Kosovar officials insist that the policy has produced interconnected crises across the region, designed to fuel chaos and force the West to accept increases in Belgrade’s influence and power within neighboring former Yugoslav republics. Last week, the United Nations High Representative in Bosnia warned in a report to the United Nations that the country could disintegrate and the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement collapse if Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, Serbian member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, had gone ahead with plans to withdraw from Bosnia’s military, judicial and fiscal structures to build their own army.
Dodik, former president of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity formed at the end of the 1992-1995 war, said last month that he intended to declare full autonomy from Sarajevo. He insisted that the Republika Srpska would remain a part of Bosnia and denied attempting to start a war, but hinted that Russia would provide support if the West tried to intervene militarily.
In September, riots broke out in Montenegro after the Serbian Orthodox Church appointed a new patriarch to the country, a move seen by some as Belgrade’s attempt to reassert control.
In Kosovo, the latest round of escalation began in September, when the Kurti government said it would require Serbian drivers to use temporary Kosovar license plates when crossing the border, a measure that mirrors long-standing Serbian policy, and sent the police to enforce it.
Serbian activists in northern Kosovo responded by blocking the roads. Vucic then placed Serbian forces on high alert near the border and deployed fighter planes, helicopters and troops in armored combat vehicles and warned that he would act if the protesters were attacked. The stalemate was finally defused by international mediation after two weeks.
On 13 October, Serbian protesters clashed with Kosovar police who raided a pharmacy in northern Mitrovica, a Serb-majority enclave, in what authorities said was part of a level-level anti-smuggling operation. national. By the end of the morning, 10 police officers and 10 Serbian demonstrators had been injured, one by a gunshot.
Serbia blamed Kurti for the tension, accusing him of bringing the region to the “brink of chaos”. Kurti accuses Serbia of organizing “spontaneous” protests as an instrument of political pressure.
The war of words continued last week when Vucic accused Kurti of planning further police action, this time to take control of a disputed electrical substation which is located in an area controlled by Serbia but provides power throughout the country. province. Kurti has denied such plans for the telegraph.
Zahir Tanin, head of the UN mission in Kosovo, warned that the incidents threatened to “unravel the steady but fragile progress made in rebuilding trust between communities”.
Kurti, whose government expelled two Russian diplomats last month, believes Vucic is encouraged by Vladimir Putin, who he says sees an opportunity to challenge the West in the region.
The Russian ambassador visited Serbian troops near the border with Kosovo during the September military build-up. Last month, the two countries’ armed forces held joint air defense exercises in Serbia.
Not all outsiders are convinced that Vucic is on the warpath. The conflict would put an end to Serbia’s ambitions for EU membership and could also mean confronting NATO, which has a 3800-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Belgrade also balances its ties with China and Russia with close cooperation with Europe.
However, foreign officials say the Balkans are indeed emerging as the scene of great power competition and that Kurti is not wrong in saying that tensions are high.
“Yes, it is serious, and yes, we are very concerned,” said a Western diplomat based in the Balkans.
Kosovo broke away from Serbia after NATO intervened alongside ethnic Albanian rebels fighting a war with Belgrade security forces in 1999. He spent nine years as an international protectorate before declaring independence in 2008. Serbia and about half of the members of the United Nations, including Russia and China, still do not recognize Kosovo’s independence. EU-mediated talks between Belgrade and Pristina, which began in 2011, eased tensions but failed to produce a mutual recognition agreement, a prerequisite for both countries to join the EU. Kosovo today does not look or feel like a country on the verge of chaos.
The capital Pristina is experiencing a construction boom that has made skyscrapers splash all over the city, and a young and educated middle class sometimes makes the place seem more Baltic than Balkan.
The barbed wire and barricades on the bridge over the Ibar River in the northern city of Mitrovica, once a symbol of powerful ethnic division, disappeared several years ago following an agreement in Brussels.
Pedestrians – even if not vehicles – move freely between the banks of the Serbian and Albanian rivers, the only security presence is a handful of bored Italian carabinieri perched on a parked off-road vehicle.
The north bank of the river, where telegraph poles are hung with Serbian flags, street signs are in Cyrillic, and cafes are paid for in Serbian dinars rather than euros, is visibly poorer. Representatives of the Srpska List, the Belgrade-backed party that maintains a political monopoly in the Kosovo municipalities populated by Serbia, have refused repeated requests for interviews.
Locals who spoke accused Kurti of the recent tensions, saying he ordered license plate changes and the pharmacy raid to appease ethnic Albanian hawk voters ahead of last month’s municipal elections. Kurti denies it. Several people agreed that the plate protests were closely monitored by local Srpska List officials.
But some also insisted that the violence that erupted outside the pharmacy on the morning of October 13 had a different flavor than previous incidents. The anger of the crowd that day, they suggested, was not directed only at the hated Kosovar police, but as an expression of discontent with the status quo that left Mitrovica’s Serbs with little job security, gloomy economic prospects and ruled by a one-party state that many fear deeply.
“Both Srpska List and Albin Kurti benefited from the police action,” said Alexander Arsenijevic, the leader of a small local opposition party called Serbian Survival, who admitted taking part in the protest. “But things turned out differently, not as they were planning. Because for the first time people reacted not through political action or appeals. It was more spontaneous. I’ve been waiting for that moment to come. I thought it would happen sooner. And now I’m sure these protests will continue. “
Kosovar officials and Western diplomats contest this report. Kurti says he has clear information about the planned protest in advance. All witnesses that the telegraph he spoke described a crowd gathering and the violence started almost as soon as the police arrived.
But weariness from the current political and economic settlement is widespread and crosses ethnic borders.
Kurti himself came to power in a landslide election victory after vowing to tackle the endemic corruption many Kosovars associate with the generation of former Kosovo Liberation Army commanders who have dominated the political scene since independence.
And polls, he himself points out, consistently show that the number one political priority of Kosovo Albanians is to fight corruption, not the ongoing confrontation with Serbia.
The Telegraph, London