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Commentary | 26 June 2023

Kosovo: More than a local flare-up

The security situation in Kosovo has significantly deteriorated. On 26th May 2023, the Kosovo government ordered the Kosovo police special operations unit to install, physically in municipal premises, newly elected Kosovo Albanian mayors in the four northern Kosovo Serb majority municipalities. The Kosovo Serbs had boycotted the preceding elections because of an accumulation of grievances. Inevitably, Kosovan Albanian mayors were elected, but only on a turnout of just over 3%.

Citing a democratic mandate, the Kosovan Government used its riot police to instal the mayors. In response, President Vucic raised the Serbian army’s combat readiness to the highest level. Serbia’s Defence Minister, Milos Vucevic, issued additional instructions for the deployment of the army’s units “in specific, designated positions”, i.e. close to the Kosovo-Serbia border. The situation risked spiralling out of control.

KFOR (NATO’s 3800 strong Peacekeeping Force present in Kosovo since 1999 – the Kosovo Force) intervened promptly on Monday, 29 May, in accordance with its peacekeeping role. This resulted in fierce clashes between the locals and KFOR and Kosovo police. More than 11 Italian and 19 Hungarian soldiers from KFOR were injured, including fractures and burns. 52 Kosovo-Serbs were injured, three of them seriously. The violence could and should have been avoided. The Kosovan authorities acted despite strong warnings from the US, EU, UK and others to desist in its installation plans, otherwise, violence would result.

Although local in origin, this latest violence has deeper roots and much wider implications. It not only exposes the fact that the underlying political issues between Kosovo-Serbs and Kosovo-Albanians in Kosovo are fundamental and far from being resolved. Even more significantly, it suggests that the concerted efforts of the EU, the US and NATO to keep the lid on the ever-present tensions can be derailed by one rash act. While the Kosovan government’s enforced installation of the mayors was foolhardy, and the words and actions of its Prime Minister Albin Kurti bordered on the provocative, the Serbian violence against KFOR, according to its commander, was unacceptable and unprovoked.

Paradoxically, the latest violence came at the point when the concerted efforts of the international community, with the European Union in the lead, were showing some signs of progress in resolving the problems that have existed since 1999 between Kosovo-Albanians and Kosovo-Serbs, as well as between Serbia itself and Kosovo. In February, just weeks before the violence, it seemed that a major development had occurred through an “agreement” between Serbia and Kosovo on resolving the issues between them.

The violence of local Serb protesters was extreme. The raising of Serbian army combat readiness on the border with Kosovo risked the situation spiralling out of control. It, therefore, may seem surprising that the international condemnation of the Kosovo authorities, especially Prime Minister Kurti, that followed was so categorical – especially as constitutionally and legally, he didn’t do anything wrong. On the face of it, he was just fulfilling a democratic mandate. Nevertheless, in a press statement on May 30, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pinned the blame on Prime Minister Kurti:

“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.”

The European Union also condemned “in the strongest terms the violent acts against citizens, KFOR troops, law enforcement, and media in the north of Kosovo. The violence could have been avoided and must be avoided in the future.” Previously, the so-called “Quint” issued a joint statement on 26 May (before the clashes with KFOR) calling on the Kosovan authorities to step back and de-escalate the situation. President Macron on 31 May declared that “It is very clear that Kosovar authorities bear responsibility for the current situation and there is non-compliance with an agreement [i.e. the agreement in February between Serbia and Kosovo on the normalisation of relations] that was nevertheless important, and which was secured just a couple of weeks ago”.

What was behind this immediate one-way condemnation and unprecedented criticism of the Kosovo authorities, as opposed to the customary blame for Serbia and Serbs for initiating violence? It came as a shock to the Kosovo government to see some of their strongest and staunchest allies, such as the US and UK, intervening promptly with harsh criticisms. In the past, international irritation of the Kosovo government’s pushiness in relation to Serbian obstructionism could, from a Kosovo Government perspective, be reliably tempered with international sympathy and support, particularly from the US and UK, for the direction in which the Kosovan-Albanians were pushing. In explaining this unexpected condemnation by Kosovo’s key supporters, Prime Minister Kurti said, “We have a slight difference in approach — and I think that thinking of sanctions against Kosova [Kosovo] seems out of proportion and unfair … I was surprised,” he added, characterising the American response as an “overreaction.”

Nevertheless, this “overreaction” was as effective in terms of international unity as it was unforeseen. It sent a warning that US and European patience has its limits. It signals that there is no point in trying to divide the Americans from the Europeans on the future path for Kosovo. Unlike the Trump presidency, when there was severe rivalry and disunity between the Europeans and the US over Kosovo, the Biden administration is determined to support the EU’s Balkan policy.

The EU logic is that if the Kosovo government is patient and fulfils its commitments, including greater autonomy for the Serb community in Kosovo, it will get all it wants. When faced with the eventual choice of isolation or the economic benefits of EU membership, it would swallow its pride and choose the substantial economic benefits of EU membership, accepting the precondition of Kosovo independence.

The US wants to demonstrate conclusively that it can work harmoniously and effectively with the EU on an important European security issue. Nicholas Williams

There is a trans-Atlantic strategic dimension to the US backing of the EU. The US wants to demonstrate conclusively that it can work harmoniously and effectively with the EU on an important European security issue. If the US wants to extricate itself from non-strategic European entanglements, the US has to let the EU take the strain on issues which are, at best peripheral and, at worst irrelevant to the looming Chinese challenge to the international order. With the full support of the US, the EU helped seal February’s tentative agreement between Kosovo and Serbia to normalise relations – including an appropriate level of self-management for the ethnic Serbian community in Kosovo. Prime Minister Kurti’s breaking of the spirit of this agreement, in effect by imposing the Kosovo-Albanian mayors undemocratically on resistant Serbs, brought the wrath of the EU, NATO, and the US upon him.

The EU’s Kosovo approach does not guarantee success, but it is the only one with the prospect of success using the leverage of EU membership as the ultimate prize. Meanwhile, tensions in the north of Kosovo are acute. Prime Minister Kurti refuses to bow to international demands to withdraw police and mayors from the municipality buildings in northern Kosovo. NATO’s Kosovo Force, bolstered by  700 Turkish troops, risks being caught in the crossfire.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: KFOR-MSU Carabinieri with two RG-12 during a crowd and riot control exercise (2019). Wikimedia, Allions