Moscow : For nearly two decades, President Vladimir Putin has been on a mission to make Russia great again – to borrow a phrase from his American counterpart – and to right what he sees as the greatest “wrong” in the country’s recent history: the collapse of the USSR and the loss of its superpower status.
In this grand geopolitical quest, tiny Kosovo has also played a special role. Putin sees NATO’s military intervention in 1999 and the 2008 unilateral declaration of independence as a direct affront to Russian power in its traditional sphere of influence in the Balkans. This view is also broadly held in Serbia, which considers Kosovo to be historically Serbian territory.
In recent years, as the United States and the European Union increasingly appear to have failed to bring a lasting solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, Russia has moved from being an outright supporter of Belgrade to trying to assume the role of a mediator.
It is in this context that Putin met Kosovo President Hashim Thaci during the Paris Peace Forum earlier this month and presumably spoke to him in German, a language both men are fluent in.
In a tweet posted after the meeting, Thaci pointed out that Russia is supportive of a political deal between Kosovo and Serbia to resolve the long-standing sovereignty dispute.
The Russian president appears to have joined the Trump administration and top EU officials like the High Commissioner for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, in backing a land-swap proposal Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic floated in early August.
The idea is to partition Kosovo – or “adjust borders”, as Thaci says – with Serbia taking areas in the north in exchange for recognising its independence and potentially giving up a few Albanian-majority municipalities.
The deal would clear the border dispute, the most serious hurdle along Serbia’s path to EU accession some time in the 2020s. By backing this proposed plan, Putin appears to have become an unlikely champion of the EU enlargement.
Yet, even with his support, the deal might not actually happen, as the two sides have failed to reach an agreement over the past few months. In early September, Thaci and Vucic called off a meeting in Brussels in which they were supposed to discuss “border adjustments”.
Then in early November, talks broke up after the Kosovo government slapped a 10 percent tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which hasn’t recognised Kosovan statehood under the influence of Republika Srpska, its Serb-majority entity.
Pristina hiked up customs duties because of complaints that Belgrade is intensifying efforts to persuade countries across the world to withdraw their recognition of Kosovan independence.
The looming trade war is only the latest point of contention in the increasingly strained ties between Kosovo and Serbia. In late September, Vucic paid a controversial visit to a predominantly Serb region in northern Kosovo to which Pristina responded by sending its special forces there.