- As conflict rages between Israel and Hamas and Russia and Ukraine, political analysts say the focus of Western powers has been diverted from a different "festering" geopolitical issue: Serbia-Kosovo tensions.
- Leon Hartwell, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told CNBC that when a new conflict erupts on the global stage, "it inherently strains a nation's capacity to effectively manage preexisting conflicts."
- "Consequently, the Serbia-Kosovo discord, while festering, finds itself languishing in the shadow of these more immediate and globally resonant challenges," he added.
As conflict rages between Israel and Hamas and Russia and Ukraine, political analysts say the focus of Western powers has been diverted from a different "festering" geopolitical issue — one that poses a "serious security issue" for both the Balkans and Europe more broadly.
Leon Hartwell, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), said escalating tensions between Serbia and Kosovo necessitated heightened vigilance, even though a recent flare-up had largely "slipped under the radar of Western media."
"The relentless demands on our collective attention, notably the Russia-Ukraine war, and now the resurgence of tensions in the Israel-Palestine theater, have commandeered the lion's share of our diplomatic and military bandwidth," Hartwell told CNBC via email.
"Consequently, the Serbia-Kosovo discord, while festering, finds itself languishing in the shadow of these more immediate and globally resonant challenges."
It highlights a major challenge for policymakers: providing ongoing conflicts with near-constant attention, while still monitoring other strategically significant risks.
Hartwell said that when a new conflict erupts on the global stage, "it inherently strains a nation's capacity to effectively manage preexisting conflicts." Essentially, the diplomatic and military bandwidth only goes so far, and states are compelled to make calculated choices about where to direct their efforts.
The Western Balkans, a group of six countries that European Union officials have repeatedly said belong to the European family, comprises Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia.
Not yet members of the 27-nation bloc, the region of roughly 18 million in Southern and Eastern Europe is known as an arena of geostrategic rivalry, with Moscow, Brussels and Washington among those jockeying for influence.
While tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have steadily increased in recent years, a deadly shootout in late September between a heavily armed group of ethnic Serbs and Kosovo special police forces in the northern Kosovan village of Banjska appeared to mark another pivotal juncture.
The move prompted alarm among U.S. and European officials who expressed deep concern over the violence and "unprecedented" buildup of military forces there, as the White House described it.
"The fact remains that the Balkan region is a powder keg, where even minor incidents can swiftly spiral into broader conflicts. History has underscored the adage that what happens in the Balkans, doesn't stay in the Balkans," the CEPA's Hartwell said.
"The U.S., EU and U.K. do not have the diplomatic and military bandwidth to respond to several conflicts of strategic interest. Choices will have to be made in terms of where we can commit our resources, and that will ultimately have negative consequences for some regions," he added.
Hartwell's comments describing the situation in the region as like a tinderbox echoes a warning from senior policy fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) last month.
"Resolving the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia is no longer just a political matter, but a serious security issue for the region and for Europe," ECFR's Engjellushe Morina and Majda Ruge said in a policy alert.
"For the U.S. and EU, the choice is no longer just between the failure and success of the dialogue but between stability and a further escalation of violence. The latter is most likely unless they finally acknowledge Belgrade's role in destabilising Kosovo and adopt a robust approach to counter it."
NATO has had a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo since 1999 following a bloody conflict between ethnic Albanians opposed to ethnic Serbs and the government of Yugoslavia in 1998. The military alliance reacted to the September incident by deploying additional peacekeeping troops to the region, while Serbia bolstered its military presence along its border with Kosovo.
Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia in 2008, a proclamation that Serbia rejected, and tensions have simmered ever since, not helped by the election of nationalist leaders in both countries.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has previously said in an interview with the Financial Times that Serbian forces had no intention of going to war with Kosovo, noting that this would be counterproductive to the country's ambitions of joining the EU.
"The reality is that the Balkans, while relatively modest in scale, warrant a strategic commitment. When the U.S., EU, and U.K. collaborate, they have demonstrated their capacity to actually make a huge difference in the Balkans," CEPA's Hartwell said.
"However, when we neglect this responsibility, or mismanage it as is currently the case, we inadvertently create an opening for other players to fill the vacuum."
— CNBC's Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.