Alarm bells have been ringing again in Kosovo. The Kosovo Albanian police repressed last Friday the protests that broke out in the village of Zvecan, in the north, inhabited largely by Kosovo Serbs, against the oath of office of an elected mayor of Albanian origin. Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state, has kept its army on combat alert since that day, and demonstrations in the region have not ceased, in a dangerous escalation of tension between the two communities. NATO, which maintained a peacekeeping force (KFOR) with 3,700 soldiers in the area, has decided to deploy another 700 to try to avoid new clashes.
Both the EU and NATO have called for calm and called on Kosovar leaders Albin Kurti and Serbian leaders Aleksandar Vucic to resume dialogue. Next, the main keys to a conflict that keeps the international community in suspense, fearful of reviving the ethnic clashes that caused thousands of victims in the nineties of the last century.
NATO soldiers protect the municipality of Zvecan, in northern Kosovo, on May 31. GEORGI LICOVSKI (EFE)
1. What has triggered the latest clashes?
Kurti's government last year promoted local elections in the north that were boycotted by the Serb majority in that area. In protest at the call, more than 600 Kosovo Serb civil servants – including mayors, councillors, police officers and judges of Serb origin – resigned in November 2022. Kurti, under pressure from the European Union, postponed the election. Finally, they were held last April, with a participation of only 3.5% of voters before the Serbian boycott. Despite this tiny percentage, Pristina validated the elections, where mayors of Albanian origin won in Serb-majority municipalities. Last Friday, Pristina sent three mayors to the municipalities of Leposavic, Zubin-Potok and Zvecan to be sworn in.
In Zvecan (population 7,300), residents tried to prevent the mayor from entering the town hall and the Kosovar police worked hard to suppress the protests and make way for the councillor. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic ordered his army on May 26 to go on combat alert and deploy units closer to the border with Kosovo.
2. What are the main underlying problems of the conflict?
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008. More than 100 countries recognized the new state (Spain is not among them). But Serbia never accepted the decision and continues to consider Kosovo a province of its own. Since then, 1.8 million inhabitants live in an area smaller than that of Murcia, of which 90% are of Albanian origin, about 6% of Serbian origin and the rest belong to other minorities. The population of Serb origin, estimated at about 100,000 people, is concentrated in four municipalities in the north, where it is the majority: Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Liposavic and Zvecan.
Attempts to agree on autonomy for the Serb-majority area or to implement Pristina's administrative decisions in the northern region have so far failed and have periodically led to clashes.
In that context, there are two issues that have prevented progress in recent months on the agreements between Belgrade and Pristina. On the one hand, the problem of license plates, which in the north are the Serbs and in the rest the Kosovo Albanians. And secondly, and more importantly, the creation of a confederation of Kosovo Serb municipalities.
The government in Pristina tried in 2021 to implement a law to withdraw all Serbian license plates from Kosovo. That threat sparked protests in the north, with roadblocks. It measured the European Union, but Pristina tried again in March 2022. And the blockades intensified again. Finally, the EU managed to defuse the crisis temporarily. As for a confederation of municipalities, Kosovo Serbs maintain that this body was already approved by the parties in agreements in 2013. But Kosovar President Albin Kurti flatly refuses to grant this greater autonomy.
At the heart of all divisions lies the question of sovereignty. Spanish Balkan expert Miguel Roán warns: "As long as the two sides do not give in, there will be no lasting peace agreement in the region."
Kosovo Serb protesters clash with NATO peacekeepers in Zvecan, northern Kosovo, on May 29. GEORGI LICOVSKI (EFE)
3. What international support do Serbia and Kosovo have?
Kosovo's main international ally is the United States, followed by the European Union (although not all its members recognize its independence, including Spain). And Serbia's is Russia, followed by China. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made both Washington and Brussels strive to strengthen their relationship with Serbia, a country of just seven million inhabitants, but key to the stability of the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
The EU has endeavoured to keep alive the prospect of Balkan integration. But the precondition is that Kosovo and Serbia sign an agreement on normalization of relations. That pact has been impossible so far, despite the efforts of the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, who has met on several occasions with both leaders.
Faced with images of police repression in Zvecan, the United States and the EU condemned Kurti's decision to send ethnic Albanian mayors to northern Kosovo. They insisted that such a move only serves to increase tension. But Kurti has ignored Washington and Brussels. The Kosovar president is adamant for the time being that elected mayors take office in the northern towns.
Borrell asked Kurti on Wednesday to defuse a "dangerous and unsustainable" crisis. And French President Emmanuel Macron also blamed Pristina for the current tension. Moscow, for its part, has expressed its solidarity with Serbia and its "concern" over developments in Kosovo.
4. What is the internal situation of the Serbian President and how does it affect the Kosovo crisis?
In early May, two shootings were reported in Serbia that caused 18 deaths in just two days. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the proliferation of weapons among the population. The demonstrations were massive, criticized by the government and became anti-government. Serbian Aleksandra Tomanic, director of the NGO European Fund for The Balkans, explains from Belgrade about the context of the protests: "The media, television and press are controlled by the state. And they spread hatred towards neighbors, minorities, political opponents, etc. War criminals are regular guests at talk shows. And, for a few years now, even the public space throughout the country is flooded with ultra-nationalist messages where war criminals are glorified."
Leading analysts in the area believe that the escalation of tension in Kosovo is linked to the anti-government protests in Serbia. Tomanic: "In the last two days, nationalist demonstrations in support of Kosovo Serbs have been called in Belgrade. With them, Vucic tries to counteract the effect of the protests against the Government. Their goal is to silence criticism."
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