In-depth | Politics

What’s happening in the north?

By - 30.05.2023

Tensions again in Kosovo’s Serb-majority municipalities in the north.

On the afternoon of Monday, May 29, dozens of soldiers from KFOR — the NATO mission in Kosovo — were injured during an attempt to disperse Serb protesters in Zvečan. After KFOR called for protesters to disperse, the crowd refused and threw stones, stun grenades and Molotov cocktails. There were also shootings. Tense protests continued in three municipalities on Tuesday, May 30 and there was a heavy presence of Kosovo Police and KFOR soldiers.

KFOR reported that 11 Italian soldiers and 19 Hungarian soldiers from their force were injured after facing “unprovoked attacks by a violent and dangerous crowd.” The soldiers reportedly suffered fractures and burns. KFOR also announced that three of the soldiers were wounded by gunshots. According to the Kosovo Police, five people have been arrested in relation to these attacks.

A doctor in a Serbian hospital in North Mitrovica reported that 52 civilians sought medical treatment after the protests, including one man who suffered two gunshot wounds and was in serious condition.

On Monday, Serbs in Zvečan, Leposavić and Zubin Potok gathered in front of municipal buildings to prevent the newly elected Albanian mayors from taking their seats. The mayors came to power through extraordinary local elections held on April 23, which local Serbs boycotted and for which the voter turnout was roughly 3%. Local elections also occurred in North Mitrovica.

This is the second protest as a result of the local elections. The first occurred on Friday May 26, a day after the four newly elected mayors took their oaths of office. On May 26 the mayors entered the municipal buildings under escort of the Kosovo Police due to Serb protesters, many of whom attempted to prevent the mayors from entering the buildings.

The police encountered resistance and clashes broke out. Protesters threw stones and injured five policemen and the police responded with stun grenades and tear gas.

The decision to have the mayors force their way into the buildings with police assistance was strongly criticized by the international community, who accused the government of Kosovo of not coordinating with them. Describing the entry as “forced access,” many called on the government not to escalate the situation. Critics of the action argued that since Serbs did not participate in the elections, the new mayors were not legitimately elected.

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti said on May 27 that they are aware and understand the concerns raised by the international community, but that any other option would have been a failure to fulfill the constitutional obligations of the government. Through a Facebook post, Kurti said: “it would mean a failure to fulfill the obligations and duties of the newly elected mayors towards the citizens of the Republic and it would make it impossible to provide basic municipal services to citizens.”

Only 1,532 of the 45,095 eligible voters cast a ballot during the April 23 elections in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities. Srpska Lista — the largest Serb political party in Kosovo and which is supported by the government of Serbia and has governed these municipalities since 2013 — did not participate in the elections. The election boycott by Srpska Lista was preceded by a chain of events both local and international which started in November 2022.

In the April 23 elections, voters had almost exclusively candidates from Albanian parties to choose from. Out of 10 mayoral candidates, only one was a Serb.

Elections results

According to final ballot box tallies published on April 25, Vetëvendosje (VV) candidate Erden Atiq won the mayorship of North Mitrovica with 553 votes (66.9%).

In Zvečan, PDK candidate Ilir Peci won with 114 votes (59%).

In Zubin Potok, PDK candidate Izmir Zeqiri won with 197 votes (52.2%).

Lulzim Hetemi of VV won in Leposavić with 100 votes (73.5%).

Violent protests

Early in the morning of May 29, Serb protesters gathered in front of the municipality buildings in Zvečan, Leposavić and Zubin Potok. KFOR increased its presence in the three municipalities and prevented protesters from entering the buildings.

Kosovar police officers fired tear gas at the protesters in Zvečan when they tried to enter the municipality building.

Srpska Lista President Goran Rakić and Vice President Igor Simić were present from the early hours. Rakić said that he forwarded requests to KFOR representatives and ambassadors in Prishtina that would enable the Serb protesters to withdraw.

“Our demands are that the illegal ‘sheriffs’ — as they’re calling themselves — go home and take their relatives with them. And also all the special units in the municipality building, around the municipality, withdraw to the south, because this is not a police station, it is the municipal building,” said Rakić. Srpska Lista sent the same requests to KFOR for Leposavić and Zubin Potok.

