Against the appeasement of autocrats

He appeasement of autocrats today only emboldens them tomorrow. Concessions to tyrants are never temporary, and they certainly never bring lasting peace.

The European continent is in crisis because Vladimir Putin has chipped away at Ukraine’s sovereignty to the extent that today he denies its territorial integrity and its right to exist. Russia’s president pursues a dangerous imperialist policy that permits one country to choose the fate of another simply because it has the military might.

This war is Mr Putin’s way of testing the democratic world and it is an attempt to break our democratic spirit. Instead the war has brought the democratic world together in a way not witnessed for decades. The way we all continue to respond—countries big and small—will not only define the future of Ukraine, but the future of Europe and the world. Any response is not only about the people of Ukraine, it is also about the kind of world we want to live in, and the collective message we send to autocrats everywhere.

Watching the harrowing images of indiscriminate and inhumane attacks on innocent Ukrainian civilians, and the brave resilience of those fighting for their lives and defending their statehood, has been a difficult reminder of a dark past for the people of Kosovo.

For us, these images are all too familiar and real. We don’t just stand with Ukraine, we stand with our NATO allies and those who want to see democratic values flourish around the world, because this represents so much more than just one country or one people’s struggle in the face of tyranny.

Kosovo knows all too well the consequences of concessions made at the expense of an innocent people. The early appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic resulted in numerous bloody wars in the former Yugoslavia pursued by a genocidal regime, all in the name of fascist desires to create a “Greater Serbia”. The violence led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, the rape of tens of thousands of women and the displacement of millions.

All this happened before the eyes of the world. Thankfully, NATO and the world came to our rescue in 1999 by putting an end to the genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the people of Kosovo. But today we are witnessing, once more, a flagrant violation of international law, barbaric and brutal aggression against Ukraine and its innocent people, and the potential for a much bigger war in Europe, and beyond.

While the eyes of the world are rightly focused on Ukraine, here in the heart of Europe, we have another significant threat rumbling beneath the surface. Mr Putin has his claws deeply and firmly entrenched in our region through the influence he exerts over his proxy, Serbia, which has been intensifying efforts to destabilise Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.

Russia’s relationship with the Western Balkans’ most bellicose and problematic leaders, namely Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic and the Bosnian Serbs’ leader Milorad Dodik, is no secret. The level of military and political support that Russia provides to Serbia, in particular, is significant and should raise alarm bells from Ankara to London, and Berlin to Washington.

In 2012, before Mr Vucic came to power, Serbia conducted two military activities with its eastern ally. Following almost a decade of his leadership, the number of these types of activities has grown exponentially. The partnership between the two countries is so crucial to both sides, and the purchase and donations of heavy weaponry so considerable, that Moscow has opened a defence office in Belgrade and a “humanitarian” centre in Niš that has significant question marks over its claimed mission. It’s no wonder that the US Department of Defence has stated that Serbia provides the “most permissive environment” for Russian influence in our region.

Serbia’s outright rejection of sanctions against Russia is, therefore, no surprise and reveals where its loyalties truly lie. Now is the time to speak clearly on where we stand: Kosovo and its partners around the world side with Ukraine, while Serbia has chosen to side with Mr Putin.

Over the past few years, despite talking a good game on European values, Serbia has increased its political, military and economic co-operation with Russia to levels not witnessed before, even under Milosevic’s regime. Serbia’s shift towards autocracy has been gradual and, crucially, deliberate. For too long left unchallenged or even acknowledged, today Serbia poses a significant threat to stability in Europe. That is now evident in all international indices on democracy, media and freedoms. Serbia’s falling ratings are testament to its increasingly autocratic inclination.

Serbia's unwarranted actions over vehicles’ registration plates last year showed as much. Contrary to agreements signed in Brussels, for almost a decade Serbia demanded that Kosovan registration plates be removed upon crossing into Serbia and then replaced with temporary ones. So in October Kosovo, an equal party in an EU-facilitated dialogue on the matter, decided to reciprocate. The government in Belgrade was quick to put tanks and Russian MiG fighter jets on our border, where the Russian Ambassador swiftly turned up to give his blessing should Serbian forces enter Kosovo.

Similarly, when the entirety of our region took part in a NATO military exercise last year—“Defender-Europe 21”—that involved partners across Europe, Serbia was the only country not to take part and instead simultaneously to conduct a military exercise with Russia in its territory.

In the face of these developments the continued appeasement of Mr Vucic by some remains a serious concern and a danger to peace.

Developments in Ukraine are a reminder that we must never be indifferent in the face of autocracy or when our values and allies are being threatened. This is not about “us” and “them”, this is a reminder to all of us yet again that a threat to democracy in one territory is a threat to us all.

In our part of the world, peace and stability have been achieved through great sacrifice, including the loss of many innocent lives. We must do everything to maintain it, and this means speaking the truth when faced with daily aggression from our neighbour Serbia.

Vjosa Osmani is the president of Kosovo.

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