Ethnic Serbs Again Gather In North Kosovo As West Pushes Diplomatic Solution To Crisis
By RFE/RL's Balkan Service June 02, 2023
Protesters have again gathered in front of municipal buildings in several cities in northern Kosovo as Western diplomats ratchet up pressure on Pristina to hold fresh elections to defuse tensions over the installation of ethnic Albanian mayors that sparked clashes between ethnic Serbs and NATO peacekeepers earlier this week.
The ethnic Albanian mayors were installed with the help of Kosovar police in three towns with overwhelming ethnic Serbian majorities -- Zvecan, Leposavic, and Zubin Potok -- following by-elections in April with a turnout of under 3.5 percent amid a boycott by ethnic Serbs.
Reports from the towns said hundreds had showed up to protest again, though the situation remained calm four days after violence flared -- injuring dozens, including peacekeepers -- when the new officials were brought to their offices with the help of special police units. NATO's KFOR peacekeeping troops have since erected a cordon to keep ethnic Serb protesters from accessing the buildings.
The presidents of Kosovo and Serbia held talks on measures to lower tensions between the Balkan neighbors late on June 1, and sources told RFE/RL that the Special Representative of the European Union (EU) for dialogue, Miroslav Lajcak, and the American envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, will visit Pristina and Belgrade next week to push for a diplomatic solution.
The president of Kosovo confirmed that the European Union, France, and Germany have all suggested holding new elections in four municipalities in as a means of defusing tensions over the forced installation of ethnic-Albanian mayors.
So far, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti has appeared to be against fresh elections, but on June 2 he acknowledged that another vote could happen at some point.
"Removing violent mobs in front of municipality buildings & full implementation of the [Brussels] Agreement is the way toward de-escalation until new elections," he said, referring to a 2013 deal struck by the country in Brussels to normalize relations some five years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.
But later, in a speech at parliament, Kurti seemed to fan the flames by blaming the escalation of the situation on Serbia.
"The escalation of the situation on May 29 was planned, well-organized and had an author," Kurti told lawmakers in parliament.
"The author is official Belgrade," he added.
That prompted an immediate response by the Serb minority political party Serbian List (Srpska Lista).
"How much of a farce is everything that Kurti said today in the assembly, and the fact that he labeled honorable people, women, disabled people, and even some who are in the hospital, and have not been in the north of Kosovo for weeks now, as criminals and protest organizers," the party said.
The by-elections at the center of the current unrest were sparked by mass resignations in November 2022 by influential Serbian mayors, police, and other officials essential to the "parallel system" that helps local Serbs avoid recognizing Kosovar institutions.
The mayoral buildings in all but North Mitrovica have been controlled for years by the so-called "parallel" institutions run by Serbs and backed by neighboring Serbia, which 15 years after Kosovo's declaration of independence still doesn't recognize its former province's sovereignty. Neither do Russia or China.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic used a major rally in Belgrade last week to condemn Kosovo's swearing-in of ethnic Albanian "alleged mayors" in the north without local Serbs' votes.
Officials in neighboring Serbia have demanded as part of EU- and U.S.-mediated talks over the past decade that Pristina fulfill the 2013 Brussels Agreement to establish an association of Serb municipalities to represent the majority-Serb communities.
Kurti came to power in 2020 and again in 2021 pledging to impose greater "reciprocal" measures on Serbia and accelerate efforts to achieve full international recognition for his country. He has resisted forming the association.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged Kosovar and Serbian leaders to ease tensions, warning they were putting their aspirations of European integration at risk.
Copyright (c) 2023. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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