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Foreign Committee Chair Says UK And Allies Have "Failed" To Deter Conflict In Balkans

US soldiers guarded municipal buildings in Kosovo in May (Alamy)

4 min read

Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair Alicia Kearns will put pressure on politicians around the world to take a more “balanced” international approach and use deterrence to stop ongoing conflict in the Balkans.

The Conservative MP for Rutland, who worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before entering parliament, believes the UK and other Western governments struggle to stand up to “aggressors”.

“I’m trying to bring together parliamentarians around the world to focus more on this, and to make sure that we don't just ignore what's happening in the Balkans because we're so focused on our Ukrainian allies,” Kearns told PoliticsHome.

“I'm going to send a letter out to politicians around the world who I know are supportive; my priorities are the EU and the US nations. I want them to sign a letter that will call for balance in the international approach to Kosovo.”

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have been building as Serbia continues to refuse to recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty after it declared independence in 2008. 

Serbs living in northern Kosovo boycotted this year’s May local elections and Kosovar riot police then used force against protestors to escort the newly-elected mayors inside municipal buildings: a move that was widely condemned by Western governments.

Kosovo’s police raided some Serb-dominated areas and seized local municipality buildings, leading to the EU and the US imposing sanctions on Kosovo as a result. In response, Serbia arrested and detained three Kosovar police officers, who have now been released. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the tensions could provoke another conflict in the heart of Europe and Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic said they were at a "crossroads" over whether there will be peace or a return to open conflict as was seen in the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s.

Kearns, who is the MP for Rutland and Melton, spoke to the prime minister of Kosovo for an hour last week and believes potential conflict in the Balkans cannot be ignored. 

She said that while Kosovo had been sanctioned, Serbia had been “allowed to go ahead” with undermining elections and holding police officers hostage without any deterrence interventions from the West. 

“We don’t know how to deter,” she said. “The focus is not on the democratic ally [Kosovo] who was standing with us with Ukraine, versus Serbia who signed a foreign policy agreement with Putin only in September.”

“We haven't learned how to deter, we are so scared of the aggressor. We don't recognise that actually standing robustly with those who are vulnerable at risk is more important.

“So I think we are reaching a point at which the world will either decide that deterrence works and we won’t see Taiwan invaded and we won’t see conflict in the Balkans... or essentially that violence is a route to sovereignty. 

“Because that's what the message is, if deterrence fails, that violence is acceptable. And that's what really worries me.”

Kearns added that the UK has “historic commitments” to Kosovo following Tony Blair’s support for NATO intervention in the country in 1999, which resulted in the withdrawal of Serbian troops and eventual Kosovo independence – ‘Tonibler’ even became a popular name in the country in honour of the former UK prime minister. 

"The problem here is that Britain has not worked out how to operate deterrence, diplomacy, and respect. And that's what I'm desperately trying to get us to do,” she continued. 

This issue with UK foreign policy, according to Kearns, extends beyond the Balkans. She described the world as being at a “turning point” where violence is simmering in many regions, listing China's genocide of the Uyghurs, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, violent suppression in Hong Kong, fighting in Israel and Palestine, and conflict in Yemen and Sudan as just some examples.

“If you look at the last two decades, what we know is that deterrence has failed,” Kearns said. 

“We have failed at every point to deter major conflict; these conflicts have not been deterred or limited and they have essentially just happened.

“We are at a turning point where the global south and the non-aligned countries are questioning whether to maintain this position or whether they can lean in more towards more rule-of-law countries.”

Kearns is expected to speak with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Liaison Committee on Tuesday to discuss the war in Ukraine and international security matters.

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