North Kosovo Tensions: What Lies Behind the Kurti-Vučić Quarrel?

20 korrik 2023 13:13

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, the US and the EU have increased diplomatic efforts in the Western Balkans to address security threats and prevent violence. The main objective is to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

In the second half of 2022, the Franco-German initiative marked the start of an actively diplomatic approach towards the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. This was followed by a series of high-level political meetings and visits by diplomats to both Pristina and Belgrade, namely Special Envoys Lajčak and Escobar. 

During this period Vučić had meetings with French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz, while Kurti received a letter from two leaders urging him to prepare for difficult decisions.

The US supported the European Proposal. However, despite reaching the deal in February 2023, relations between Belgrade and Pristina have deteriorated significantly. The deal agreed in February 2023 failed to take into account snap election in the four northern municipalities of Kosovo, North Mitrovica, Leposavic, Zubin Potok and Zvecan. Two months later, local Serbs boycotted the election which allowed Albanian parties to win the election with less than 4%. When the new mayors assumed office, local Serbs protested. Pristina sent special police units to escort the mayors, marking the beginning of a long friction.

Amid the intensified diplomatic efforts for a new deal, Kosovo PM Albin Kurti recognized that while the normalization process was being rushed by the West, the state-building process remains incomplete. This may be a crucial factor behind his insistence on enforcing Kosovo ID cards and vehicle license plates in the predominantly Serb-populated north. The problem of IDs and license plates dates back to 2021 when the Kosovo Government tried for the first time to introduce them in the north. Subsequent attempts to implement these measures led to significant tensions between the local Serb population and Kosovo Police. 

As the normalization process progresses, Kosovo faces two key questions. The first is the integration of Serbs in the north who are refusing to accept Kosovo ID cards and license plates, thus refusing the authority of the central government in Pristina. The second challenge is the lack of recognition from Serbia, which obstructs Kosovo’s international recognition and its status as an independent state.

On the other hand, for Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić, there are also two key objectives in the dialogue. Firstly, he aims to continue normalizing relations with Kosovo, without explicitly recognizing its independence. Secondly, he seeks to secure territorial autonomy for Serbs in Kosovo, as agreed back in 2013. 

These two goals are becoming increasingly important for Belgrade as it sees the tensions as an attempt of Pristina to undermine the creation of the Association/Community of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM) and bring the issue of recognition to the forefront.

This has resulted in a clash between Kurti and Vučić regarding the central focus of the dialogue, has fueled tensions and at times brought the situation to the brink of major ethnic escalation. 

Intense ethnic tensions were evident in several actions taken by both sides. On one hand, Kosovo deployed Special Police units in the north and conducted a military exercise in South Mitrovica.

On the other hand, the Serbian Armed Forces were placed on high alert and their exercise in the south of Serbia near the boundary with Kosovo heightened anxiety among leaders and ordinary people on both sides. 

Adding to the tension, the arrest of three Kosovo border policemen by the Serbian gendarmerie raised speculations about whether Serbian special forces violated UN Resolution 1244 (1999) and entered the territory of Kosovo. This incident required additional Western diplomatic efforts to ease the tensions and secure the release of the detained Kosovo policemen. 

Additionally, some of the Kosovo Serbs protestors in the northern municipalities turned the protest violent, wounding dozens of KFOR soldiers. During the protests, there were even instances of booing the Serb List (Srpska Lista) – the largest Serbian political party in Kosovo under the patronage of President Vučić. This could potentially signify a decline in support for the Serb List, and a weakening of Vučić’s control over the north of Kosovo.

Violent protests reinforced concerns of the Kosovo Government regarding the problem of the rule of law in the north and strengthened the position of the necessity of police presence in that region. Serb-populated north has a history of violent protests, barricades, shooting on police and EULEX, and the assassination of Serb politician Oliver Ivanović.

However, the use of excessive force and the presence of big militarized vehicles, alongside arrests, intimidate citizens in the north. The example of the arrest of a Serbian NGO activist sparked serious concerns among the Serb community.

It is evident that the two sides have diametrically opposing positions regarding the desired outcome of the dialogue. The important question is: What is the solution? 

This is a crucial question for the EU, given that the current situation is a direct result of its policy of constructive ambiguity. Both leaders are escalating tensions as a means to gain leverage in the dialogue while risking losing control and sparking conflict. This is a clear indication that the EU needs to seriously consider changing its approach. 

Constructive ambiguity has served as a useful tool in the past decade of the dialogue to achieve progress in the negotiations. However, this approach has now reached its limits, and it is clear that it can no longer produce further progress in the dialogue. 

The time has come for the EU to finally clearly define the ultimate objective of the dialogue. Is the end goal mutual recognition or normalization without explicit recognition? 

For further progress in the dialogue, the EU must provide a clear statement, moving away from constructive ambiguity and identifying the end goal of the negotiations. This will provide clarity to both sides, outlining their expectations and responsibilities. Without such clarity, tensions, provocations and escalation may become the new norm, hindering any further progress in the dialogue.

*Artikullin në shqip mund ta lexoni këtu

20 korrik 2023

Milos Pavkovic