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4th Mar 2024

EU appetite growing for sanctions on Serbia

  • Nato has some 4,500 troops in Kfor, its Kosovo peacekeeping operation (Photo: Latvijas armija)
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The political appetite for EU sanctions on Serbia is growing, even as Belgrade tries to wash its hands of a dramatic attack in Kosovo.

"This operation indicates a serious military build up and constitutes a major escalation," the EU commissioner in charge of crisis management, Janez Lenarčič, told MEPs in Strasbourg on Tuesday (3 October).

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He spoke after a group of 30 ethnic Serb gunmen shot dead a Kosovar policeman on 24 September near the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo.

A gunfight in a Serb Orthodox monastery later saw Kosovo police kill three of the Serb attackers.

Kosovo also captured trucks with arms and explosives in what looked liked preparation for a bigger offensive.

For its part, Serbia briefly arrested a Kosovo Serb politician called Milan Radoičić from the Serbian List party on Tuesday, who admitted taking part in the Banjska attack.

And Belgrade is painting the events as a rogue arms-smuggling operation gone wild.

The EU commission and foreign service are sitting on the fence until evidence emerges of who ordered the assault in a Kosovo police enquiry, which is being assisted by Eulex, the EU police mission in Kosovo.

But Kosovo politicians claim Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić was behind it.

"While we were engaging in Brussels in what is termed to be a normalisation dialogue, Serbia has been preparing for an invasion of our country," Kosovo foreign minister Donika Gërvalla-Schwarz said on Tuesday.

Croatia has publicly joined a bloc of some eight EU countries that were quietly calling for sanctions against Belgrade, according to diplomatic sources.

And the commission's Lenarčič condemned Serbia's conduct around what the EU is calling a "terrorist attack", whether or not Vučić pulled the strings.

"The rhetoric from Belgrade in relation to 24 September is very concerning, as was the manner in which the day of mourning was celebrated," Lenarčič said.

When the shooting started, Vučić marched some 4,000 extra soldiers to the Kosovo border and his defence minister Miloš Vučević said the army would enter Kosovo if need be.

Vučić marched them back again after a US outcry and emergency Nato talks in Brussels, with hundreds more British and Dutch soldiers now headed to Bosnia and Kosovo to help keep the peace.

But he also declared a national Day of Mourning, in which the Serb gunmen were called "heroes", "freedom fighters", and "martyrs" by top Serbian politicians. "For me, they will never be terrorists," Vučić told press.

Serbia is an EU candidate country, with Belgrade still receiving some €300m a year in pre-accession aid.

But its EU progress has stalled for the past two years due to worsening relations with Kosovo, democratic backsliding, and Vučić's refusal to join Western sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war.

Its handling of the Kosovo attack is likely to bode ill for its next EU enlargement report, due in autumn.

"Serbia's progress on the rule of law and the normalisation of relations with Kosovo is essential and will continue to determine the overall pace of the accession negotiations," the EU commission said on Tuesday.

But for most MEPs who spoke out in Strasbourg the same day, the EU's passive-aggressive approach was no longer enough.

"I don't think we should underestimate what's going on in Kosovo. The [Kosovo] Serbian community and the Serbian List [the party involved in the attack] are being controlled by Vučić," said conservative Croatian deputy Ladislav Ilčić, comparing the Banjska attack to the start of Serbia's hostilities against Croatia in the Balkan Wars.

"This shot at the [Kosovo] police officer on duty, Afrim Bunjak, was a shot at peace, a shot at security, a shot at normal life in the north of Kosovo," said German Green MEP and Kosovo rapporteur, Viola von Cramon-Taubadel.

"The ties of Radoičić [the arrested Serb gunman] ... with officials in Belgrade are more than obvious," she added.

MEPs across the political aisles called for sanctions on Serbia on the model of ones imposed on Kosovo in June, when Pristina was accused of enflaming ethnic tensions in local elections.

These included suspension of high-level bilateral EU visits and meetings as well as freezing talks on next year's pre-accession funds.

"Vučić learnt from [late Serb leader Slobodan] Milošević and others how to let some little green men do something and don't be involved yourself. After the events of 24 September, we can't return to business as usual," said German European People's Party MEP Michael Gahler.

Russia accusations

Several MEPs accused Vučić of serving Russian president Vladimir Putin's interests by sponsoring instability also in Bosnia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.

"For years, we've silently allowed Vučić to undermine stability in the region, to remain supportive of the Kremlin ... yet EU funds continue to flow and we treat him as a friend, incentivising him to go further," said Dutch Green MEP Tinker Strik.

"He [Vučić] is playing to Putin's tune. He's not interested in joining the EU, but using it as an ATM for as long he can," she added.

One Greek MEP raised concern EU sanctions might alienate Serbian people, even though there's as yet no talk in Brussels of harsher measures, such as EU blacklists of Serb officials.

But the only EU deputy who really defended Serbia in Strasbourg was Jean-Lin Lacepelle, from France's far-right and Russia-friendly National Rally party.

The EU shouldn't use the 24 September killing to "close its eyes" to abuse of ethnic Serb minorities by Kosovo, he said, referring to it as a "supposed country" in his telling intervention.

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