The latest cycle of unrest in Kosovo, a direct result of Serbian interference in Kosovo’s April 23 municipal elections, exploded into violence on May 26 when a newly elected Kosovo Albanian mayor was prevented from peacefully occupying his office by an ethnic Serbian mob in the north Kosovo town of Zvecan, requiring armed police intervention to seat the new mayor, including the use of tear gas. Clashes around Zvecan continued May 30 resulting in injuries to more than 30 NATO peacekeeping troops. NATO announced May 30 that it would be deploying 700 extra troops to Kosovo to deal with these incidents.
The same Serbian residents that boycotted the April 23 elections (rescheduled from December 2022 after an earlier political crisis) at Belgrade’s “suggestion” then tried, a month later, to prevent the newly elected mayor from moving into the office he probably would not have won had the Serbs voted in the election, since in some regions of northern Kosovo voter turnout was below five percent as a result of the boycott. Despite the boycott and low turnout, four new mayors in the northern mostly Serbian municipalities were elected; all have been facing similar problems.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti defended his actions on Twitter: “It is the right of those elected in democratic elections to assume office without threats or intimidation. It is also the right of citizens to be served by those elected officials. Participation – not violent obstruction – is the proper way to express political views in a democracy.”
The Serbian community in Kosovo, with Belgrade’s support, has long been demanding the formation of an “Association of Serbian municipalities” within Kosovo with a host of administrative authorities independent of the Pristina government. While some elements of this demand are sensible and have been agreed to, many in Kosovo fear this will lay the groundwork for a Republika Srpska style independent entity as seen in Bosnia, with the potential for a break-away campaign in the future.
In the never-ending cycle of Kosovo politics, this is just another example of the impact of Belgrade’s refusal to publicly accept that it will never again control any part of the country that declared independence in 2008, and the failure of most of the Kosovo Serb community to move towards political accommodation with the facts on the ground, supported by long-running parallel structures funded by Belgrade.
Same old Belgrade threats
In a pattern unfortunately repeated with regularity whenever Kosovo situation boils over, Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic took the usual provocative steps to signal his outrage. He placed the Serbian military on full combat alert and ordered some units to approach the border on May 26. After meeting with his top military leadership on May 27, Vucic accused KFOR of failing to do its job of protecting Kosovo Serbs. This of course is simply rhetoric since protecting ethnic minorities in Kosovo has been most of KFOR’s daily mandate for decades.
Western condemnation of violence
In a repeat of previous interventions, statements condemning the Kosovo police action in Zvecan were issued May 26.
Washington issued its own statement, followed hours later by a joint “Quint” statement (US, UK, France, Germany, Italy), likely produced by most of the same people as the first one.
Washington focused its fire on the Pristina government for taking unnecessarily provocative steps, including a barely disguised threat in its terse public statement, while the “Quint” dealt with provocative Serbian military preparations.
The State Department noted: “The United States strongly condemns the actions by the Government of Kosovo to access municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo by force, actions it took against the advice of the United States and Kosovo’s European partners. These actions have sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions, undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and will have consequences for our bilateral relations with Kosovo. We call on Prime Minister Albin Kurti to reverse course and on all sides to refrain from any further actions that will inflame tensions and promote conflict.”
For its part, the Quint’s message focused on attacks against EULEX (EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo) and provocative Serbian actions:
“We condemn Kosovo’s decision to force access to municipal buildings in northern Kosovo despite our call for restraint. We call on Kosovo’s authorities to immediately step back and de-escalate, and to closely coordinate with EULEX and KFOR.
We condemn attacks on EULEX in Zvecan.
We are concerned by Serbia’s decision to raise the level of readiness of its Armed Forces at the border with Kosovo and call all parties for maximum restraint, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric.”
Washington goes into overdrive
Another statement from Washington, issued late on May 30, put still more pressure on the Pristina government:
“We call on all parties to take immediate actions to de-escalate tensions. The United States condemns the unacceptable violence yesterday against NATO-led KFOR troops, law enforcement, and journalists.
The Government of Kosovo’s decision to force access to municipal buildings sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions. Prime Minister Kurti and his government should ensure that elected mayors carry out their transitional duties from alternate locations outside municipal buildings, and withdraw police forces from the vicinity.
President Vucic and the Government of Serbia should lower the security status of Serbian Armed Forces and urge Kosovo Serbs to halt challenges to KFOR and refrain from further violence.
Both Kosovo and Serbia should immediately recommit to engaging in the EU-facilitated Dialogue to normalize relations.”
In Pristina, US Ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier announced at a rushed press conference May 30 that Kosovo would be excluded from a planned US European Command exercise named Defender 23 as a direct result of its May 26 interventions in the northern municipalities.
NATO remains vigilant
NATO-led KFOR retains a small peacekeeping force of 3800 troops in Kosovo, and also took a public position regarding the May 26 incidents. On Twitter, NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu said on May 27 “We urge the Institutions in Kosovo to de-escalate immediately & call on all parties to resolve the situation through dialogue.”
Before announcing plans to send more troops to Kosovo, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted on Twitter May 28: “Spoke to HR/VP Josep Borrell about Kosovo. Pristina and Belgrade must engage in the EU-led dialogue now, as the only way to peace & normalization. Pristina must de-escalate and not take unilateral, destabilizing steps. NATO/KFOR will continue to ensure a safe & secure environment.”
EU Diplomatic initiative during Moldova summit
During a summit of EU leaders in Moldova June 1 which focused mainly on the war in Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pressed the Kosovar and Serbian presidents to work towards a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The EU’s preferred approach would include new municipal elections in the northern Kosovo provinces where the Serbian community held its April boycotts. After a ten-minute bilateral side meeting arranged by the EU, with senior EU leaders present, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said the Pristina government could consider the EU proposal, while Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic left the meeting without comment. Formal responses from both sides are expected in the coming days; a number of related issues brought up by both sides may well delay a quick resolution of the dispute.