US State Secretary Blinken bars Kosovo from joint military exercises over elections, handling of ethnic Serb unrest; Kurti says decision is „unfair”

In a surprise move to many international observers, the United States and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a tough message to Kosovo and to mercurial Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti May 31, effectively barring Kosovo from the planned joint-military Defender exercises to be held in Romania, due to US dissatisfaction with the handling of ethnic Serb unrest.

Kurti appeared taken aback by the decision, refusing to back down to US pressure or ethnic Serb protesters angered over recent local elections and attempts by elected ethnic Albanian mayors to go to work this week. As of May 31, Kurti said that he was forced to station “special units” at municipal buildings to protect personnel and property from violence.

That said, the decision to push through local elections in April has been deemed as unwise or worse. Following heightened tensions in January and February—including protests that were de-escalated primarily due to US and EU pressure on both Serbia and Kosovo—ethnic Serb police a city officials walked off jobs over alleged lack of independence and harassment by Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian police forces.

This came with the support of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who while agreeing to move forward at least on talks over normalization between the two states, has also long called for the creation of a Community of Serb Municipalities in North Kosovo, as was agreed upon during previous talks in 2013.

The lack of a CSM has been a sticking point in normalization talks, and Vucic has also pointed out that ethic Serbs have been victims of Kosovo police violence even this year.

Yet Kurti—while also ostensibly committing to talks—has been as adamant as he has been aggressive with regard to Kosovo independence.  Previous head-butting took place over attempts to force ethnic Serbs to re-register Serbian license plates to Kosovo plates, which was seen locally as an attempt to de facto force Serbia to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Also, following the recent walkout, the Kosovo government held local elections that saw negligible participation on the part of local Serbs—which meant very low attendance of only 4 percent overall.

This also meant that elected mayors were of ethnic Albanian descent, as virtually no Serbs took part in voting. Yet despite warnings from the West over having elections in the first place, the Kurti government committed to ensuring that new officials could take their positions at work.

This resulted in violent demonstrations that have seen both NATO KFOR forces injured, along with demonstrators. Injured KFOR troops were primarily Italian and Hungarian, and these will be bolstered with an additional 700 soldiers, as tensions continue to mount.

Noteworthy is also that not only Blinken has reprimanded Kosovo, saying that forcing access to municipal buildings was unnecessary escalation, but other governments, including that of France–and in that case also French President Emmanuel Macron–have said Kosovo bears blame.

For his part, Kurti stated that the US was overreacting and that the US decision was “unfair.”

Photo of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken by U.S. Embassy Nigeria, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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