Weekend sees heightened Kosovo-Serb tensions, roads blocked in protest over arrest of Serb officer

Kosovo license-plate issues may have been temporarily resolved, but a concerted effort to paper over tensions between the Kosovo government and Serbia appear to be failing with ethnic Serbs blocking roads north and both the Serbian government and that of Kosovo threatening to call in the cavalry over the Dec. 9-11 weekend.

The road blockages came following a remarkable turn of events Saturday: although Kosovo under the leadership of Prime Minister Albin Kurti has worked hard to point blame at Serbia for increased headbutting, not only was it revealed in the wake of the license-plate reregistration negotiations that he has taken an increasingly hard line, but on Saturday former Kosovo police officer Dejan Pantic, an ethnic Serb who had quit his post, was placed under arrest.

The cause of arrest and charges were not confirmed, but the move—whether planned or not by Kosovo—instantly ramped up tensions following what could only be considered a PR debacle for Kurti. For while Serbian President Aleksandar has long stated that Serbia will never recognize Kosovo as an independent state—a stance that is not welcomed by the EU—he has also repeatedly committed to dialogue. And Kurti?

Perhaps not so much.

Proof was in the pudding as the Serbs worked to diffuse the license-plate re-registration issue during emergency trips to France and Brussels. Kurti, however, may have made the same last-minute trip to Brussels, but he was also criticized by both EU and US officials for his hard-line stance in which he doubled down on Kosovo’s stance that ethnic Serbs would need to register vehicles under Kosovo plates—a move that locals and the Serbian government saw as de facto recognizing Serbia as an independent state.

And although a deal to allow ethnic Serbs to keep Serbian plates for now was finally agreed to, questions have remained regarding ethnic Serbs who had resigned from local government positions, as well as from the police, with Serb support.

Then came Saturday’s arrest. Whether trumped or not, the move to jail officer Pantic could not have come at a worse time—which means that questions regarding Albin’s motives are relevant.

Rhetoric from Albin was already notable salty as he called local protesters “criminal gangs,” even as Serbia notified the EU and NATO that it was ready to send in troops to protect ethnic Serbs. As a result road were blocked to Serb enclaves with trucks and heavy vehicles and Vucic requested permission from NATO to deploy troops.

This was backed by a statement from Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who, as quoted by Serbian RTS, that Serbia would “demand a return of its armed personnel to Kosovo under UN Resolution 1244.”

Vucic stated that he had no doubts that such a request would be denied, but that he was “proud of his police and military” while at the same time being committed to peace in Kosovo.

Albin matched this question with a request that KFOR send troops into open up roads—which, if enacted, would be a move instantly seen by ethnic Serbs, Serbia and even Russia as UN or NATO backed Kosovo aggression.

This request could easily be seen as a trap set by Kurti for KFOR and the UN. Yet it has not meant that EU leaders are seeing the Serbian side. Over the weekend German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stating that Kosovo had “reduced tensions” by agreeing to postpone local elections—conveniently ignoring previous election manoeuvres by the Kosovo government and an attempt to immediately replace missing Serbs from local posts during the license-plate row.

Photo: Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kosovo called for KFOR troops to intervene over Serbian road blocks in the north. Photo of KFOR troops by U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Thomas Duval, Multinational Battle Group-East Public Affairs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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