Don’t let license plates start a new war


“Big Putin gave orders to little Putin.” And the instructions were to provoke what could actually become a second Ukrainian crisis in Europe, but in Kosovo. Who said that? Continue reading.

A new conflict in Kosovo would be smaller than the war in Ukraine and devoid of the specter of nuclear weapons. But it would take place closer to the geographical heart of the European Union – in the Balkans, not far from the place that once sparked World War I – and cast doubt on the bloc’s values, resolve and credibility.

The “big Putin”, that is to say the Russian President Vladimir Putin, would therefore be delighted. The “little Putin” in this context is Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who could trigger a new conflict in Kosovo. (If the parameter was physical size, of course, the adjectives would have to be reversed: Vucic dominates Putin.)

The geopolitical composition would be roughly the same in both confrontations. The EU and NATO would probably support on one side (Kosovo), Russia and China on the other (Serbia).

There are other parallels. Both Putin and Vucic lead Orthodox Slavic nations that emerged from communist federal states – the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia – that split apart after the Cold War. In addition, Russians and Serbs see each other as ethnic and religious relatives. Both nations harbor victimization as well as superiority complexes and grievances against neighboring countries that want independence but are home to many ethnic Russians or Serbs. In the name of protecting loved ones, Russia and Serbia have in various ways behaved like aggressive irredentists.

In the 1990s, Serbia, under its former leader Slobodan Milosevic, supported Bosnian Serbs fighting Bosniaks (mainly Muslims) and then terrorized ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a Serbian province at the time. . Milosevic was later tried by a United Nations criminal tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity, but was found dead in his prison cell before the verdict. Putin entered the game soon after: he attacked Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and again this year with full force.

Serbs and Russians also agree in their psychological definition of the enemy. In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia in an attempt to stop the ethnic cleansing of the majority Albanian population in Kosovo – NATO maintains a peacekeeping force in Kosovo to this day. As a result, the Serbs do not look favorably on the transatlantic alliance. Like Russians, they tend to distrust all of the West by default – two-thirds of Serbs, for example, blame NATO for the war in Ukraine, only 10% point the finger at Russia.

Putin, for his part, views NATO as the evil empire and merely a front for his ultimate enemy, the United States. To justify his paranoia about Western encroachment – ​​and therefore his own aggression – he invariably brings up the NATO bombing of Serbia in his diatribes.

From the mid-2000s, and to the chagrin of Russia and Serbia, Ukraine and Kosovo took steps towards freedom and the EU. Ukraine experienced its Orange Revolution in 2004-05 and the so-called Euromaidan uprising in 2013-14. Yet Putin denies it is anything other than part of Russia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. But Serbia does not recognize Kosovo and, backed by Russia and China, blocks Kosovo’s membership of the UN and other international bodies.

There is, however, a big difference between the two conflicts. Ukraine wants to join the EU (and recently became a candidate), while Putin’s Russia wants to “destroy” the bloc, as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it. On the other hand, Serbia and Kosovo both want to become members of the EU, as well as the other countries of the former Yugoslavia which are not already in the bloc.

This means that Kosovo and Serbia must behave properly. They must comply with EU standards on the rule of law, democracy and clean governance. And they have to make an effort to settle their fight. No country with open territorial disputes can join the EU.

Now, however, another big question mark hangs over Serbs, Kosovars and all Europeans. And the immediate cause is laughably trivial.

This concerns license plates and identity cards. In a show of allegiance, many ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo have retained the license plates and identification documents issued to them by Serbia. Now Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, wants to introduce a law that requires them to obtain appropriate Kosovar plates and cards.

That was enough to provoke protests and gunfire this week. No one was hurt. But Belgrade and Moscow immediately pulled out their propaganda megaphones and hyperventilated that Kosovo was planning to expel or even kill ethnic Serbs. A member of the Serbian parliament remarked that Serbia could “be forced to start the denazification of the Balkans”, echoing Putin’s ridiculous but chilling hallucinations about Ukraine before his invasion.

Pristina and Belgrade immediately held talks with the EU and the United States. In response, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti postponed the license plate and identity law until September, to give everyone time to calm down. But the weapons are armed, metaphorically and probably literally.

So who said that “big Putin gave orders to little Putin”? It was Vucic himself – being sarcastic. He was trying to poke fun at the narrative Kurti is telling that this Balkan confrontation is a proxy re-enactment of the war in Ukraine.

In many ways, Vucic looks the part – he was Milosevic’s mouthpiece and now rules in the populist strongman style of Hungarian Viktor Orban. And if Vucic plays Putin, it would turn Kurti into the analogue of the heroic Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. This scenario would almost force the EU, the US, NATO and the entire West to side with Kosovo.

It’s encouraging that Vucic is laughing at this framing. This suggests that he sees himself as something other than little Putin, and that he may in fact want to avoid bloodshed, perhaps even planning a common European future for the two countries, in which their borders do not matter more, and all the inhabitants of the region can live in peace, dignity and freedom. If so, let Vucic and Kurti prove their mettle now. Too many stakes are at stake to start a new war – over license plates, or whatever.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

Germany’s anti-digital law is a stunted case study: Andreas Kluth

• What to expect from NATO’s new Strategic Concept: James Stavridis

Have Putin’s goals in Ukraine diminished or increased? : Leonid Bershidsky

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

More stories like this are available at

Milton S. Rodgers