Behind the Renewed Troubles in Northern Kosovo
Behind the Renewed Troubles in Northern Kosovo
Polish military police officers secure the area near Zvecan, northern Kosovo on May 30, 2023, a day following clashes with Serb protesters demanding the removal of recently elected Albanian mayors. Armend NIMANI / AFP
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia 11 minutes

Behind the Renewed Troubles in Northern Kosovo

In late May, violent protests broke out in Kosovo’s four northernmost municipalities, where Serbs form the majority. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec explains what caused the unrest and what should be done to defuse tensions.

What’s happening?

On 26 May, the Kosovo government took control of municipal buildings in four northern Serb-majority cities, sparking violent protests and prompting KFOR, the U.S.-led peacekeeping force, to intervene. Days later, on 29 May, ethnic Serb protesters armed with clubs and stun grenades clashed with KFOR troops in Zvečan, one of the northern municipalities, leaving dozens injured, some seriously, on both sides. The U.S. and European Union (EU) blamed the Kosovo government for escalating tensions while faulting the Serbs for attacking the peacekeepers. On 30 May, Washington imposed a set of sanctions on Kosovo. NATO ordered its operational reserve of 700 troops into Kosovo, beefing up its presence on the ground. 

These clashes are the latest flareup in a long-running dispute that was a major driver of conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. Fighting ended at the close of that decade with NATO intervention and the separation of Kosovo (with its ethnic Albanian majority) from Serbia. While most EU member states worked with the U.S. to bring about Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, Belgrade and Pristina have never normalised relations with each other. Their relationship is plagued by two major issues. One is Serbia’s persistent refusal to join over 100 other countries (including all but five EU member states) in recognising Kosovo’s independence. The other is the question of how to integrate Kosovo’s minority Serb population into its government architecture, particularly in the four northernmost municipalities where Serbs form the majority.

A series of escalations led up to the most recent troubles. These began in September 2021 when the Kosovo government tried to make Serbs re-register their cars (which sported licence plates issued by Serbia), thus signifying their acceptance of Pristina’s sovereignty. They continued throughout 2022, as northern Kosovo Serbs resisted Pristina’s attempts to assert its authority over them by barricading roads, engaging in firefights with heavily armed special police and – in November – resigning en masse from Kosovo government posts. Until then, the municipal staff in these regions had complicated reporting lines – with some working under the Kosovo government, some under the Serbian government and some under both, although all sat in the same or adjacent offices in regional municipal buildings, which flew the Serbian flag in defiance of Pristina. In Zvečan, for example, the man who was deputy mayor in the Kosovo system was also president of the “temporary council” (in effect, the mayor) in the Serbian one. Since the mass resignation, Kosovo Serb officials who formally quit have nonetheless continued to come to work at their offices – but reported only to Serbia. Given the preponderance of ethnic Serbs in the four municipalities’ local governments, since November, only the Serbian system has functioned in northern Kosovo, dispensing a range of services on which the local population depends.

Why is it happening now?

The immediate trigger for the recent escalation is that the Kosovo government, led by Prime Minister Albin Kurti, took advantage of a crisis in neighbouring Serbia to try to cement control in the north. 

In April 2023, Pristina held local elections to replace the Serbs who had resigned in November. Serbs boycotted those elections. With only the small Albanian minority voting, turnout was in the low single digits and the result was a slate comprising exclusively ethnic Albanians. The Quint (a coordination body consisting of France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the U.S.) noted that the elections were “not a long-term political solution for these municipalities”. The Quint’s statement warned newly elected mayors and assemblies not to take actions that might heighten tensions, suggesting they need not work from the municipal office buildings and admonishing them to confine their activities to administrative functions. Until late May, Pristina had taken this advice and refrained from trying to install the new officials.

Tragedy in Serbia shifted Kosovo’s calculus. On 3 and 4 May, two men committed seemingly unrelated mass shootings in Serbia, one of which took the lives of nine elementary school students (eight of whom were girls) and the other of which killed one woman, five men and two boys in suburbs of Belgrade. By late May, revulsion, shock and grief at the killings had energised a mass movement against Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and associated media outlets, which the protesters accused of glorifying violence. Spooked by the growing size of the demonstrations, Vučić organised a rally of his own supporters on 26 May. To ensure a good turnout, the leadership rented thousands of buses and pushed everyone who depended on the ruling party’s largesse to attend. The attendees included the whole leadership of the Kosovo Serb community, including the Serb officials who had formally resigned but were still in effect running the northern towns and cities, who trekked across the border to Belgrade together with many of their own followers.

