Tensions in the Balkans are escalating again as Serbian security forces have allegedly kidnapped three Kosovo police officers inside the territory of Kosovo. Prime Minister Albin Kurti called the entry of Serbian forces into Kosovo territory an aggression aimed at destabilization (Koha.net, June 14). The reported kidnapping follows the arrest of three Serbs, who were charged with participating in violent clashes with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) peacekeepers in northern Kosovo in May 2023. One of these suspects was also recorded attacking and beating Albanian youth in North Mitrovica last December (The Geopost, June 14).
The kidnapping took place as Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani was addressing the European Parliament and announced to journalists that Pristina is almost ready with a proposal to de-escalate the situation in the north (Europarl.europa.eu, June 14). Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić was celebrating Russia Day at the Russian embassy in Belgrade, emphasizing his country’s strong connections with Moscow despite its war of aggression against Ukraine (Twitter.com/theGeopost, June 14).
In the past few weeks, Vučić has managed to incite disagreement between Kosovo and its Western supporters, fortify his country’s central position in the West’s policy for the Balkans and stir up an intra-Albanian conflict between Pristina and Tirana—all with the purpose of avoiding domestic challenges to his grip on power.
Following two mass shootings, a wave of protests against gun violence started in Belgrade on May 3, threatening to overturn the government. The sixth such protest since the beginning of May took place in central Belgrade on June 9, with the opposition demanding the prosecution of government officials, including Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić (RTV.rs, June 9).
Vučić, who failed to suppress the protest movement with counter-demonstrations, needed an external distraction. And he promptly found one in northern Kosovo. When Pristina decided to allow three newly elected Albanian mayors and one Bosnian to take their municipal offices in northern Kosovo, organized Serb groups, supported by Belgrade, resorted to violence against the Kosovo police and NATO peacekeepers there. In the aftermath of the clashes, 30 peacekeeping troops from NATO’s Kosovo Force were injured on May 29 (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 29). Reportedly, 52 civilians were also wounded.
The 15,000 Serbs residing near the border with Serbia refuse to recognize Kosovo as an independent state and boycotted the municipal elections organized by Pristina in April 2023. As a result, ethnic Albanian and Bosnian candidates were elected, while turnout was very low. Vučić congratulated the Kosovo Serbs for carrying out “a peaceful political uprising and refusing to accept imposed solutions” (YouTube, April 25). Nevertheless, the United States Department of State recognized the elections as consistent with Kosovo’s constitutional and legal requirements while expressing regret that not all parties made use of their democratic right to participate (Xk.usembassy.gov, April 23).
However, on May 18, a joint statement by the Quint states—the United States, France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom—declared that “following the boycott by a significant portion of the Serb community, the results are not a long-term political solution for these municipalities” (State.gov, May 18). The statement, in effect, banned the newly elected mayors from being inaugurated in the municipal buildings, thus caving to Belgrade’s political games.
Pristina’s failure to obey these demands was ultimately condemned by the West as a bigger sin than the outbreak of violence that injured NATO soldiers as perpetuated by Serbian gangs. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Pristina’s actions will have consequences for US-Kosovo bilateral relations. The US ambassador to Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, stated that Washington will apply sanctions against Kosovo following the unrest—the first being the cancellation of Kosovo’s participation in the US-led “Defender Europe 2023” military exercise.
Surprisingly, Ambassador Hovenier also asserted that the US will “cease all efforts to assist Kosovo in gaining recognition from states that have not recognized Kosovo and in the process of integration into international organizations” (Balkan Insight, June 7). If this happens, it clearly benefits not only Belgrade but also Moscow’s divisive efforts in the Balkans.
The government of Kosovo is facing a decision whether to accept Washington’s and Brussels’ demands for de-escalating the tense situation in the north by holding new local elections and withdrawing Kosovo police units from the area. On June 2, Osmani and Kurti stated that they are open to calling new local elections in four majority Serb northern municipalities—in line with requests from Western officials (Balkan Insight, June 2).
Kosovo Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz said in Prague that certain conditions must be met before Pristina could consider new polls: the first is an end to the violence, and the second would be “a commitment from Serbia that it will no longer threaten Serbian citizens of Kosovo not to participate in the election” (Radio Prague International, June 6).
The sticking point in these discussions is the establishment of an autonomous Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo with sweeping self-governing powers, including receiving development funds from Belgrade. Although agreed to in 2013 by Belgrade and Pristina, the Kosovo Constitutional Court has ruled that certain provisions in the proposed statute contradict the country’s constitution. In fact, the agreement, as proposed, may become a step toward the partition of Kosovo, as it would practically eliminate state control over a significant part of the country.
To make things more complicated, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama instigated an intra-Albanian conflict by sending a proposal to Paris and Berlin regarding the Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo, without consulting Pristina (Balkan Insight, June 8). The proposal did not go over well in Kosovo, where it was perceived as serving Serbian interests (Euractiv, June 9). Kurti argued that “Rama should propose a draft-statute about Albanians in [Serbia’s] Presheva Valley to Vučić during the next Open Balkan meeting, instead of sending proposals about Kosovo Serbs to Paris and Berlin. After all, article 8 of the Albanian Constitution obliges him to protect the rights of Albanians” (Twitter.com/admirim, June 13).
Evidently, Western policy in the Balkans is failing, and a new approach is needed. The appeasement of Vučić resembles the policy of appeasement toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, which failed to foresee and prevent the current brutal war against the Ukrainian people. Similar to the Moscow-centered Western policy in Eurasia, the US and European Union have put in place a Balkan policy that is centered on Belgrade, regardless of Serbia’s nationalist leadership, which poses increased danger to several Balkan states, including Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.