Turkey, Russia exploit Serbia-Kosovo dispute to gain influence in Balkans

Escalating tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have boosted the efforts of Turkey and Russia to gain greater influence in the region, setting the regional powers on a possible collision course, Transconflict, an organisation focused on post-conflict transformation in the Western Balkans, said in an analysis on Monday.

Normalising Pristina-Belgrade ties seems a long way off as distrust between the former foes still remains strong two decades after the Kosovo war, the last conflict that accompanied Yugoslavia's collapse. In 2008, a decade after the 1998-1999 war between Serbia's forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia.

Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo's independence. For the moment, a NATO-led international force provides Kosovo's security.

To ease tensions, the two countries reached a freedom of movement deal in 2011, allowing residents of Kosovo and Serbia to travel with ID cards into and through each other’s territory. Serbia later rescinded the deal, provoking Kosovo to take direct action against Serbia by imposing a 100 percent tariff on goods from Serbia.

“False reports that the US threatened to withdraw its troops from Kosovo if the tax is not suspended were quickly propagated by Russia’s and Turkey’s propaganda machines in an effort to take full advantage of the continuing discord between the two countries,” Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations at New York University, and award-winning reporter Arbana Xhanna said in their analysis for Transconflict.

Ankara and Moscow continue investing in major national projects in Serbia and Kosovo to acquire economic and political influence throughout the Balkans.

Turkey has been strengthening economic ties in the Western Balkans, expanding trade volume from $430 million in 2002 to $3 billion in 2016, according to the authors.

"Roughly one-third of this trade was with Serbia, while in Kosovo, Turkey is continuously investing in the most important sectors while privatizing Kosovo’s strategic assets,” said Ben-Meir and Xhanna. "Turkish state development agency TIKA has renovated hundreds of historic monuments in Kosovo, financed local projects, and organized large events designed to reinforce bonds with Turkey.”

Meanwhile, Serbia approved for the building of a part of the Turkish Stream pipeline, which will transport the large gas reserves in Russia to Turkey and southern Europe.

Russia's interests in the Balkans sit on two pillars: exerting influence in the Western Balkans which is a transit route for Russian gas, and maintaining Slavic roots and the Orthodox religion, according to the authors. Turkey has geostrategic interests in the Western Balkans as well as in the Mediterranean countries.

“The energy sector continues to be a priority of the Russian investments. Moscow is aiming to make the Balkan countries dependent on Russian gas, just as in Europe” Lavdim Hamidi, editor-in-chief of the Kosovo daily Zeri, told Transconflict.

Both Russia and Turkey have been taking solid steps to distance the region from the West for economic and political reasons.

“They are relentless and brazen and will do everything in their power to entrench themselves into these countries, albeit it is only a question of time when Russia’s and Turkey’s interests clash in the Balkans,” wrote Ben-Meir and Xhanna.