Ethnic Strife In Kosovo And Serbia Reignited By Policy Changes In Pristina

Along Kosovo’s northern border, protests by ethnic Serbians, provoked by a change in vehicle registration policy from Pristina, have been emblematic of historic geopolitical tensions. Beginning in July, protests have led to mass arrests, delayed local elections, and have been condemned by EU leadership. Tensions within Kosovo between its majority Muslim Albanian citizens and minority Eastern Orthodox Serbians date back to 1912 when Serbian regained control of Kosovo in the Balkans Wars. Today, Serbia continues to claim Kosovo as an autonomous province despite Kosovo’s formal declaration of independence in 2008. The United States and 22 European Union members recognize the country while both China and Russia refute the region’s sovereignty and blocked its UN membership. Roadblocks in Kosovo’s Serb majority regions were ignited by the arrest of Dejan Pantic who quit the Kosovo police a month ago with over 600 fellow Serb officers. Dejan Pantic was arrested on Saturday at the Jarinje border crossing towards Central Serbia and charged with organizing and taking part in an attack on the police days prior. Mass resignations were triggered by the suspension of regional police commander Nenad Djuric on November 3rd for refusing to issue warnings and fines to Serb drivers whose vehicles have Serbian-issued license plates.

On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell announced that the EU “will not tolerate attacks on EULEX (European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo) or use of violent, criminal acts in the north.” Borell’s statement was released after a stun grenade was thrown at an EULEX reconnaissance patrol unit in Rudare, Kosovo. Leaders on both sides of the border have called for international intervention to maintain order. Serbian President Aleksander Vucic reached out to KFOR leadership [NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo] for approval to deploy the Serbian military and police in northern Kosovo. Concurrently, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti has called for external condemnation, “Any non-punishment by the EU and the US of this orchestrated violence will encourage official Belgrade to further push for the destabilization of Kosovo.”

Layered in the controversy of autonomous governance for ethnic Serbs in the region is the underlying proxy conflict between Russia and the U.S. A joint statement by U.S. Embassies deemed “roadblocks, as well as threats and intimidation against the Kosovan authorities… unacceptable.” Maria Zakharova of the Russian Foreign Ministry said “We [Moscow] will continue to help Belgrade defend its legitimate national interests in relation to Kosovo.” The lingering effects of Cold War ideological differences and power struggles between the US and Russia exacerbate the Serbian-Albanian tensions emphasizing the need for EU leadership to shepherd a peace agreement.

The 2013 landmark agreement signed by the government of Serbia and Kosovo in Brussels helped normalize relations years after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of freedom. Pristina and Belgrade negotiated for over 10 years about 50 documents which ended in 21 agreements. According to Serbian Daily, President Vucic declared the agreement void in March. In an article by Al Jazeera, Igor Novakovic, a research director of the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC) Fund, attributed the tension in northern Kosovo to Pristina’s failure to maintain its commitments under the Brussels pact. Novakovic referenced Pristina’s inability to establish the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) in the north. Euractiv news outlines that hesitation on the part of Pristina is founded on concerns that without proper implementation the association will create a “state within a state” dismantling Kosovo’s newly formed political structure.

The four municipalities of northern Kosovo in which roadblocks and clashes with the police force are taking place have proclaimed their loyalty to Serbia and Vucic. Resignations of ethnic Serbs from the local government demonstrate the gravity of the conflict which is drawing speculation of violent clashes if a resolution is not reached. While NATO and UN peacekeeping missions are on the ground, Serbia has made known its willingness to defend the liberty of protestors regardless of foreign disapproval. In 1998-1999, armed conflict in Kosovo lead to over 13,000 deaths, the displacement of over 1.2 million ethnic Albanians, and decades-long foreign oversight. EU leadership must mandate negotiations between Vucic and Kurti addressing ethnic discord. A new peace deal must outline adequate political representation for Serbs in the north while acknowledging the independence of modern Kosovo.