is republished with permission from the Heinrich Böll Foundation Office in Belgrade and the authors themselves. This is part of a cooperation between Heinrich Böll Foundation Office in Belgrade and forumZFD Western Balkans Program

[1]  In February 2023, an agreement on the path to normalization between Kosovo and Serbia was accepted by Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo prime minister Albin Kurti. However, while verbally accepted, the agreement has not yet been signed by the two leaders.