NATO ex-commander Clark warns Serbia 'agent' of Russian 'infection' in Balkans

10 Qershor 2024, 15:39Kosovo & Region TEMA

NATO ex-commander Clark warns Serbia 'agent' of Russian

June 10, 2024 — The former commander of NATO's bombing campaign to protect ethnic Albanians and force a withdrawal of Serb-led Yugoslav troops from Kosovo in the late 1990s has warned of ongoing obstacles to stability and dangerous Russian "ambitions" in the Balkans.

Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark told RFE/RL's Kosovo Service that Serbia and its former province Kosovo remain at cross purposes and "Serbia is a magnet, drawing Russian imperialist ambitions into Europe."

Serbia continues to reject the independence that Kosovo declared in 2008, and more than a decade of Western-mediated talks aimed at normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina have mostly stalled over recognition and representation for Kosovo's ethnic Serb minority.

"Serbia doesn't want peace, and Kosovo doesn't want to surrender its independence," Clark said in an interview coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the end of the 79-day NATO bombardment during Kosovo's war of independence.

Belgrade has worked with UN Security Council permanent member Russia to oppose partially recognized Kosovo's membership in international organizations, with support from China.

Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic has bolstered trade, energy, and diplomatic relations with Russia and avoided joining sanctions on Moscow since President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, irritating the EU candidate country's Western partners.

Belgrade's relations with Pristina have also soured further over cross-border violence, boycotted elections and walkouts, and currency and other crackdowns in Serb-majority areas of northern Kosovo.

Russia has helped fuel resistance to postwar borders and institutions in the former Yugoslavia, including through appeals to Christian Orthodoxy and historical and linguistic ties particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.

Clark warned that there cannot be stability between Kosovo and Serbia until "Moscow withdraws its imperialist ambitions from the region."

"Until then, you're not going to have stability and the chance for people to reconcile and move forward," Clark added.

He said Serbia was serving as "an agent of infection in the region, in North Macedonia, in Montenegro, and elsewhere" and he warned of the risk of further violence in the region.

“The way out is Russia's defeat in Ukraine, to take the Russian backing of Serbia down to a different level," Clark said, "so Serbia understands its future's with the West. When Serbs understand that, there'll be no problem with Kosovo."

Clark was NATO's supreme allied commander Europe during the air campaign targeting mostly Serbian targets, including in Belgrade, that ended on June 10, 1999, after the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement withdrawing then-Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and establishing an international peacekeeping force there amid accusations of ethnic cleansing.

Kosovo has been criticized by its Western partners over Prime Minister Albin Kurti's increasingly assertive policies, including a ban on dinar transactions despite wide use of the Serbian currency in mostly Serb-populated areas and expropriations of land.

Pristina has also refused to lay a legal foundation for an association of Serb-majority municipalities despite a pledge in the so-called Brussels Agreement in 2013.

Clark said that "nations have to do what's in their own interest" and appeared to question the essential need for such an association.

"I think for it to open the way to extraterritoriality for Serbia any more than it has north of the Ibar River is extremely damaging for the future of the people in Kosovo," Clark said, citing Serbs' past use of Orthodoxy as a "focal point for rebellion or repression or aggression."

"And so, I think it's better for everyone in the region if we don't push the association, but instead hope and work for these two governments to have normalized diplomatic relations," Clark said.

"There's always a mix of ethnic groups, but the best way for peace is to respect national boundaries." (RFE/RL)

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