During a weekend that saw mass protests and the official announcement that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic would step down from the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), clashes in Kosovo between Kosovan police and ethnic-Serb protesters saw rising tensions on all sides—and calls from NATO to leaders in Kosovo to de-escalate and not take “destabilizing steps.”
Persons in Belgrade interviewed by Serbian Monthly worried over “dark times,” as tens of thousands of citizens again turned out on Saturday May 27 to protest gun violence, as well as the current government and media, which much of the population—and the opposition—have decried corruption and claimed foment violence through thuggish coverage and reality TV shows.
Protesters have also called for resignations of ministers from key government posts, including that of the Ministry of the Interior. Calls have also gone out for the resignation of the head of the intelligence services, Aleksandar Vulin, who controversially travelled to Moscow late last week for a “security conference” at approximately the same time that US senators were in Belgrade to push Serbia to move closer to the West.
The turnout followed a pro-government protest on May 26 in which Vucic generally held back from criticizing protesting Serbs, whom he called by and large “good people” who want the best for Serbia, although he sharply criticized opposition politicians for taking advantage of two shootings that left 18 dead and scores of wounded at the beginning of May.
Meanwhile, Vucic’s future in politics has become somewhat enigmatic. Elections are likely to be called in September, and in the past he has voiced both defiance and frustration and suggested that he would willingly step down from the presidency if a more able politician were to step up to handle, for example, unrest in Kosovo. This very gradual step away from politics seemed to finally manifest also this weekend when he followed through on his own announcement that he might resign from the leadership of his SNS party, which he has led since 2012.
And no matter how he is viewed, it would be hard to blame him for wanting to abandon politics altogether. Apart from dissension at home, Vucic has been walking an East-West tightrope for years, playing on ostensible plans to join the EU but also understanding both historical and energy dependence on Russia. Of late, the result has been both statesmen-like commitments to further dialogue with the EU, but also extremely sharp criticism of the West for hard-liners back home.
Yet the tightrope is becoming more wobbly by the minute, with this highlighted by unrest in Kosovo. Anger among ethnic Serbs in North Kosovo over alleged harsh treatment by Kosovo police put Serbia and Kosovo on semi-war footing earlier in the year, with this averted by a “gentleman’s deal” purported (by the EU) to see normalization of relations between the two states.
But whether or not a deal was ever truly reached is up for debate, with Vucic having repeatedly stated that recognition of Kosovo as a state by the UN, for example, was not “on the table” or something that Serbia would support. The beleaguered president also has repeatedly pointed to the fact that an agreement hammered out in 2013 to created the Community of Serb Municipalities (CSM) was never honored, and this has been a sticking point in further negotiations, as there has seemed to be no true intention on the part of Kosovo to stick to this part of the deal—neither in the past or present.
Meanwhile, ethnic Serbs in Kosovo once again made it clear that they have had enough, with protesters attempting to block entry of recently elected Kosovo officials to local municipal buildings, following local elections in which almost no ethnic Serbs took part.
Kosovo police resulted to tear gas and what Vucic called “brutal” tactics to enable newly elected mayors to go to work, with this resulting in further clashes and newsreel footage of burning cars. On this note, news organizations attested to rocks thrown by ethnic Serbs and liberal use of tear gas by Kosovo police, who are almost all ethnic Albanian.
Vucic, for his part, lashed out at NATO and the West, saying that NATO has long failed to protect ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. He also put troops on the border on the “highest state of alert,” which, needless to say, is unlikely to further normalization talks between the two states.
Yet it clearly takes two to tango, and noteworthy is that the actions of Kosovo police also resulted in NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg demanding restraint, adding that “Pristina must de-escalate and not take unilateral, destabilizing steps,” in an official Tweet.
Photo of Belgrade protest by SM.