Barricades: A destabilizing and maximalist policy of Belgrade­­

28 dhjetor 2022 13:16

For years, barricading roads has been a Belgrade tactic to achieve political goals. In December 2022, too, barricades set up by masked groups on the roads to border points in the north testify­­ to the policy of escalation used by Belgrade to obtain leverage in the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations in Brussels.

This time around, the barricades have remained for more than two weeks. Failure to mediate the removal of the barricades endangers the stability of the north of Kosovo and the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia.

Return to the barricades

The placement of barricades took place following the increase of tensions that came as a sign of dissatisfaction with the plan of the Government of Kosovo for the re-registration of cars with illegal Serbian license plates to official license plates of the Republic of Kosovo.

This led to the collective resignation of Serbian officials (municipal mayors, judges, prosecutors, assembly members, police, etc.) in the north of Kosovo on November 7, 2022. The lack of officials created a vacuum in the north of the country, and the resignations of the mayors triggered the legal obligation for snap elections.

The most serious incident in the north, after the collective resignations of Serb officials, was the attack on the office of the Central Election Commission in North Mitorivica, and attacks on election officials.

The Kosovo Police arrested one of the former policemen as a suspect for the attack. In response, Kosovo Serbs in the north, led by Srpska Lista dominated by President Vučić, set up barricades and blocked the main road towards two border points in the north of Kosovo, establishing a "Crisis Committee." At the same time, masked men appeared in the north intimidating citizens.

Central institutions deployed police officers from other cities to maintain order and security. The presence of Kosovo Albanian police officials in the north was not welcomed by these groups and so far there has been at least one attack on the Kosovo police. This is because the newly deployed policemen are not ethnic Serbs, as was agreed years ago in Brussels.

A controversial concession made by the Kosovan side in the negotiations in Brussels was the stipulation that the police commander of the northern region must be a Serb, i.e. a monoethnic designation. This is in condradiction with the laws of Kosovo (such as the Constitution and the Labor Law, and the Law on Protection from Discrimination) and of the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 14; Article 1 of protocol No. 12).

The emergence of aims behind the barricades

Serb political leaders in the north of Kosovo and official Belgrade deny Serbia’s direct involvement and try to present the resignations, protests and barricades in the north as a popular revolt of Serbs in Kosovo.

However, the truth is that Serbs in the north are dominated by criminal structures which accept directives from official Belgrade.

Serbs who disobey orders from Belgrade and Lista Srpska end up with consequences and constant threats. Recently, Aleksandar Vučić himself admitted that he has control over the placement and removal of barricades. "The barricades will not be removed until the formation of Association of Municipalities with Serbian Majority" stated Vučić.

Even though initially the barricades were placed to protest the arrest of the suspect, afterwards the justification turned out to be a request for the establishment of the Association. In this way, Belgrade is attempting to maximize its demands towards Kosovo and the international community.

For the time being it doesn't look like there will be a quick solution. KFOR—which has a mandate for ensuring free movement in Kosovo—has taken the responsibility to remove the barricades but that hasn't happened yet.

On December 26, Prime Minister Kurti met with the heads of KFOR and EULEX to discuss the situation in the north of the country. "If KFOR is not able to remove the barricades then Kosovo will do it" stated Kurti following the meeting.

Future risks

The north of the country is in a stalemate. Masked groups are making sure the barricades remain intact, meanwhile Police and KFOR are controlling various points around them, including border points, and hesitate to remove the barricades by force due to the risk of escalation.

However, the situation in the north may escalate considering the heightened tension and the diametrically opposite positions of the parties. One side (Kosovo) tries to enforce law and order in the north of the country. The other side (Serbia) tries destabilizing the north through its proxies (largely criminal structures) to minimize the likelihood of control by Kosovo's law enforcement agencies.

Recently, representatives of the EU and the USA visited Kosovo and called for the removal of barricades. But the barricades have not been removed yet and their number has increased.

Mediation has been unsuccessful so far and it could be argued that the main reason for that is inadequate mediating.

The problem here is that mediators have been trying to accomodate and appease Serbia, by speaking with understanding for the demands of those manning the barricades and lack of recognition for Kosovo's de-escalation efforts (postponing the elections). This accommodating approach risks increasing Belgrade's destabilizing appetites.

The reason for this failure may be that mediators see this as just another crisis and do not see it as part of the bigger trend of escalation on the part of Serbia.

However, this crisis is not like the previous ones and can have grave consequences for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and risks derailing the whole dialogue process.

Find the Albanian translation here.

28 dhjetor 2022

Seb Bytyçi