Institutions have failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat of far right groups, in the north especially – and their capacity to undermine Kosovo’s sovereignty.
A troubled past and unresolved political issues are not only part of the region’s ignominious legacy of mutual relations; but they are, sadly, incorporated into the daily language of politicians and into the leadership concepts of some of the region’s leaders.
This has created a safe haven for extreme right-wing beliefs in public life, which are exploited to further divide people in the region and enable the continuation of a political reality that serves limited electoral interests.
One example is the extremist Serbian groups that have expanded their influence among the Serbian community in Kosovo.
A new investigation by Balkan Insight that maps far-right extremist groups in the Western Balkans identifies eight organizations with extreme-right ideologies in Kosovo, half of which are Serbian.
The missions they claim to follow are consistent with the narrative established by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, and the disclosure of the links of these organizations to the Serbian Orthodox Church reveals an institutionally sponsored narrative.
For various reasons, right-wing groups in Kosovo backed by the government of Serbia present a unique problem that cannot be met with a one-size-fits-all approach.
Initially, these groups are either directly tied to organized crime, or support and are supported by organized crime in various indirect ways.
These criminal organizations with potential ties to far-right organizations have extended their influence within the country’s institutions as well, primarily into the structures of institutions such as the Kosovo Police in municipalities with a Serbian majority in the north, sustaining the community’s overall sense of insecurity.
A practical example of this influence is the contract signed by the government of Serbia with a former Kosovo police officer who is suspected of being involved in the production and sale of drugs in Kosovo. This contract was signed after Kosovo Serbian officials resigned from their positions in Kosovo institutions as a result of the recent disputes between Kosovo and Serbia over use of vehicle license plates issued by Serbia.
The infiltration of criminal elements into the key security structure in the North of Kosovo has resulted in numerous crimes in that area that have gone unpunished, and many public officials have been linked to organized crime.
This has called the public safety of the Serbian community in the north of Kosovo into question, contributing to their low trust in Kosovo institutions responsible for ensuring their safety.
Given that issues related to organized crime and lack of trust in institutions are recognized as contributing factors to the potential rise of far-right extremism in Kosovo, the role of criminal organizations in this region also play a part in undermining the community’s resilience to violent extremism.
The harmony of far-right extremist groups, official stances of Serbian government and organized crime groups in the north of Kosovo demonstrates the existence of a network that extends beyond ideological views and accommodates various interests, both political or economic – in exchange for allegiance to sustaining the status quo in the case of Kosovo as a potent instrument for political benefits of the leadership of Serbia.
On the other hand, the contamination of the debate on interethnic relations in Kosovo by the rhetoric of these groups has overshadowed the Kosovo Serbian community’s welfare concerns, leaving many economic and social issues unaddressed.
Kosovo institutions’ ongoing inability to engage in local dialogue with the Serbian community, to comprehend their needs and design a tailored approach to address them, has created gaps that were frequently exploited by these groups.
The fact that many of these organizations have connections to Russia makes them much more difficult to counter. These organizations are among the means by which Russian influence penetrates Kosovo, encouraging Kosovo Serbs to look at Russia as an alternative.
They do this primarily by making use of the perceived failures of Kosovo and the international community to defend the Serbian Community in Kosovo and its Orthodox cultural heritage.
The Russian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church both promote a narrative that is similar, thus giving far-right organizations more leverage for the projection of influence.
The Kosovo authorities are dealing with these groups through the lens of criminal organizations, despite the fact that, as the details provided in this article show, there is a higher complexity to these organizations.
In this regard, the response to such organizations is itself more complex because they facilitate the influence of other countries in Kosovo, which necessitates a coordinated and long-term response with national security at the center.
They enjoy support from local and international political and other influential actors, which requires greater political and social resilience; and they are a source of disinformation, which calls for consistent production of counter-narratives and better communication with local communities.
While right-wing extremism has not been systematically addressed by institutions or by non-institutional actors, efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism in Kosovo have primarily concentrated on religious extremism.
As a result, although Kosovo’s strategic approach acknowledges the issue, it does not adequately address the widespread effects of far-right extremism in Kosovo or acknowledge the necessity of capacity and knowledge building.
Far-right extremism should receive more attention in Kosovo’s strategies and legal framework related to violent extremism.
A lack of a strategic approach may be seen, for instance, in the Security Strategy of Kosovo 2022–2027, which does not anticipate the threat posed by right-wing extremism or the role that powers like Russia play in bolstering this ideology in the region.
Putting the prevention and countering of far-right extremism in the forefront, institutions in Kosovo should establish better communication both among institutions and with local communities.
They should also promote the development of counter-narratives and a rise in information awareness. There should be more emphasis on the potential for far-right organizations to encourage reciprocal extremism, thereby opening up new opportunities to deepen interethnic divides and increase destabilization.
Nationalist rhetoric must be fought within the Kosovo institutions as well. More work must be done to raise awareness among the majority Albanian community, to prevent the reduction of their perceptions towards the Serbian community to the margins of the ideologies of far-right organizations.
Shpat Balaj is a Researcher and Project Manager at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies. Shpat has written numerous research papers, policy briefs, and articles on topics related to violent extremism, non-majority inclusion, and integrity in the security sector.