Russian-Ukrainian war could spill over into the Balkans, Kosovo FM warns

"We have no illusions about what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to achieve in Ukraine," Gërvalla-Schwarz said

 At the reception in israel, May 10, 2022. (photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)
At the reception in israel, May 10, 2022.
(photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)

Russia's war against Ukraine could embolden Serbia to act militarily against her country of Kosovo, Foreign Minister Donika Gërvalla-Schwarz told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday as she wrapped up her three-day trip to Israel during which time, she urged its officials to use their influence to help neutralize the situation.

"States like Israel can help stabilize the region [the Balkans], said Gervalla-Schwartz as she sat in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem, next to flags from both countries.

"We are concerned that the Balkans could be the next hot spot," she said. 

Gervalla-Schwartz is the highest-level Kosovan official to visit Israel since the two countries established formal ties in 2020, as part of a larger deal brokered by former US President Donald Trump in which Pristina became one of a handful of countries to open an embassy in Jerusalem.

This is the first official Kosovan state visit, since then, and it was dedicated solely to meetings to advance bilateral ties.

Gervalla-Schwartz is quick to point out that as a sign of the strong feelings her country has for Israel, she is the third official to visit in the last two years, following in the footsteps of the Kosovan Defense Minister and the Interior Minister.

With the establishment of formal ties, Kosovo did not just gain an additional diplomatic ally, but it cemented a longstanding friendship with the Jewish people both in Israel and in the Diaspora, Gervalla-Schwartz explained.

"It is a very special recognition for our country," she said.

The Jewish people internationally, including their non-governmental groups, helped Kosovan refugees both during and after the 1998-1999 war. 

"We are happy and grateful to have diplomatic relations with Israel.. but our cooperation with the Jewish community around the world has been excellent," Gervalla-Schwartz said.

Kosovo which broke from Serbia a decade after its battle with it, declaring independence in 2008, views itself as a fledgling nation, like Israel, which knows the steep price ethnic hatred can exert.

"The Jewish community understood very well what was happening in the 1990s in Kosovo," she said, speaking of her country, which is made up largely of ethnic Albanians of Muslim faith.

Her history, Gërvalla-Schwarz made her also very sensitive to the threat from Russia and has inspired both her and indeed her country to throw their support behind Ukraine.

"From the beginning, Kosovo has shown solidarity and admiration for the brave fight of Ukrainians to defend their country," Gërvalla-Schwarz said.

"We have no illusions about what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to achieve in Ukraine. You can see some similarities between how Russia is acting in Ukraine and how Serbia is acting in our region," she said. 

This war has given the message that "borders and ethnic problems" are on the agenda again, she said. "In the Balkans talking about borders and changing borders has always been a matter of war," Gërvalla-Schwarz said. 

Serbia has tight ties, including military ones, with Russia, she said. 

The European Union has a role to play here, she said, in helping push back the Russian influence in the region, by utilizing the process already underway to bring the Balkan countries into the EU. 

Serbia is one of the accession countries, she said, which gives the EU more leverage here. 

"We hope that not only Israel, but all the others that have good relations with Serbia, will use those good relations to pass on the message that it is time now to decide," she said.

"Serbia cannot sit anymore between two chairs. Until now it was possible for Serbia to get EU money and with this EU money to buy Russian weapons, but this is not possible anymore," Gërvalla-Schwarz said. 

"The Serbian government has to have a clear message that war in the Balkans again is not an option," she stated.

Gërvalla-Schwarz was concerned that Serbia had become a Russian satellite country within the Balkans, but in particular, she was worried that it had military designs on her country. 

Strengthening Kosovo's ties to the EU could help defray such action, she said. Her country, which wants to be an EU member state, has a more difficult path to that union because five of the 27-EU member states have not recognized it as an independent state.

Those five countries are: Greece, Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus. Kosovo is asking its allies to help explain to these countries the importance of statehood recognition to shore up its position against Serbia.

It's not just Belgrade's ties with Russia that concern Gërvalla-Schwarz, but also the ratcheted-up rhetoric against Kosovo and the veiled military threats with regard to issues of dispute, including one over car licenses.

The situation is so volatile, she said, that we had the "we had the Serbian army and MiG 29 bombers flying on our border" over "car plates."

"When I listen to this old rhetoric then I am very concerned that it is more than just rhetoric," she said. The experience of the past in which hate speech helped pave the way for the war in the late 1990s, she explained. 

"The war in Ukraine is not about territory. Israel and Kosovo know how this is. It is a war about denying the existence of the Ukrainian nation. .. We know what political leaders can do when they want to deny the existence of a nation."