Kosovars use bricks, tear gas protesting EU agreement

The government’s association of Serb municipalities agreement with EU has met with widespread discontent in Kosovo.

Some of Kosovo's 90-percent ethnic Albanian population are protesting against a policy granting more rights to Serb minorities [Benas Gerdziunas/Al Jazeera]
Some of Kosovo's 90-percent ethnic Albanian population are protesting against a policy granting more rights to Serb minorities [Benas Gerdziunas/Al Jazeera]
Correction21 Dec 2015
An earlier version of this article wrongly specified that Prime Minister Isa Mustafa and Federica Mogherini signed a Stability and Association Agreement on August 27. The correct agreement is Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo signed on August 25.

Pristina, Kosovo – Hundreds of demonstrators cheered outside Kosovo’s parliament last Monday morning when news of the opposition lawmakers using tear gas again inside the assembly chamber was shouted over an activist’s loudspeaker.

Three opposition parties in Kosovo have disrupted parliamentary sessions more than six times since the beginning of October as part of a sustained campaign to force the government to withdraw from an agreement brokered by the European Union, which would give greater autonomy to the region’s Serb minorities.

“We are guilty as charged,” Boiken Abazi, a senior member of opposition party Vetevendosje (self-determination) told Al Jazeera outside parliament, addressing the latest in the spate of tear gas incidents.

“This was premeditated,” he added, standing in front of rows of heavily clad government riot police who were barring demonstrators from the parliament building.

“We have made it clear publicly and to the president of the Kosovo Republic that the opposition is asking for the agreements with the EU to be withdrawn. The government should expect these protests to continue until it annuls the agreement,” Abazi said.

A standoff between anti-government protesters and police forces in the centre of Pristina resulted in bricks, Molotov cocktails and tear gas canisters being thrown at the police [Benas Gerdziunas/Al Jazeera] 

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Isa Mustafa and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, signed the Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities in Kosovo agreement in Brussels on August 25. The accord promises greater financial and legislative rights for Kosovo’s minority Serb community.

In the same month, the European Union pledged 645.5 million euros ($705m) for Kosovo’s further integration to the European Union, which will take place over a six-year period.

But, in post-war Kosovo, where the ethnic Albanian population is still burying the dead and searching for the disappeared in mass graves, many are upset. Ethnic-Serb President Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on separatist ethnic-Albanian rebels and their civilian supporters from 1998 to 1999 left 13,000 people dead and more than 4,500 missing, most of whom were Albanians.

Bricks and tear gas

Vetevendosje members told Al Jazeera in Pristina that the tear gas their MPs have released in parliament was from unspent canisters that had been shot at demonstrators during recent clashes.

“It’s the same tear gas they fire at us,” Donika Capriqi, a young Vetevendosje activist and architecture student, said outside parliament on Monday.

Anti-agreement protesters throw tear gas at riot police in Pristina. According to party members and protesters, opposition demonstrators are using unexploded canisters fired at them by police in previous protests [Benas Gerdziunas/Al Jazeera]

Violent clashes between riot police and opposition demonstrators spilled on to Pristina’s main streets after masked opposition demonstrators threw a volley of bricks and paint bombs at the parliament building while chanting slogans criticising the government’s agreement with Serbia and the EU.

Serbia is among a handful of countries, including Russia, which have yet to recognise Kosovo as an independent state.

Demonstrators dislodged a large spherical sculpture, rolling it towards riot police, before throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails. No police or civilian injuries were reported immediately after the confrontations.

Opposition parties in Kosovo’s government whose leaders are organising anti-agreement demonstrations throughout Kosovo’s major towns and cities in the coming weeks have increasingly used controversial measures to counter the government’s agreement with the EU.

Opposition MPs, including Ismajl Kurteshi of Vetevendosje, have evaded house arrest orders to address crowds at the demonstrations.

Between 2,500 and 4,000 protesters gathered in Gjilan, 50km outside the capital. Ismajl Kurteshi, a Vetevendosje MP, defied house arrest to make a public speech [Benas Gerdziunas/Al Jazeera]

The EU representative office in Kosovo has described the tear gas disruptions as “a continued obstruction by the opposition of the [parliament’s] work”. It added that “this kind of violent obstruction is neither acceptable nor will it solve any problems for the citizens of Kosovo”.

During his visit to Pristina in the beginning of December, Prime Minister Mustafa told US Secretary of State John Kerry that “despite the violent behaviour of the opposition, the government is also ready to dialogue on all the issues”.

“Violence is not accepted as a political instrument,” the prime minister added.

Kosovo’s opposition parties hold only 31 of 120 seats in parliament, but have won growing public support in their united stance against the EU agreement, which will give financial and legislative rights to Kosovo’s Serb minority.

A petition circulated by the opposition against the Serb municipalities agreement quickly gained more than 200,000 signatures. A poll by the Kosovo Index indicated that 76 percent of the respondents were against the agreement.

Masked protesters threw bottles of paint and damaged the windows of the Kosovo parliament building [Benas Gerdziunas/Al Jazeera] 

A raid on the opposition

Independent Balkan analyst Besa Shahini told Al Jazeera in Pristina this week that authorities will struggle to quell growing anti-agreement sentiment garnered by Vetevendosje and opposition parties in recent months. The opposition, she said, has “successfully articulated, in a way that resonates with people, the danger these agreements pose to the functioning of the state as well as to multi-ethnicity in Kosovo”.

Moreover, in Shahini’s estimation, the terms set out in the agreement “will not finalise Kosovo’s project of becoming an internationally recognised independent state and will not lead to stability or help development”.

On November 28, 1,000 heavily armed Kosovo police forcibly entered Vetevendosje’s offices in central Pristina to arrest the movement’s leader, Albin Kurti.

Following the raid, Kurti, who is also a member of parliament, was detained in a high-security prison for what the government says is his role in instigating and carrying out the recent wave of tear-gas disruptions in parliament.

Six other members of opposition parties in Kosovo’s parliament have been arrested by authorities here, some of whom have since been released to house arrest. According to a Vetevendosje spokesperson, at least 30 activists associated with the anti-agreement opposition have also been detained by authorities.

Amnesty International’s Balkan researcher Sian Jones called for an immediate investigation into the police’s use of force during the operation. Government critics have described the arrests of parliament members as politically motivated, saying authorities failed to use legal measures in the arrest of the MPs and have handed out sentences unevenly to MPs charged with dispensing tear gas in parliament.

Vetevendosje MP Visar Ymeri standing in front of the damage caused when 1,000 officers raided Vetevendosje’s offices using combat weapons [Benas Gerdziunas/Al Jazeera]

Vetevendosje MP Visar Ymeri said he was confident that the opposition parties could force the government to withdraw from the agreement before it is implemented in early 2016. Over the sound of hammers and drills repairing damage to Vetevendosje offices incurred during the police operation in late November, Ymeri pledged to continue the protests in tandem with other opposition parties.

“What is unbelievable is the optimism and stubbornness of the government in the implementation of these agreements, knowing there is this wide malcontent among the people,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The government is making a grave mistake and they are putting the future of Kosovo on a dangerous path.”

Follow Jonathan Brown on Twitter: @jonathaneebrown

Source: Al Jazeera


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