The municipal buildings, since November the centre and symbol of Serbia’s influence in Kosovo, were now flying the Kosovo flag.

With most Kosovo Serb municipal officials in Belgrade supporting Vučić on 26 May, Pristina took the opportunity to install its newly elected mayors in the four northern municipalities. The new officials arrived at the municipal buildings with police escorts. The Serb staff who had not made the Belgrade trip came to work that morning to find their offices occupied and guarded by Kosovo police. Leaderless and few in number, they could do little but grumble. The municipal buildings, since November the centre and symbol of Serbia’s influence in Kosovo, were now flying the Kosovo flag. Police officers collected Serb officials’ records and boxed them up as possible evidence of criminal activity.

Taken by surprise, on the same day Vučić ordered the Serbian army to high alert and moved several units toward the border with Kosovo. The step, while worrying, was far short of a threat of invasion: NATO troops are present in Kosovo and Serbian forces are barred from entering by a 1999 UN Security Council resolution. Moreover, Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić assured the public that Serbia was taking precautionary steps and was not planning to intervene. 

Meanwhile, over the days that followed, the Kosovo Serb leadership and its muscle – retired police officers and various groups of henchmen– returned to northern Kosovo. On 29 May, hundreds of Serb demonstrators gathered outside the municipal buildings, by now guarded not only by Kosovo’s militarised special police force but also by an outer cordon of Hungarian and Italian KFOR peacekeepers in riot gear. Early in the day, the crowd was mixed, and a group of women confronted the guards, demanding to be allowed into the municipal building so they could go to work. Later, groups of masked men, some in matching baseball caps, were more prominent. In Zvečan, the KFOR commander on the scene asked the crowd to pull back and make a corridor for the Kosovo police to evacuate two of their armoured vehicles; the Serbs refused and demanded that all the police withdraw. Fighting broke out – it remains unclear how – and quickly exploded along the line of confrontation, with the Serbs hurling rocks and improvised explosives and swinging riot sticks and the KFOR troops firing rubber bullets and tear gas. One Kosovo officer shot and seriously wounded a demonstrator with live ammunition. By the time KFOR restored order, more than 50 Serbs and about 30 peacekeepers were injured.

Crisis Group’s reporting suggests that Kosovo Serbs are now angry, frightened and suspicious of everyone involved: the Kosovo and Serbian governments, the EU mediators, and the KFOR peacekeepers. The government in Belgrade, in a panic over its own political survival, had, they believe, left them abandoned, exposed and leaderless. As for Pristina, it sees the northern Serbian community as, in Kurti’s words, at best deluded rebels and at worst a “fascist militia”.

What has been the international response? 

Kurti’s decision to take control of the municipal buildings and to keep the special police around them earned him unprecedented rebukes from Kosovo’s strongest supporters. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “strongly condemn[ed] the actions by the Government of Kosovo to access municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo by force, actions it took against the advice of the United States” and warned it would have “consequences for our bilateral relations”. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called on Kosovo to “suspend police operations focusing on the municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo, and the violent protesters to stand down”. As noted above, on 30 May, the U.S. formally sanctioned Kosovo, ejecting them from Defender 23, a massive NATO exercise, suspending efforts to secure Kosovo’s admission to international organisations and pausing high-level visits.

What are the implications and risks?

Pristina’s actions have derailed EU efforts to breathe life into agreements it has recently mediated between Kosovo and Serbia. Those pacts sketched out a path toward normalised relations, in which the two sides accepted each other’s international personality – flags, passports, licence plates and the like – and exchanged permanent representations (in effect, embassies). Attempts to nudge the parties to start honouring their agreements foundered almost immediately over the issue of Kosovo Serb autonomy, because Pristina has refused to implement an earlier (2013 and 2015) set of commitments to expand Serb self-rule by creating an Association or a Community of Serb-majority municipalities. (Kosovars favour the former term, Serbs the latter.) Kurti and many others in Kosovo’s political elite are implacably opposed to autonomy for the Serbs. The 26 May takeover, whatever else it was meant to do, may well have been intended to delay or avoid giving the Serbs greater self-rule.

