Ethnic Serbs in North Kosovo removed barricades Dec. 30, easing tensions in the latest crisis between Serbia and Kosovo in what was hailed as a triumph of dialogue, following weeks that threatened overt conflict between the two states.
“Diplomacy prevailed in de-escalating tensions in north Kosovo,” said EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs in a tweet. “Violence can never be a solution. Welcome responsible leadership of President Vučić & Prime Minister Kurti.”
Borrell added that the EU, US, and NATO/KFOR had supplied “great teamwork” in deflating the crisis, stating that “we now need urgent progress in the Dialogue.”
Noteworthy is that the word “dialogue” came with a capital “D,” and here has either been the sticking point or the key to peace since Kosovo-Serbia headbutting ramped up at about the same time as the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Certainly, dialogue has not always been on an appropriate level of civility, with North Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti reportedly labeling ethnic Serbs as “criminals” and Serbian officials having called the Kosovo government terrorists.
Likewise, in 2022 the basis for “dialogue” was difficult, with Serbs refusing to give in to pressure to recognize Kosovo as an independent state—and also seeing demands by Kurti to first re-register ethnic-Serb car license plates as a de facto move in this direction. Kurti, for his part, has stated that enclaves in Kosovo need to function according to Kosovo rules, although he has often failed to address what ethnic Serbs in Kosovo view as daily harassment by local police forces.
Now dialogue also may again have a double-edged sword. Reports from behind the scenes stated that EU and US officials promised that no ethnic Serbs who served at the barricades over the past two weeks will be prosecuted. Kurti, however, has stated—or at least heavily implied—that some at the barricades were members of the notorious Russian Wagner mercenary group, a claim that has so far been completely unfounded.
Meanwhile, a former ethnic-Serb police officer, Dejan Pantic, was moved from jail in an undisclosed location to house arrest by the decision of a local prosecutor and judge. Kurti has publicly fumed over this decision, and it is clear that tensions remain between the Kurti government and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, as well as the Serbian government.
In truth, the leaders of both states are bound to come under increased pressure. Kurti will face heavy criticism by supporters for continuously giving in to Serbian demands and, in their opinion, bullying, with some also likely to point to the EU and US and claim that both have acquiesced to Serb demands. Vucic’s Serbian backers will likely see this as a win, but there will be suspicion that the long-term agreement behind the scenes will be to give in to license-plate or ID registration for ethnic Serbs.
And at the same time, there will remain questions with regard to Serbia’s stand with the EU (or lack of support) with regard to sanctions against Russia, alignment with EU policies in general and next moves should tensions with Kosovo once again (and invariably they will) return to the brink.
As a well-placed political source for Serbia Monthly (who requested anonymity) stated: “Removing the barricades gives both sides a short-term breather. Even Kurti probably welcomes this, as he had boxed himself into a corner and over-played his hand with the EU and US both—but now what? How do we proceed? Is there even a definition that we can apply to the word ‘proceed’ under such circumstances.
“I don’t believe either side truly has a clue.”
Photo of barricades in Zvecan by Usama, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.