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'Z' Marks The Trouble Spot: Russia's Symbol Of War Appears In Northern Kosovo

An masked man spray-paints the letter "Z" on to a security forces' vehicle during protests in Zvecan, northern Kosovo, on May 29.
An masked man spray-paints the letter "Z" on to a security forces' vehicle during protests in Zvecan, northern Kosovo, on May 29.

As ethnic trouble brewed and the latest confrontations erupted this week in northern Kosovo, a powerful symbol of Russian expansionism emerged alongside the Serbian flags denoting resistance to Pristina's authority.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service and other media shared images of the "Z," which was used by Russian forces invading Ukraine, painted or otherwise scrawled on Kosovo police and NATO peacekeepers' vehicles.

Some even caught a group of masked men in the act of spray-painting it on the armored blue trucks of Kosovar special police units in Zvecan, the scene of the worst violence on May 29.

More than 30 NATO peacekeepers were injured there in what its KFOR mission called "unprovoked attacks," and dozens more ethnic Serb protesters were hurt.

The unrest was sparked by the Kosovar authorities' insistence on forcibly seating ethnic Albanian mayors in predominantly Serb northern Kosovo after boycotted elections and despite Western urgings to avoid escalating tensions.

Northern Kosovo is a locus of ethno-nationalist unrest in the Balkans and, outside of Ukraine itself, one of Europe's most dangerous flash points, pitting Western-oriented political forces against pro-Russian counterparts.

In the days since the violence, official Belgrade and Kosovar Serb representatives have remained silent over some of the protesters' embrace of the "Z" symbol, a clear middle finger to Pristina and the West for its support of Kosovar independence and a possible show of solidarity with Serbia's traditional ally Russia.

The 'Z' symbol, painted in the colors of the Russian flag, is seen on a wall in North Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. (file photo)
The 'Z' symbol, painted in the colors of the Russian flag, is seen on a wall in North Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. (file photo)

Neither the region's dominant Serbian political party, the Belgrade-backed Serbian List, nor Serbia's office for relations with Kosovo responded to RFE/RL queries about the symbol's appearance in the northern Kosovo hot spots. And no one else has come forward to explain how it might help the Serb cause.

But given Serbs' and ethnic Albanians' ongoing failure to overcome the Serbian-Kosovar dispute -- and Moscow's diplomatic backing for Belgrade's refusal to recognize Kosovo despite EU and U.S. prodding -- analysts in the region have some guesses.

'Politically Motivated Performance Art'

The say it could seek to imbue minority Serbs with the "optics of identifying with a larger power" to boost their collective confidence, undermine the legitimacy of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute while "supporting aggressive actions" to resist Kosovar authority, and undermine Serbian willingness to cooperate with perceived Kosovo allies in the West.

"Visual identification with a larger power like Russia is a symbolic way to build self-confidence and encourage the suggestion that this population [minority Serbs] is an important part of a larger geopolitical mosaic," Artan Muhaxhiri, a political analyst and professor of sociology at the University of Pristina, said. But he also warned that such activities can prove ineffective and thus come off looking more like "politically motivated performance art."

Naim Leo Beshiri, executive director of the Institute for European Affairs in Belgrade, said Russian aggression against Ukraine "has already caused great suffering and destabilized the region."

The appearance of the "Z" in northern Kosovo comes with Serbia and Kosovo reportedly in what could be the final phases of Western-mediated talks toward normalization between the Balkan neighbors, following oral commitments in March, he said.

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti in January requested an increase in the number of NATO troops in his country, citing a purported strengthening of cooperation between Russia and Serbia, which Pristina says poses a threat to Kosovar security.

"It's clear that, above all, the pro-Russian elements in Serbia and the north of Kosovo want to destabilize everything that has been agreed so far," Beshiri said.

The giant "Z" first came to international attention daubed in white across Russian military vehicles in the early weeks and months of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022.

But, as Ukraine's outnumbered defenses held and an unprecedented international response further dashed Kremlin planners' hopes of a quick victory, the "Z" came to symbolize support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military gamble.

The "Zwastika," as its detractors dubbed it, appeared all over pro-Kremlin social and other media, and has been flashed at major sporting and other international events despite bans.

It also made its way into the discourse of the Serbian far right, which has traditionally espoused revanchist, Orthodox, and pan-Slavic ideals.

'An Unacceptable Act'

Within weeks of the invasion, pro-Russian right-wingers in Belgrade were using the "Z" in their demonstrations to pressure nationalist-populist President Aleksandar Vucic to keep Serbia out of EU and other Western sanctions regimes punishing Russia for its war on Ukraine.

A March 2022 demonstration in Belgrade organized by the People's Patrol group featured dozens of vehicles marked with a "Z" and flying Serbian and Russian flags.

Many of those same groups are staunch supporters of Putin's war in Ukraine and vocal opponents of normalized relations between Belgrade and Pristina. A notorious Serbian ultranationalist was among the visitors last year to the newly opened headquarters in St. Petersburg of the Wagner group, whose mercenaries fight alongside regular Russian army troops in Ukraine. Also last year, Wagner opened a "friendship and cooperation center" in Serbia's capital.

Images of the appearance of the "Z" symbol in northern Kosovo were subsequently shared by a handful of Balkan-focused, pro-Russian, or pro-war accounts on social media. They included Telegram pages such as "Rusija u srcu" (Russia Close To My Heart), "Zli orlovi" (Evil Eagles), "Evroazija" (Eurasia), and "Bunt je stanje duha" (Rebellion Is A State Of Mind). Russia's English-language international media arm, RT, also noted the arrival of the "Z."

A composite image of posts from the Telegram social media channel showing photos of the "Z" symbol painted onto the vehicles of security forced in northern Kosovo.
A composite image of posts from the Telegram social media channel showing photos of the "Z" symbol painted onto the vehicles of security forced in northern Kosovo.

In comments after the violence in Zvecan on May 29, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov drew a parallel between international recognition of Kosovo and Crimea, which was occupied and annexed in 2014 to start the earlier phase of Moscow's war on Ukraine.

Analyst Muhaxhiri suggested to RFE/RL's Balkan Service that Moscow "needs" a complicated situation in Kosovo in order to "maintain its hopes" that it will be at the table once a "historic final agreement" to normalize relations is reached between Kosovo and Serbia.

Beshiri from the Institute for European Affairs had a blunter -- and potentially worrying -- explanation. "That action represents an unacceptable act of supporting aggressive behavior," he said.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Mila Djurdjevic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service
  • 16x9 Image

    Mila Manojlovic

    Mila Manojlovic is a social-media producer for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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