Security Environment Deteriorates In Northern Kosovo

Serbs in Northern Kosovo have recently reacted violently to Pristina’s actions that they perceive as anti-Serb. The arrest of a former police officer, Dejan Pantic, on December 10 served as the catalyst for the most recent protests. He was one of the many Serb people who resigned from the police and government positions last month when Pristina said it would demand Serbs to get rid of their pre-Kosovo War license plates. After the mass resignation, votes were scheduled in the municipalities of Northern Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Zvecan and Leposavic on December 18, reported Al Jazeera. Recently, police patrols in these areas increased, and international officers are present too.

Kosovo police arrested Dejan Pantic on Tuesday for allegedly destroying state buildings, breaking the windows of the electoral commission offices, and assaulting other police officers and election officials. The same day the local police heard explosions and shootings when the government was trying to prepare for the upcoming elections. Furthermore, Kosovo police officers reported being under fire in several places near a lake on the Serbian border. They said they were forced to retaliate in self-defence. Again on Saturday, according to the EU, a EULEX observation patrol was hit with a stunt grenade. No damage or injuries were reported.

Pantic’s arrest sparked protests throughout the weekend when the demonstrators blocked roads with trucks and heavy vehicles, and as a result, two border crossings with Serbia were closed. The protestors were trying to prevent the transfer of Pantic to the capital. The Serbian Government defended the action of the Serbs in Kosovo. Simultaneously, the Serbian president, who thinks the Serb population is being harassed in Kosovo, stated he would ask the NATO-led peacekeeping operation (KFOR) to allow the deployment of 1,000 Serbian troops in the north of the country, according to Euronews. Vucic acknowledged that it was highly unlikely his demand would be accepted. The President’s move will strikingly increase the tensions on the Balkan peninsula as the deployment of troops would imply giving Serbian forces control of the security of the Northern Kosovo region.

Tensions in the region have been high since Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. However, the situation escalated more this summer following the refusal of Serbia and Kosovo to accept each other’s identification documents and automobile license plates. In late November, the EU brokered a deal between the two countries. As a result, Serbia agreed to stop issuing licence plates with the initials of Kosovar towns, and Kosovo abandoned its plans to fine people who do not change their plates. The deal gave hope for normalizing the situation, but unfortunately, that did not happen.

On the one hand, Albin Kurti, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, blamed Belgrade for attempting to destabilize Kosovo. He stated that Serbia is attempting to halt the EU-mediated conversation on repairing bilateral ties and take it to the UN Security Council, where it hopes to secure backing from China and Russia. Kurti also asked KFOR to take down the barricades blocking the roads. “We call KFOR to guarantee the freedom of movement (and remove roadblocks)…KFOR is asking for more time to finish this … so we are waiting,” Kurti said. On the other hand, Serbia’s Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić, accused Kurti of pushing the Balkans “to the edge” of yet another conflict. Brnabić said: “Serbs do not feel safe and (physically) threatened, including children in kindergartens.”

Kosovo agreed on Saturday to push back the elections in the northern municipalities to April 23, 2023, to ease tensions. The postponement was welcomed by the local EU office, the embassies of Italy, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who all described it as a favourable response that advances efforts to foster a more secure environment in the north.

Once again, the tensions between the two countries further increase. These disputes are threatening the security situation in the Balkans. Therefore, all parties must refrain from taking unilateral steps that would lead to a resurgence of violence. The violence shown throughout the weekend proves that normalization of the relations between Serbia and Kosovo is highly unlikely in the near future.