The same day U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier invited the newly elected mayors of Serb-majority municipalities to a meeting. The two mayors from VV — Erden Atiq, elected mayor of North Mitrovica and Lulzim Hetemi, elected mayor of Leposavić — did not attend.

“In the meeting with the mayors, we talked about how they can fulfill their duties, to serve all citizens, in a way that shows responsibility to all citizens, and [that] according to us, right now means not accessing the buildings with the use of force,” said Hovenier after the meeting with the Zeqiri and Peci, elected mayors of Zubin Potok and Zvečan, respectively.

In the afternoon, Kurti met with the representatives of the Quint countries — the U.S., U.K., Italy, Germany and France — who asked him to de-escalate the situation in the north of Kosovo.

Hovenier, who participated in the meeting, said that “there is an agreement that the de-escalation of the situation should happen, but I don’t know how it will happen.”

“We believe that it is not necessary for the elected mayors to work every day in the municipal buildings. For a short term, we recommend that this not be done,” said Hovenier. Noting that the mayors took their oaths in alternative buildings and avoided conflict, Hovenier suggested that a similar approach be taken during their work.

After this meeting Kurti accused Belgrade in a press release of directing “extremist crowds.”

The statement reads: “Although there are also peaceful protesters in these gatherings today, the prime minister estimated that these are not peaceful protests, but crowds of extremists directed by official Belgrade. Serbian nationalist chauvinist and pro-Kremlin graffiti with masked extremists targeting, vandalizing and attacking anything non-Serb is the main indicator of the motives behind the violent actions, which should be strongly condemned by all.”

A Serbian nationalist symbol, a cross with four letter “Cs” which symbolizes “Only unity saves the Serbs,” was graffitied on Kosovar police cars and journalists’ cars. The letter Z, a symbol of signifying support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was also written on vehicles belonging to the Kosovo Police, KFOR and the media. Protesters also directed insults and nationalist slogans at journalists and the police.

The Kosovo Police stated that armed criminal groups and individuals dressed in black and masked were circulating in these three municipalities. Many such people were seen in the protests.

Journalists reporting from these municipalities on May 29 were targeted by some of the protesters. A crew from the Periskopi portal was attacked, while vehicles belonging to Kallxo, TV Dukagjini, KOHA, Top Channel, T7 were vandalized. A Tëvë1 car was set on fire. A bullet penetrated the driver’s seat of a car belonging to local television channel, Syri Vizion. A group of journalists were stuck in a cafe in Zvečan for more than three hours. The mayor of Leposavić, Lulzim Hetemi, was stuck in the municipality building overnight.

On Friday May 26, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić ordered the army to go into combat alert. On Monday, Serbia announced that the full deployment of military formations near Kosovo would be carried out that very day.

Meanwhile, KoSSev, a local Serbian media outlet in North Mitrovica, reported that all the schools in the north have decided to suspend classes due to the situation. They cited parents’ concerns and the risk to children’s safety. 

The new tensions in the north — following crises in late 2022 — raise questions about the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, the European Plan and its implementation. When Kosovo and Serbia agreed to this plan on March 18 in Ohrid, it was widely seen as a new opportunity to get out of the political stalemate between the two states.

The most discussed issue continues to be Article 7 of the European Plan, which requires Kosovo to immediately start negotiations within the EU-mediated dialogue “to ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo” and in accordance with previous agreements. If “self-management” is implemented according to previous agreements, it would necessarily need to be implemented according to the Brussels Agreement of 2013 and 2015, which foresees the establishment of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.

Since March some steps have been taken in this direction. A management team has presented the first draft of the statute for the Association, as Prime Minister Kurti himself has presented his “draft-vision” for this during a meeting he had with President Vučić on May 2 in Brussels. The meeting of the chief negotiators, Besnik Bislimi and Petar Petković, about the implementation of the European Plan on May 15 did not yield any results.

The international community called for a de-escalation of the situation in the north and for Kosovo and Serbia to work on implementing the European Plan, including the establishment of the Association.


Feature Image: NATO via CC.