Unless it is checked, the situation in northern Kosovo stands to worsen, including by escalating to more serious fighting. Even without Belgrade’s direct aid, Kosovo Serbs can count on over 1,000 people under arms. That number includes former police; veterans of the Civil Defence corps (a nominally civilian body Belgrade created to circumvent the Security Council’s ban on its armed forces in Kosovo); an unknown but significant number of enforcers working for one of the organised crime groups in the area; and possibly some troops covertly infiltrated from Serbia. Kosovo’s special police force is smaller but more professional and better armed; it can also be reinforced by the much larger regular police. Pitched battles are unlikely with KFOR on the scene. Ambushes and sabotage at night are more plausible and harder to stop in the north’s heavily forested, sparsely populated terrain, where the residents view Kosovo police as occupiers.

Kosovars could ... target the vulnerable Serb minority in southern Kosovo as ethnic scapegoats for their counterparts to the north and in Serbia proper.

Kosovars could also target the vulnerable Serb minority in southern Kosovo as ethnic scapegoats for their counterparts to the north and in Serbia proper. There are worrying precedents in this regard. In 2004, a countrywide spasm of anti-Serb violence damaged or destroyed many ancient Serbian Orthodox churches in the south and monasteries as KFOR peacekeepers stood by. A carelessly insulting remark by a Kosovo Serb minister in 2015 provoked days of rioting but much less destruction. Alternatively, the audience that follows social media influencers calling on Kosovars to “march to the north” and fight the Serbs could decide to do so. The government is urging citizens to ignore these calls, thus far successfully.

Serbia could also try to push toward a de facto partition. It was only Belgrade’s arm twisting (itself a product of EU pressure) that induced the northern Kosovo Serbs to integrate in the first place, in a gradual process starting in 2012. The local Serbs preferred and still prefer to interact with Serbian institutions. All it would take to regain control would be for Serbian officials to give a green light for northern Kosovo Serbs to continue boycotting Pristina’s institutions. Local Serbs might then seek to eject the remaining Kosovo officials, such as the police, by making life unsafe for them through ambushes and other forms of low-intensity fighting. That would leave Pristina aggrieved and the EU-mediated dialogue dead in the water.

One question is what all these events might mean for a possible de jure partition of Kosovo, in which the northern municipalities become part of Serbia. In the past, Belgrade and Pristina have discussed an exchange of territories, with northern Kosovo going to Serbia, and comparable parts of Serbia’s Albanian-majority Preševo valley going to Kosovo. Crisis Group has urged keeping an open mind about such an arrangement as part of a comprehensive agreement between the two countries, while warning of its risks, which include a crisis in neighbouring states such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia. Past attempts to negotiate a land swap foundered upon mutual mistrust and amid strong European opposition to the precedent of redrawing borders in this way. It is hard to imagine such a delicate negotiation succeeding today with relations between the Kosovo and Serbian leaderships at their worst in many years.

What can be done?

The U.S. and the EU are right to urge the Kurti government to withdraw its police from the northern municipal buildings and to have its newly elected mayors act only as caretaker administrators working from alternate locations, for example offices in Albanian-majority villages. NATO is also right to deploy its operational reserve. If that can be accomplished and the situation calms, Kosovo should organise new elections in those four municipalities, as Kurti has said he is willing to do, in order to put in place representative local authorities.

Yet the Serbs would probably boycott elections without further concessions from Pristina, which have to be negotiated. That requires reviving the EU-led dialogue. The key demand, needed to secure Serb participation in elections and to revive the talks, is a credible gesture from the Kurti government when it comes to Serb autonomy, such as a commitment that Kosovo is willing to amend its legislation and constitution, if necessary, to create a self-governing Community or Association of Serb-majority municipalities. With that in hand, the northern Serbs can do their part by returning to the Kosovo institutions they deserted in November 2022 and Belgrade by following through on its promises to normalise relations with Pristina, even if that continues to fall short of recognition.

But Kurti, a strong leader who feels he has the people behind him, may be unwilling to take those steps, whatever the consequences for his country’s relations with its long-term backers. Although his popularity gives him the ability to take risks others could not, thus far he shows no inclination to do so. If he continues to resist these measures – and the next several months should tell – then Serbia and Kosovo could well find themselves in a dangerous escalatory dynamic. That, in turn, would require the U.S. and the EU to rethink their priorities for the two neighbours – focusing on crisis management, with the search for a lasting solution to the Kosovo-Serbia dispute deferred until better times. The immediate tasks then would become protecting minorities – the Kosovo Serbs and the Albanian villagers in Serb-majority areas – and nudging both Kosovo and Serbia toward other projects, like domestic reform.

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