In-depth | Politics

Political turmoil in the north

By - 15.06.2023

Developments but no progress.

On June 14 the tense situation in the north of Kosovo took an unexpected turn. According to the Kosovar government, three Kosovar police officers were kidnapped inside the territory of Kosovo.

The police said they suspect the officers were kidnapped by Serbian gendarmerie during a patrol near Tresave and Bare, in the municipality of Leposavić, near Kosovo’s northernmost border. The Serbian government claims that the officers were arrested inside Serbian territory.

The detaining of the three Kosovar officers took place in an already complicated context. On May 26, Serbs in Leposavić, Zvečan and Zubin Potok began protests that are now entering their fourth week. Although the protests have calmed down since early June, sporadic incidents continue and political tension remains.

The international community is asking for new elections in the north of Kosovo and the establishment of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM). The government of Kosovo has in principle agreed to new elections, though with conditions. Meanwhile, Srpska Lista, the main Serb political party in Kosovo, has said they will not participate in the elections without the establishment of the ASM. And now Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has proposed a draft statute for the ASM.

K2.0 gives a rundown of the developments and their implications.

What does the international community say?

The rhetoric from the international community, particularly from the U.S., has become increasingly harsh towards Kosovo. They are blaming the Kosovar government for tensions in the north. In particular, they opposed Kosovo’s decision to install, with police accompaniment, the newly elected Albanian mayors in municipal buildings in the northern Serb-majority municipalities after April elections, which were boycotted by Serbs and which saw a 3% voter turnout. The international community has stated that Kosovo did not coordinate with them about this action with the mayors and proposes the mayors work from alternative buildings.

According to the international community, the current tensions could have been avoided. On May 26, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the actions of the Kosovo government are “undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and will have consequences for our bilateral relations with Kosovo,” in what was widely seen as a serious warning towards Kosovo.

On May 30, Kosovo’s participation in the U.S.-European military exercises “Defender Europe 2023,” was canceled. U.S. Ambassador Jeff Hovenier, repeating what Blinken stated, said that the cancellation would be only the first consequence for Kosovo. Hovenier repeated his request that the government “urgently move forward with the process of establishing the Association.”

On June 3, the European Union asked Kosovo to withdraw police units from municipal facilities and, along with the U.S., that the elected Albanian mayors temporarily perform their duties in premises other than the municipal buildings. They asked that Kosovo and Serbia engage in dialogue to find a sustainable solution to the situation in the north of Kosovo, which could pave the way for the implementation of recent normalization agreements. They also called for Kosovo to start “without any further delay or precondition the work to establish the Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities.” The EU also expressed concern about the Serbian military, which went into high alert status.

The European Plan — the most recent normalization agreement between Kosovo and Serbia which was discussed in March in Ohrid — created optimism in the international community about the resolution of a series of tensions in the north of Kosovo throughout 2022. However, the agreement in Ohrid did not address or resolve the issue of the withdrawal of Serbs from public institutions in November of last year and the subsequent election boycott by Srpska Lista.

On June 5, Miroslav Lajčák, the EU mediator in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, and Gabriel Escobar, the U.S. special envoy for the Western Balkans, met with Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Kosovo. They presented three demands: the de-escalation of the situation in the north, the announcement of new elections and a return to the EU-mediated dialogue. These, according to Lajčák and Escobar, were a set of common demands from the international community.

Within days two unconfirmed documents were made public that contained a list of sanctions against Kosovo in case these demands were not met. The first one, published by Euronews Albania on June 7, purportedly came from the U.S. Sanctions included the freezing of funding and a passive approach to Kosovo’s integration into international organizations and Serbia’s campaign to derecognize Kosovo.

The other document, published by Radio Free Europe on June 13, was purportedly from the EU andincluded the suspension of invitations for Kosovo’s participation in high-level events and bilateral visits by the EU and member states, the suspension of the joint cooperation within the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) and the suspension of funding.

Peter Stano, EU spokesperson, said on June 14 that a series of measures against Kosovo are being discussed, but that they are not sanctions. Instead, they are temporary political and financial measures with immediate effect and in response to Kurti’s “failure” to take concrete steps for reducing the tensions.

The rhetoric from the international community divided public debate in Kosovo into two camps. One criticizes the Kurti government for not coordinating with the international community and not fulfilling their demands, which they fear will lead to damaged relations, especially with the U.S. The other camp is criticizing the international community for one-sided criticism of Kosovo while not using the same language or threatening sanctions against Serbia.

What does the government say?

The government of Kosovo has tried to present the pressure from the international community as unjust. In turn, they’ve responded to international pressure on their own terms.

In a press conference on June 7, Kurti noted that there are challenges with international diplomatic envoys and that he does not think that “these things are resolved with pressure and with mention of consequences, maybe even sanctions for the most democratic and progressive state in the Western Balkans.” 

In an interview with the Associated Press on June 8, Kurti complained about tolerance from the U.S. and the EU towards the “authoritarian regime” of Serbia. “On the contrary… they come to us with demands, with the demands of the other party,” he said.

Kurti has said that in principle he supports the de-escalation of the situation in the north, but certain conditions must be maintained until there are new elections.

On June 13, he sent a letter to EU High Representative Josep Borell with a five-point plan to resolve the situation in the north of Kosovo. The first point of the plan envisages the identification, prosecution and fair trial of all members of the criminal groups that attacked the police, NATO troops and journalists in the May 29 protests in Zvečan. At noon on June 13, the Kosovo Police arrested a Serb, who, according to Minister of Internal Affairs Xhelal Sveçla, had led the violent crowd at the Zvečan protest.

