Questionable news coverage threatens to add fuel to the near-fire in North Kosovo

The ongoing war of words—and near deeds—over the almost-conflict between Kosovo and Serbia ratcheted up yet another rung on Dec. 27, with international press continuing to harp on Serb aggression and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti reportedly implying that barricades erected in North Kosovo were linked to the infamous Wagner group of Russian-backed mercenaries now plaguing Ukraine.

With regard to the former, news coverage in the West primarily implied Serb culpability, noting that Serb forces on the border were at their highest state of readiness, and some papers, such as the UK’s Express (www.express.co.uk), went even further, with that site publishing and arguably patently false story that Serbia had “stationed troops in Kosovo” and that “Serb forces had built more roadblocks in Northern Kosovo,” which also was not only unverified but appeared to be clearly not factual.

More reliable international sources, such as Reuters, noted that the Kosovo government had closed its most important border with Serbia after Serbian protestors had blocked in from the Serbian side to stand with ethnic Serbs in North Kosovo that have manned barricades on roads there for approximately 19 days.

Yet even reputable news outlets also followed what appears to be an internationally accepted line, quoting Kosovo Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla who stated that Serbia has attempted to destabilize Kosovo under Russian influence, while adding that “since Dec. 10, Serbs in northern Kosovo have exchanged fire with police and erected more than 10 roadblocks in and around Mitrovica.”

While more than 10 roadblocks have been erected, Serbia Monthly has not seen evidence or statements from neutral observers, such as KFOR or EULEX that there has been an exchange of fire between police and ethnic-Serbs in North Kosovo—and although a gunshot incident is being investigated by KFOR, certainly there has been no sustained gunfire at any time since the protests have begun.

Likewise, while there has been much criticism with regard to Serbs refusal to join in on sanctioning Russia—ignoring the fact that Serbian faces energy supply issues—there thus far has been no true indication of evidence pointing to Serbia acting on the orders of Russia in Kosovo.

For its part, Russia also denied such meddling, although it did state that it support Serbia’s support of ethnic Serbs in Serbia, but even here the topic is complex: Serbia has at least verbally supported Ukraine’s fight against Russia based on the belief that territorial integrity cannot be violated and comparing Russia’s encroachment on Ukraine to Kosovo’s claim to independence, with Serbia firmly opposes.

Meanwhile, Kosovo’s Kurti once again upped the ante—apparently seizing on the Russian-Serbian theory by stating that barricades erected in North Kosovo have been done so by men in uniform with “dark hair, with beards” and that such barricades are warlike and “Wagner barricades.”

True, an insertion of Wagner mercenaries into Kosovo would be undeniably provocative, but again there appears to be no evidence or even concurrent reports of such a presence.

Meanwhile, Kurti has stated that a “community of Serb municipalities” in Kosovo, which appears to have support in the West if only to avert conflict, is a no-go topic. He added that KFOR will remove the barricades or that Kosovo will take matters into its own hand, as reported by Serbia’s B92 news site.

While the B92 reports could also not be verified, such moves would 1) be intensely provocative for Serbia—and they ignore the attempt to push through rush elections to replace ethnic Serbs in North Serbia and the jailing of former Serb police officers, which reportedly triggered the barricades close to three weeks ago.

What also appears to be ignored are reportedly intense meetings on the diplomatic front, if behind the scenes, both in the region and in Brussels and Switzerland, according to sources close to Serbia Monthly. And while Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has petitioned KFOR to allow a Serb force of 1,000 into North Kosovo—and while he has called ethic Serbs and Serb military heroes with his own statements having been bellicose for citizens at home—there appears to be a commitment to previous agreements, negotiation and to Serbs worried that the war years could return.

Likewise, with investment flowing in from various angles and EU accession in danger, it is very difficult to believe that armed conflict is planned or by design—at least from the Serbian side.

Yet overly sensational headlines continue to appear even while peace in the region hangs in the balance.

Hopefully, said headlines will not be the cause of what would be an avoidable and tragic tip.

Photo of Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti by Arianit, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.

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