Kosovo has postponed a local election due next week in four municipalities with a predominantly ethnic Serb population, in an effort to defuse recent tensions there that have also caused relations with neighbouring Serbia to deteriorate further.
The announcement on Saturday came after Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani met her country’s political leaders and decided to hold the vote in the northern municipalities on April 23 next year.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
On the same day, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic said he would formally request NATO permission to deploy Serbian troops in northern Kosovo, while conceding this was most unlikely to be granted.
Such a move could dramatically increase tensions in the region.
The polls in Northern Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Zvecan and Leposavic were due on December 18 after ethnic Serb representatives resigned their posts in November to protest against a decision by Kosovo’s government to ban Serbia-issued vehicle license plates. Serb lawmakers, prosecutors and police officers also abandoned local government posts.
Tension in the north has been high ahead of the scheduled vote. This week, unknown gunmen shot and wounded a Kosovo law enforcement officer. Some election centres were also damaged, while shooting was heard in the four municipalities.
Kosovo’s interior minister Xhelal Zvecla said on Saturday that after the arrest of a former Serb police officer accused of attacking election centres and officials, some roads in the north have been blocked by “extremist groups”.
Kosovo police presence was recently increased in those areas and the European Union’s rule of law mission, or EULEX, has been present with its police officers, too.
Kosovo proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008. But Belgrade, supported by Russia and China, has refused to recognise Kosovo’s statehood.
Vucic said on Saturday his government would formally ask the commander of the NATO-led peacekeeper mission in Kosovo for permission to deploy Serbian troops in the north, but added that he “has no illusions that this will be accepted”.
The request had been heralded on Friday by Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s prime minister, who claimed that the lives of minority Serbs in Kosovo were under threat.
Serbian officials claim a United Nations resolution that formally ended Belgrade’s bloody crackdown on majority Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999 allows for some 1,000 Serb troops to return to Kosovo. NATO bombed Serbia to end the war and push its troops out of Kosovo.
NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo since the war would have to give a green light for Serb troops to go there, something highly unlikely because it would de facto mean handing over the security of Kosovo’s Serb-populated northern regions to Serbian forces.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s office said any such move from Serbia would be “an act of aggression” and an indication of “Serbia’s tendencies” to destabilise the region.
The EU has urged Serbia and Kosovo to resolve their dispute and normalise relations to be eligible for membership in the bloc.
Bodo Weber, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, told Al Jazeera a deployment permission by NATO would “mean the complete defeat and reversal of political development and progress over the last two decades, and particularly the last decade, on reconciling relationships between Kosovo and Serbia, and the steps that Serbia had made in the frame of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue on recognising the reality of an independent Kosovo.”