Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have heightened in recent days following the arrest and deportation of a senior Serbian official in northern Kosovo.
The brief detention on Monday of Marko Djuric, director of the Serbian government’s Kosovo office, marked the first such incident in Kosovo since the former southern Serbian province declared independence in 2008.
The arrest aggravated already tense ties between the two neighbours – Serbia refuses to recognises Kosovo’s independence.
It also sparked a war-of-words between officials, as well as alarming headlines, even as some political commentators described the incident as an “orchestrated scenario” designed to benefit certain political figures in the two countries.
Djuric entered Kosovo to attend a meeting in Mitrovica, defying a ban from Kosovo authorities prohibiting him to do so, as well as repeated official warnings ahead of time.
The Serbian official reportedly took a bypass route into the city, instead of going through one of the border crossings.
But once he reached the northern part of the city, he was surrounded by special forces and arrested. Walking bent over, and with his hands tied behind his back, a disheveled-looking Djuric was led away with his tie dangling in the air.
Later on Monday, more than 30 people were injured as police used sound grenades and tear gas to disperse Serbs protesting the arrest of Djuric, who was deported in the evening.
The following morning, words such as “war”, “chaos” and “terror” could be seen across Serbian front-page headlines.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Djuric claimed that his arrest was a rehearsal for a possible attempt by Kosovo police to take over northern Kosovo, where a Serb majority live.
On the same day, “Srpska Lista” (Serbian List), the main Serbian minority party in Kosovo’s government, announced its withdrawal from the governing coalition, saying it would instead be forming an association of Serb-dominated municipalities in Kosovo. In response, Pristina said there would be arrests if they attempted to do so.
Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci denounced Djuric’s banned entrance and the Serbian List’s withdrawal as a “provocation” by Serbia, while Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, said such actions aim to destabilise Kosovo.
Marko Djuric’s entering #Kosovo illegally is in violation of law, constitutional order and Brussels agreement. Such actions are highly dangerous and intend destabilization of #Kosovo. Kosovo will take all the necessary measures to maintain peaceful situation within our territory
— Enver Hoxhaj (@Enver_Hoxhaj) March 26, 2018
On Wednesday, Ramush Haradinaj, prime minister of Kosovo, took to Facebook to affirm that Kosovo will not be partitioned and said that no territory will be swapped, while urging Serbian List to return to the table to discuss common issues.
In response, Djuric wrote on Twitter that Haradinaj’s statement proves that officials in Pristina “don’t want peace, rather they’re preparing a war”.
On Thursday, Serbia’s army staged a military drill outside the capital, Belgrade, attended also by President Aleksandar Vucic.
Из изјава Рамуша Харадинаја свима постаје јасно да у Приштини на функцијама седе људи који не желе мир, већ спремају рат.
У праву је Рамуш Харадинај да не може бити поделе и размене територија Косова и Метохије, јер је цела територија #KiM део Републике Србије.
— Марко Ђурић (@markodjuric) March 28, 2018
Translation: “Ramush Haradinaj’s statement makes it clear to everyone that in Pristina, there are officials who don’t want peace, rather they’re preparing a war. Ramus Haradinaj is right that there can be no division and exchange of the territory of Kosovo and Metohija (KiM), because the entire territory of #KiM is part of the Republic of Serbia.”
Many political analysts and social media commentators have argued in recent days that the episode with Djuric was orchestrated, designed so that certain leaders could push their own agendas in the volatile region.
Ti kao uđeš, a mi te kao hapsimo.
— Marko Drazic (@markodrazic) March 26, 2018
Translation: “You [pretend to] enter, and we’ll [pretend to] arrest you.”
Good job, Kosovo and Serbia, violation committed, violator arrested and released, all right on schedule and in time for the evening news.
— Eric Gordy (@EricGordy) March 26, 2018
So was the arrest of Djuric just an elaborate way to trigger early elections in Kosovo, following the Vetevendosje split? Just wondering
— Florian Bieber (@fbieber) March 27, 2018
The drama with illegal crossing of the Kosovo border by Serbian officials is clear and intentional provocation. It's planned. Serbian media hysteria of "goloruki narod" is also a scenario. Many times repeated, always intending mayhem, from Croatia in 1991 to north Kosovo now.
— Petrit Selimi (@Petrit) March 26, 2018
“What happened yesterday in Mitrovica has all the features of a directed crisis that was run, each for its own reasons, by both Belgrade and Pristina. Djuric was just an extra [actor],” Serbian journalist Dejan Anastasijevic commented in an article on Tuesday.
“Authorities in Belgrade, as well as those in Pristina, occasionally need to remind the international community that they hold the keys to war and peace in Kosovo.
“By using inflammatory statements and stirring nationalist rhetoric, Vucic has lately been trying to divert attention from the fact that the deadline for signing ‘a … legally binding agreement for normalisation of the relations with Kosovo’ is running out,” added Anastasijevic.
“Then he will have to make some unpopular decisions, so he is now boosting his patriotic credibility.”
Vucic himself announced on Friday that a group of Serbian officials would be heading to Mitrovica on Monday. with or without a permit from Pristina authorities. Such a permit usually takes up to three days to issue.
Speaking to Kosovo journalists, Vucic provoked Kosovo authorities: “I’m telling you that you will issue [the permit.] Whether you issue it or not, they will come to north Mitrovica. Come on, let me see what you’ll do on this question.”
Soon after, hundreds of heavily armed Kosovo border police were stationed along Kosovo’s border with Serbia, as well as Mitrovica, awaiting Djuric’s arrival.
“There appears to be a good deal of theatrics involved,” Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European Studies at Austria’s University of Graz, told Al Jazeera.
“Clearly Djuric was eager to provoke Kosovo authorities and clearly they responded with disproportionate force,” he added.
“Whether there was an element of collusion between the two governments is impossible to tell, but it is the kind of incident that benefits both. The Serbian government can rally against the Kosovo government and increase its demands in the normalisation talks based on the ‘unreasonable’ behaviour of the Kosovo government.
“The Kosovo government can celebrate its ability to arrest a Serb official in the north, especially just a few days after the border demarcation deal passed that nationalists have called betrayal and giving up land. Thus, both governments come out as winners.”
Over the past year, several incidents in the region have raised concerns of escalating tensions and the possibility of renewed conflict.
In January 2017, in a stunt orchestrated by the Serbian government, a train was set to run from Belgrade to North Mitrovica, plastered in signs in 20 languages provocatively reading “Kosovo is Serbia”.
The train was stopped in Serbia, some 11km from Kosovo’s border.
In January this year, a leading Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, was shot and killed in broad daylight in Mitrovica; the gunmen remain at large.
“I think Belgrade’s position is to do everything in its power to illustrate to the EU that dialogue with Kosovo is impossible,” said Jasmin Mujanovic, a political scientist who specialises in southeastern European affairs.
“In order to this, they consistently orchestrate various scenarios which they know will provoke strong responses from the government in Pristina which is keen to demonstrate to its own radical nationalist opposition that they exercise full authority over the whole of Kosovo’s territory.
“So last year we had the ridiculous train fiasco, now we have this ministerial visit- all of it is an attempt by Vucic to show the Kosovo authorities as oppressive and a danger to the Serb community in the country.”
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a US think-tank, predicted rising tensions and violence for the Balkans in 2018.
Specifically, the CFR warned of “escalating tensions or extremist violence in the Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – resulting in political instability and armed clashes”.