Serbia-Kosovo, Azerbaijan-Armenia: Threats to peace in Caucasus, Balkans - analysis

Russia's war in Ukraine has been a major war and gets a vast majority of coverage. However, the current tensions in Kosovo and in an area of the Caucasus called Nagorno-Karabakh also matter.

 Demonstrators hold flags during a rally in support of ethnic Serbs who are protesting against Pristina government actions in northern Kosovo, in Belgrade, Serbia, December 12, 2022.  (photo credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)
Demonstrators hold flags during a rally in support of ethnic Serbs who are protesting against Pristina government actions in northern Kosovo, in Belgrade, Serbia, December 12, 2022.
(photo credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)

Two potential conflicts, one between Serbia and Kosovo and the other involving Azerbaijan blocking a key corridor to an Armenian area, are important to focus on amid the Ukraine war.

The war in Ukraine has been a major war of the last year and because of Russia and the West’s involvement, it is understandable that it gets a vast majority of coverage. However, the current tensions in Kosovo and also in an area of the Caucasus called Nagorno-Karabakh, are also important.

One reason that tensions can simmer over in other places is because aggressive governments and groups take advantage of the war in Ukraine to launch their own initiatives. 

The rise of tensions in the Balkans: Serbia, Kosovo and the fall of Yugoslavia

Both the tensions in the Balkans and Caucasus have origins that go back many years. In essence they are remnants of conflicts in the 1990s that were not resolved.

In the case of Kosovo, the country was able to come to independence because of a US backed campaign to push Serbia out of Kosovo in the late 1990s. This came after many years of insurgency by Kosovars against the Serbs and against what had been Yugoslavia. The emergence of Kosovo came amid the rise of other nationalisms at the time, such as the breakup of Yugoslavia and the rise of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia.  

 People walk at the square in North Mitrovica Kosovo, December 14, 2022. (credit: OGNEN TEOFILOVSKI/REUTERS) People walk at the square in North Mitrovica Kosovo, December 14, 2022. (credit: OGNEN TEOFILOVSKI/REUTERS)

Kosovo has had Western backing, particularly of many European Union states. However, that does not mean it is recognized by everyone. Russia felt the US muscled its way into the Balkans in the 1990s and that Russia was not sufficiently consulted in the conflicts there. Russia sensed a setback because the Serbs, historic partners of Russia, had been defeated, while Western-backed states like Croatia were victorious. This wasn’t accomplished without a lot of bloodletting.

The main point is that, 20 years later, not everything is resolved. Kosovo wants to administer areas of Kosovo where the Serbian minority lives. Serbs have lived in Kosovo for historically but the war, demographics and history has meant there is now only a small Serbian minority in areas mostly bordering Serbia. What seem like minor issues, such as license plates and administrative issues, are behind the current tensions, but the overall question is symbolic and Serbia doesn’t want to see its people forced to do something, and Russia may be willing to have more of say due to the war in Ukraine.  

The Guardian notes, regarding Kosovo, “The standoff in northern Kosovo, during which masked armed men have utilized trucks, ambulance cars and agricultural machines to block roads, had been prompted by the arrest of an ethnic Serb former police officer suspected of being involved in recent attacks on Kosovan police.” 

The history of tensions in he Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh

In the Caucasus, the Soviets created the potential for conflict by playing administrative games like they did in Crimea and elsewhere, carving up states and making ahistorical decisions. One of those decisions was to put an Armenian area, Nagorno-Karabakh, under the administration of what became Azerbaijan. This created a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the 1990s. Armenia mostly won that round and Nagorno-Karabakh was administered by Armenians, but claimed by Azerbaijan.

Regardless of who is right in terms of history or international law, the overall problem was that you have a region that is contested and Azerbaijan wanted it back.

In 2020, prodded by Turkey and with a more modern army than in the 1990s, Baku swiftly defeated the Armenian forces. This created another lasting potential conflict.

While Russia pretending to send “peacekeepers,” the area was in fact one where Armenians who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh rely on one road from their area to the state of Armenia. In recent weeks, a bunch of “protesters” from Azerbaijan have made the Lachin corridor road impassable, according to reports.

Russia doesn’t care much - it wants the countries fighting so that it can play arbiter. The international community also doesn’t care much. Some voices in the US and human rights groups have demanded the road be opened. But there doesn’t seem much progress. This is obviously timed to harm the Armenians during the cold winter months, cutting them off from basic services.

This historic community, like the historic Serbian community of Kosovo, is now facing difficult times. Because the international community has basically absented itself and no longer cares about minorities or dealing with small conflicts, the chances for tensions to rise and people to be harmed has increased.  

Russia’s war in Ukraine overshadows these areas as well. In both areas, Russia plays a role.

Russia had been a close partner of Armenia since the 1990s, but Russia also works with Turkey. Russia wants Turkey to be an energy hub and for Turkey-Russia trade to increase.

Because of these regional power politics, the lives of poor people don’t matter much when these countries talk. A few thousand or few hundred thousand people can be traded and forced to move so long as some weapons and energy deals can be secured.

It’s entirely possible that Turkey and Russia will also come to an agreement about Syria, enabling Turkey to attack Kurdish regions of Syria. This could cause even more suffering and conflict.

It’s unclear if the US, EU or others can step in to make sure that none of these areas boil over. It’s also unclear if any country or group of countries can create a lasting peace that doesn’t merely prolong another conflict or round of tensions for a year.