Yesterday (March 26), Marko Đurić, the head of the Serbian delegation of the EU-facilitated dialogue with Kosovo was arrested by Kosovo Police special units in the North of Mitrovica and taken to a Prishtina police station before being deported at the border at Merdare.
Kosovo authorities, including President Hashim Thaçi and Minister for Foreign Affairs Behgjet Pacolli, claimed that Đurić had entered Kosovo illegally, with Pacolli issuing a warning earlier in the day that Đurić would be arrested if he entered the Republic of Kosovo. Serbian authorities have rejected this, claiming that notification of Đurić’s visit to Kosovo was given in line with protocol established through the Brussels dialogue process.
The nature of Đurić’s arrest and subsequent deportation have caused consternation in Serbia, with President Aleksandar Vučić responding with an inflammatory speech in which he referred to the arresting officers as “terrorists,” and Đurić using similar language in a press conference earlier today. As a result of yesterday’s events, Lista Srpska, the Kosovar Serb political party that had made up part of Kosovo’s current coalition government have withdrawn their support, casting doubts over the future of Kosovo’s executive body.
Alarmed by the latest developments, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini visited Belgrade today to urgently meet with Vučić, while EU Spokesperson Maja Kocijančić emphasized to K2.0 that the EU expects both Serbia and Kosovo to “respect fully, in letter and spirit, agreements reached between them in the Dialogue.”
Another bump in the road
Developments involving Đurić are the latest in a string of headline-grabbing incidents that have affected the ‘normalization’ of relations since the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia began in 2011. These have included Serbia’s high profile opposition of Kosovo’s UNESCO membership application in 2015, the wall erected in North Mitrovica in December 2016, the “Kosovo is Serbia” train sent from Belgrade towards Mitrovica in January 2017, and the unresolved shooting of Serb politician Oliver Ivanović earlier this year.
As has been the case following previous incidents, the whole dialogue process is once again up in the air, with Vučić being vague about Serbia’s ongoing commitment to it when addressing media last night. “It does not make any sense to talk about [the Brussels dialogue] today. We will make a decision with a clear head, but all the postulates and starting points will now be different.”
K2.0 contacted Kosovo’s President’s Office and Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj’s Office to enquire if anything had changed with respect to Kosovo’s approach to the dialogue, but neither had responded at the time of publishing, while opposition party Vetëvendosje has once again publicly reiterated its opposition to the very premise of the dialogue.
Katarina Tadic, a Belgrade-based researcher at the European Policy Center, told K2.0 that yesterday’s incident “has definitely raised tensions again” and that “it doesn’t contribute to the dialogue. At the same time, it sends the message to the EU that the situation is still fragile and requires more time, effort and patience to reach a lasting agreement.”
Tadic highlights the fragility by pointing out that both Kosovo and Serbia have regularly banned each other’s officials from entering their territories. “Marko Đurić was banned from entering Kosovo multiple times along with other high Serbian officials and vice versa,” she said. “Every time these incidents happen, the side that was banned from entering accuses the other side of a violation of the Brussels Agreement. Yet, until now, both Kosovo and Serbia restrained from violating the ban and entering the territory of the other party illegally.”
She suggests that the whole scenario could have been foreseen. “The overall impression is that Belgrade wanted to provoke Prishtina, and Prishtina reacted accordingly,” while pointing out that the biggest problem is the “ambiguity” of agreements between the two parties, which do not specify the circumstances under which requests for visits can be rejected. “We saw an example of that yesterday, when Belgrade and Prishtina gave different interpretations.”
Meanwhile, Agon Maliqi, a public policy consultant and political analyst based between Prishtina and Tirana, believes that the events are more significant for domestic politics in Kosovo than in terms of international relations with Belgrade.
Maliqi is one of a number of prominent voices who believe that the whole event was pre-planned for political purposes. “I think that yesterday’s action will have more of an impact on the stability of the government than the dialogue,” Maliqi told K2.0. “It is clear that yesterday’s events are an effort to move things from the status quo where the negotiations [in Brussels] have stalled. Whether this will have a negative or positive effect, depends on developments that are happening behind the scenes.”
Dangerous political theater?
Many analysts and critical voices have also suggested that the whole spectacle of deployment of special unit forces was used as a camouflage for an anticipated upcoming phase in Kosovo politics — that of the creation for the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities. The Association is a controversial agreement made between the two states as part of the dialogue in Brussels that was heavily protested when presented to the Kosovo Assembly, and elements of which were deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in December 2015.
An announcement was made yesterday that a working group would be formed to begin working on writing the statute regarding the Association.
“The signals for establishing the Association [of Serb Majority Municipalities] are public,” said Maliqi, who feels that the spectacle around Đurić’s arrest can help dampen the fierce rejection expected from the opposition in Kosovo. Vetëvendosje, who just last week had a number of deputies detained by police for disrupting the voting session on the demarcation agreement with Montenegro, have frequently reiterated their opposition to the Association in the last 24 hours.
Claims regarding opportunistic timing are also echoed in Belgrade by Tadic. “Yesterday’s act of [the Kosovo Police special units] was a ‘nice’ opportunity to demonstrate its force,” she told K2.0. “Because, accidentally or not, it happened on the same day when the Kosovo Government announced a highly unpopular decision to start drafting a proposal of the statute of [the Association].”
Today’s announcement by Lista Srpska that they are withdrawing from Kosovo’s government has further complicated the picture for the future of the Association, with the party promising to move unilaterally to form the Association next month.
Based on the EU reaction sent to K2.0, such a stance will not be supported by Brussels. “All issues of mutual concern need to be addressed within the framework of the EU facilitated Dialogue, which as an ultimate goal aims at a normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia,” Kocijančić stated. “This was reconfirmed by Presidents Thaçi and Vučić during their meeting with the High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini last Friday.”
However, despite the high tension, Tadic argues that precedents have already been set in which politicians have quickly reversed their political actions from the harsh language they have employed and that not everything should be taken at face value.
“Let’s not forget that after the murder of Oliver Ivanović the dialogue was suspended, we heard accusations and inflammatory rhetoric on both sides and then, after only 10 days, the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo met in Davos, emphasizing the need to continue with the dialogue,” she stated. “Hence, I would not take everything that our political representatives say seriously.”K
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.