Russia is likely to expand its confrontation with the west by pressuring Serbia into undermining the independence of Kosovo and other western Balkan states, regional leaders have warned in interviews with the Guardian.
They also called for the EU and Nato to speed up their approach to applications for membership from Balkans countries, and bolster defences against Russian interference.
Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, warned that “it is in the interest of the Russian Federation to have new battlegrounds because they do not want to go back to peace”.
The country’s president, Vjosa Osmani, predicted that “Russia, by destabilising the western Balkans, will seek to destabilise the whole of the Europe” and said Moscow was using Serbia to endanger democratic values.
Šefik Džaferović, the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) member of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency, warned that his country was particularly vulnerable to Russian meddling, as Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the presidency who has close links to the Kremlin, is threatening to withdraw Bosnian Serb participation from the national army, judiciary and taxation system – in effect ripping up the Dayton peace treaty that ended the war in 1995.
“Dodik is trying to take advantage of the fact that the attention of the west is focused on Ukraine,” Džaferović told the Guardian. “He is encouraged in his behaviour by Russia, which is always keen on showing that it can destabilise the soft underbelly of the EU and Nato. Western governments should consider this much more seriously and engage more actively and strongly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the whole region.”
“These are dark days for Europe and the whole world. We are witnessing something that is horrible. We saw a similar horror here in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s,” Džaferović said.
Osmani said the appeasement of autocrats such as Vladimir Putin and the Serbian president, Alexsandar Vučić, had been shown not to work in Ukraine. She warned: “Russia is likely to use either the Baltics or the western Balkans – or both – to raise tensions and expand the crisis internationally.”
Kurti said: “I fear that the longer the war lasts in Ukraine, the greater the chances of spillover in the western Balkans. And that is because it is in the interest of the Russian Federation to have new battlegrounds.”
“Putin still considers Nato intervention in Kosovo as the most important recent international single event,” Kurti said. “He wants the state of Kosovo to fail in order to show that Nato success was temporary, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Their remarks came as the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, started a tour of the western Balkans including Kosovo and Serbia, saying she was determined to send a message that Europe was not going to let the region fall under the influence of Russia.
Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro, already Nato members, have all redoubled their calls for serious progress to be made on stalled applications to join the EU.
Kosovo is also applying to join the Council of Europe – from which Russia is resigning. Osmani said: “Everything we see in Ukraine brings back memories of the heavy price we had to pay to achieve our freedom. So we may be a small country, but we hope we have a big voice to say there is no price too high to defend democracy.”
Kurti and Osmani, members of different parties but partners in government, face a particular hurdle, since five EU countries have yet to recognise Kosovo.
Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, nearly a decade after a bloody liberation struggle that saw the Nato air force bomb Belgrade as the alliance came close to a direct confrontation with Russia – something it has not been prepared to do in Ukraine.
Serbia, itself an aspirant to EU membership, is performing a delicate balancing act between its European aspirations and close cultural and political ties with Russia. Earlier this month, thousands of people waved Russian flags and pictures of Putin at a pro-Moscow demonstration after the invasion of Ukraine.
Vučić has repeatedly pointed out that the country voted against Russia in the recent key vote at the UN general assembly, rather than support it.
Osmani pointed out: “Belgrade is the only place in Europe with pro-Putin protests, with politicians saying they support the aggression. They are the only country in Europe that has not aligned itself with EU sanctions. Quite the opposite – they have increased the number of flights from Belgrade to Russia.”
Kurti said: “Neutrality is siding with the aggressor. It is the most indecent thing you can do. You cannot be neutral between fire and firefighter.”
• This article was amended on 11 March 2022. Serbia did not abstain in the recent UN vote on Ukraine, as an earlier version indicated; it voted against Russia.