Rising Tensions in the Balkans

Written by Zaid Mughal

January 12, 2023

Safety | Situation Room

Bilateral tensions between Serbia and Kosovo amplified as a consequence of a series of protests by ethnic Serbs living in North Kosovo. The tensions could have opened up a new front and rekindled the conflict in the Balkans. The ethnic Serbs blocked the roads with heavy vehicles and trucks for days. There were several reports of armed gangs firing on police and using grenades to target troops at several locations. Despite de-escalation efforts on the ground and the removal of blockades, the big picture of Kosovo-Serbia relations suggests that the region is geopolitically fragile.

Waves of Protest:

  • Arrest of Dejan Patnic:A former Kosovo police officer and an ethnic Serb, Dejan Pantic was arrested by Kosovo police on 10 December at the Jarinje administrative crossing. He was accused of carrying out an attack on the offices of the municipal election commission in North Mitrovica. His arrest sparked the recent cycle of violent protests. The protests also forced the government to postpone local elections which were scheduled in four municipalities dominated by ethnic Serbs until 23 April 2023.  The polls in Northern Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Zvecan, and Leposavic were due on 18 December.

On 22 December, hundreds of Serbs led by the Serbian List party demonstrated in Rudare and put forth three demands to end the deadlock:
– release of fellow Serbs who were arrested,
– withdrawal of special units of Kosovo police
– withdrawal of secret lists for the arrest and killing of Serbs.

Subsequently, on 25 December, a court ordered his house arrest until 9 January instead of detention. On 29 December, Serbian president promised that all barriers and roadblocks would be removed. With the intervention of the Kosovo Force (KFOR), which is a NATO-led international peacekeeping force, the last barricade was dismantled on 5 January 2023.

  • The Vehicle Licence Plate Issue: 

In November 2022, civil disobedience was observed by Serbs as a protest against the number plate policy of the government. The Kosovo authorities wanted the ethnic Serb minority to surrender their Serbian-issued car number plates. To protest this, hundreds of Serbs working in different government departments, courts, the legislature, and the police resigned en masse. On  5 November, Minister of Communities and Returns Goran Rakic also announced his resignation. Pristina argued that the pre-independence license plates issued by Serbia would no longer be valid.

Later in the month, the tensions died down due to mediation by the international community. This was seen as a victory by the ethnic Serbs, who also aspire for greater autonomy.

The strained relations 

Tensions have existed between Belgrade and Pristina ever since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Kosovo is a landlocked nation populated with 1.8 million people, of whom ethnic Albanians make up 92% and the rest 8% are Serbs.

Kosovo has been recognized as an independent sovereign state and granted membership in many international bodies. On the contrary, Serbia identifies Kosovo as part of its national territory, and the Serbs who inhabit the north remain faithful to Belgrade, rejecting Pristina’s authority.
Allies of Serbia like Russia and China do not recognize Kosovo as an independent entity, and its membership in the United Nations has been blocked.

The current shift in the landscape of European security brings the issue to the forefront. Some analysts in the strategic circle believe that the bilateral conflict may be a potential anti-NATO front for Russia. Since 1999, when NATO intervened to end the war that killed over 13,000 people, approximately 4,000 NATO peacekeepers have remained stationed in Kosovo.

A comprehensive normalization of relations between both states is a mandatory requirement to become a member of the EU bloc. This realization may push Belgrade and Pristina to sign another agreement in the coming days, but state recognition remains a bone of contention.

At present many countries advise against all travel to the municipalities of Zvecan, Zubin Potok, Leposavic and the northern part of the city of Mitrovica due to recent protests.

Consider a Sitata membership to remain updated on the situation.

References:

  1. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/north-kosovo-joint-statement-spokesperson-eu-high-representative-and-us-state-department_en
  2. https://english.almayadeen.net/news/politics/nato-removes-last-barricades-in-serbian-majority-northern-ko
  3. https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-resignations-ethnic-serbs-license-plates-order/32117134.html
  4. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63711841
  5. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63936840
  6. https://english.almayadeen.net/news/politics/kosovo-serbia-reach-deal-on-license-plate-tensions-put-at-ea
  7. https://www.kosovo-online.com/en/news/politics/after-three-weeks-dejan-pantic-will-be-released-defend-himself-house-arrest-28-12
  8. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/kosovo-downgrades-controversy-detention-of-former-serb-police-officer-to-house-arrest/2774975
  9. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2022/dec/28/kosovo-serb-dejan-pantic-whose-arrest-caused-crisi/
  10. https://balkaninsight.com/2022/12/20/arrested-kosovo-serb-police-officers-lawyer-still-unaware-of-his-location/
  11. https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-serbs-protests-demands/32189508.html
  12. https://www.euronews.com/2022/12/28/tensions-escalate-in-northern-kosovo-as-more-barricades-are-erected
  13. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/12/11/kosovo-postpones-local-election-in-ethnic-serb-dominated-north
  14. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/protesting-kosovo-serbs-want-ethnic-albanian-police-out-countrys-north-2022-12-22/
  15. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/kosovo/safety-and-security 
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