US calls on Serbian Prez Vucic to release Kosovo police officers; tensions high

Against the background of a seventh week of anti-violence protests now turned anti-government, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic faced calls over the June 17-18 weekend from the US State Department to release three Kosovo police officers arrested allegedly in Serbia last week.

“We call on President Vucic and the Serbian government to immediately and unconditionally release the three Kosovo police detained on June 14,” said US State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller in a press release. “Their arrest and ongoing detention on spurious charges has exacerbated an already tense situation.

“We also continue to call on both Serbia and Kosovo to follow the three-point plan outlined by the EU and return to the EU-facilitated dialogue without delay,” Miller added.

The arrests came with tensions this year at an all-time-high between Kosovo and Serbia, following rounds of negotiations to “normalize” relations between the two states. Normalization talks, brokered by the EU and the US, have, however, continually stalled on Kosovo’s unwillingness to enable a Community of Serb Municipalities (CSM) in North Kosovo to all ethnic Serbs some form of self-governance there, as well as doubts as to whether Serbia is willing to recognize Kosovo as a state in any form.

The call from the US to release the officers may push Vucic and the Serb government to de-escalate, or it may simply complicate an already highly complex situations. The Kosovo officers were allegedly arrested on the Serb side of the border. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti claims they were actually kidnapped. Meanwhile, heavy handed police activity in North Kosovo—including the allegedly beatings of two ethnic Serb minors over the weekend—has further enraged locals who saw ethnic-Albanian mayors elected despite a widespread ban on participation in local elections by ethnic Serbs.

And while the US has called for unconditional release, both countries have fallen back on the “rule of law.” Legal arguments are nothing new for Kurti, as previously former ethnic-Serb policemen were arrested, and at times held in secrecy with apparently not even one officer’s lawyer knowing the whereabouts of his client while he was held in accordance with Kosovo laws and rules on national security.

Likewise, the CSM arguably conflicts with the current Kosovo Constitution, and in fact the Kosovo government has repeatedly argued this point. Serbia has argued that the CSM should have been put in place shortly after both states signed a peace agreement in 2013.

With regard to current protests, Kurti first claimed that mayors elected with only 3.5 percent vote had to be put in place, according to “legal elections.” Riots ensued in which scores of NATO KFOR troops were injured. The US and the EU then pressured Kurti to re-run elections and also move on the CSM.

Kurti announced that new elections would happen, but he also announced a greater police presence to come—which hardly was viewed as a concession by ethnic Serbs.

Back on the Serbian side of the border Serbian prosecutors are investigating allegations of the Kosovo officers having crossed illegally into Serbia. This de facto means that the arrested officers are now mired in the swamp of the Serbian justice system. Whether they can be simply “unconditionally released” will likely be a subject of dispute.

Finally, there is the “gentleman’s agreement” between both Kosovo and Serbia—with this being the three-point plan that was followed with quite a few more implementation points purportedly agreed upon, according to the EU. Yet nothing has been signed, and some political pundits are claiming that Vucic’s position is weakening at home.

Which means the remainder of June promises to be…


Photo by Vojska Srbije, CC BY 3.0 RS <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/rs/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons.

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