The second point of the plan calls for violent groups to immediately withdraw from the territory of Kosovo and the prohibition of “any criminal act against the institutions of Kosovo.” The third point suggests that the police and members of NATO and EULEX carry out joint security assessments “to guarantee a safe and risk-free environment for all.”

Once these three points are fulfilled, according to the plan, early elections can be announced in the four municipalities in the north, and then Kosovo and Serbia would return to the dialogue. The Kosovar government has also requested that the participation of Serbs, both the voters and the candidates, should be ensured in the new elections.

In response to this plan, Borell from the EU said that it does not address some key elements that have fueled the current crisis. The answer also states that a high-level meeting can be organized with the precondition that the situation in the north will be improved and the path towards new elections started.

In 2022 and 2023 Kurti suggested several proposals for resolving tensions in the north when international pressure increased towards Kosovo. They were not taken up by the international community or by the Kosovar government.

A similar thing happened at the beginning of February. Amidst pressure from international partners to start creating the ASM, Kurti presented six prior conditions. One condition was that the ASM be part of the final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia and be implemented after parallel structures in the north are dissolved. However, at Ohrid Kurti accepted an agreement that included a demand for the creation of the ASM, even though the parallel structures in the north remain.

When there have been past tensions in the north, there have been repeated rumors of sanctions against Kosovo from the U.S. and the EU when the international community has felt that the government wasn’t coordinating or cooperating with them properly. When the European Plan was being discussed in January Kurti said in an interview that the government of Kosovo has received warnings about the possibility of reduced support from the West if Kosovo “is not a constructive party” regarding the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

What about the ASM?

One of the most important points of the European Plan, the establishment of the ASM, is a constant request of the international community. It is now being presented as the key to solve the successive crises in the north of Kosovo. This is one of the pre-conditions from Srpska Lista for their participation in the upcoming elections in the north.

There are a number of proposals for the establishment of the ASM going around. Kosovo’s official management team for the ASM has made one, Kurti a separate one, and now Prime Minister Rama’s.

Rama recently got involved when he asked Kosovo to align with the international community and reduce tensions in the north of Kosovo. On June 8, he announced that he had sent the French President Emmanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz a draft statute for the ASM. While Rama’s draft remains confidential the EU said that this draft is serious.

“For me, the position of Kosovo is meaningless, because Serbia does what it has always done before. The parties are not agreeing on who should write the text and let alone on how it should be drafted,” said Rama.

EU spokesman Stano said that the plan was to hold the first drafting session for the ASM at the expert level on June 5 and 6 and that invitations had already been sent to both sides. Due to the escalation in the north, this meeting did not take place.

“The EU special envoy is ready to organize the drafting meeting very soon and is in contact with both sides,” said Stano.

Rama’s ASM draft, submitted without Kurti’s prior knowledge, provoked a backlash in Kosovo. Kurti said that Rama should send the draft to the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić for use as a model for the Albanians in the Preševo Valley. Meanwhile, the annual meeting between the governments of Kosovo and Albania, planned for June 14 in Gjakova, was canceled. Rama said that considering the tense circumstances he had proposed a smaller meeting but that Kurti did not accept the new format.

“I have informed Kurti that taking into account the weakening conditions of Kosovo’s relations with the entire Euro-Atlantic community, this meeting cannot be held in the planned format,” said Rama, warning of the potential sanctions against Kosovo. This was the first time that a meeting of the two governments was canceled unilaterally.

Relations between Kurti and the international community have been strained for months, particularly since July of last year when his government implemented reciprocity for license plates and identification documents with Serbia, which was met with barricades in the north in July and in December.

What about the three police officers?

On June 14, several photos and videos of three Kosovar police officers in Serbian detention were shared on Serbian media. They showed the three policemen lying on the ground blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs.

The Kosovo Police has said that they suspect the three officers were kidnapped by Serbian forces during a patrol near Tresave and Bare, in the Leposavić municipality, which is on Kosovo’s northern border. In the press conference a police representative said that it was an “organized kidnapping” within the territory of Kosovo. The director of the Serbian government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija, Petar Petković, said that anti-terror units of the Serbian gendarmerie arrested the three officers in the municipality of Raška, inside the territory of Serbia.

In response, the Kosovar government said they would ban the entry of any goods from Serbia as well as the entry of vehicles with Serbian license plates. However, vehicles continue to circulate across the border freely, but with increased controls.

Kurti said that the entry of Serbian forces into the territory of Kosovo is aggression aimed at escalation and destabilization. As a result of this event, the Kosovar government gathered their Security Council on June 15. After the meeting, the government said that it has decided to increase controls at the border points with Serbia.

The EU said that it is treating the situation as an “urgent matter” and that it is in contact with the parties to determine what happened. KFOR said it is in contact with Serbian authorities.

Meanwhile, Kosovo has asked the international community not to tolerate Serbia’s action.

“We call on international bodies to put pressure on Belgrade and we call for the release of the policemen. Serbia is not surprising us, it has not changed its appetites. What surprises us is the tolerance and silence of the international community towards the actions of Serbia, which is constantly seeking destabilization,” Kurti said during the conference after the meeting of the Security Council on June 15.

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.