A cascade of incidents culminating over the Dec. 16-18 weekend has ramped up tensions between the government of Kosovo and Serbia—with reported arrests of ethnic Serbian police officers in Kosovo on the verge of tipping fraught nerves into violence.
Enraged by the first arrest of a Serbian police officer, Dejan Pantic, during the previous week, ethnic Serbs hit the streets to set up barricades in the face of threats by the Kosovo government to remove them by force. These quickly became requests by Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti for back up from his Western allies, with some reportedly frustrated by the belligerence of both sides.
Yet if there was immediate hope that tensions would be diffused, this was short-lived, as Kosovo authorities almost immediately arrested a second officer, Sladjan Trajkovic. This was followed by the arrest of Dejan Leposavic at the Jarinje border crossing, with Leposavic reportedly charged with being the mastermind behind and alleged attack on the Central Election Commission office and Kosovo police. By Monday, reportedly a total of four officers had been arrested, with the Serbian government claiming that Kosovo police or militia with “long guns” had been identified.
Noteworthy is that ethnic-Serb police officers in Kosovo are by and large all “former” officers, as, together with other public officials, ethnic-Serb police previously resigned from their positions in protest over now delayed demands that ethnic Serbs re-register license plates to Kosovo plates in November.
The arrests clearly enraged at least right-wing Serbs, as over the weekend downtown Belgrade was flooded with supporters of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. Pristina in the meantime also upped the ante by filing an official request to join the European Union.
This last request—as well as a combination of aggressive moves by Kosovo police forces and calls by Pristina for KFOR to ensure peace—has put the West again in a very uncomfortable scenario. Although Kurti was called out by EU and US officials only weeks ago for his tension-fueling stance on license plates (and his hard-line stance during negotiations), he is clearly now also attempting the EU to walk the walk on previous statements with regard to Serbia.
The EU has, in fact, for months battered Serbia with demands for it to fall more in line with EU policy concerning Russia—i.e levying sanctions—while at the same time making it clear that it would like to see a “normalization” of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which would mean recognizing Kosovo as an independent state.
The last is a no-go move for Vucic, but the first also puts Serbia between a rock and a hard place over energy supply.
But for all of the marching and shouting (and occasional reported gunshots at the sky), further political moves by both sides have set the West on edge.
Yet inflammatory news has hardly subsided, with an admission by the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) that it did not know where Pantic was being held—and this tied to an additional and concerning caveat by EULEX that it could not “take on the role of the police” in North Kosovo.
Meanwhile, the Serbian government has shown no signs of backing down. On Dec. 15, following the arrest of Pantic, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic confirmed that the Serbian government had sent a request to KFOR to allow Serbian military and police to return to Kosovo. Although this was largely seen as symbolic and a nod to Vucic’s nationalist support inside Serbia—with even Vucic having admitted that there was little to no chance of KFOR allowing a return of Serb forces—it was clearly a request not welcomed by the EU or the US, with the latter categorically refusing to contemplate such a move.
The request was, however, not for an overwhelming force, with Vucic also attempting to reassure the region that the events of March 2014 were not in the cards. According to Vucic, the official request was for KFOR to allow only up to1,000 poilce and military personnel to return to Kosovo line with UN Security Council resolution 1244—in order to protect the rights of ethnic Serbs.
“That is important for the protection of the Serb population and the control of administrative crossings which would dramatically ease tensions,” Vucic stated, as cited by Rsn1info.com. “It would a good decision but we are almost certain that it will not be accepted based on what we have heard.”
Noteworthy here is that, as noted, Vucic has admitted the futility of the request. That said, he has also doubled-down on the legal basis for the request and claimed back home that it cannot be denied by KFOR.
Yet despite playing a strong—and some would argue dangerous—hand, the arrests of ethnic-Serb police continued throughout the weekend.
Now, with events rolling forward at seemingly breakneck pace—and with the US and EU clearly concerned over the possibility of shooting between both sides–a wide array of security moves and secret meetings has reportedly taken place. This has included the strengthening of KFOR checkpoints, alleged secret meetings between Serb and Kosovo envoys, mediated by Switzerland, and still more (and highly varied) statements from both the Kosovo and Serb governments both assigning blame and calling for peace.
In short, the stalemate—which now includes border closings, border protests and alleged troop or weapons movements by both sides—continues.
And if there are predictions for the coming week, the most accurate description for the next seven days could be summed up with simply one word:
Photo of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic by Guelland/ MSC, CC BY 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons.