Fears simmer as an interethnic conflict brews in Kosovo

Residents say they are worried political tensions could impact community relations and imperil security in Kosovo.

A woman with her child stands outside the Zvecan town hall in northern Kosovo on June 2, 2023, as tensions remained high after clashing with NATO-led peacekeepers (KFOR) earlier this week. - Ethnic Serbs gathered again in a flashpoint town in north Kosovo on June 2, 2023 at the site of clashes earlier this week with NATO-led forces, as Pristina and Belgrade came under mounting international pressure to defuse tensions. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)
A woman with her child stands outside the Zvecan town hall in northern Kosovo as tensions remain high [Stringer/AFP]

Jovana Radosavljevic says she can “feel” interethnic relations between Albanians and Serbs deteriorating, following the latest crisis in Kosovo.

“You can see the change in behaviour of people. This is something that concerns me,” she told Al Jazeera from Leposavic, a town in northern Kosovo dominated by Serbs.

She runs New Social Initiative, an NGO in Mitrovica with a diverse team that works on reconciliation and trust building among ethnic communities, citizens and the government.

Half of her staff regularly crosses the Ibar River bridge to get to the office.

But as tensions have risen recently in Kosovo, employees have been working from home due to safety concerns.

They have been scrutinised for their work and have been subject to threats and attacks from locals.

Local Serbs have criticised Radosavljevic for working with Albanians in her organisation, and likewise, her ethnic Albanian colleagues face the same criticism from locals in southern Mitrovica for working with Serbs.

“It’s been really frustrating for almost a year since last summer, ” she said. “With this last culmination, [you] see the products of your work crumbling down.”

Flaring tensions

Various crises have unravelled in Kosovo over the years, but recent clashes have been described as some of the most violent in recent memory.

Tensions flared in late May after newly elected ethnic Albanian mayors took office, despite local Serbs having protested against the move.

The turnout rate in April’s local snap elections was only 3.47 percent as Serbs, who make up the majority of the population in northern Kosovo, boycotted the vote, saying their demands for more autonomy had not been met.

The United States has rebuked Kosovo and suggested the mayors should have worked from temporary locations elsewhere instead.

On May 29, the Kosovo Force (KFOR), the NATO peacekeeping force, said more than 40 of its soldiers that were defending municipal buildings were injured in clashes as Serb protesters staged demonstrations.

Protests have since died down, but are ongoing.

Seven Hungarian soldiers were taken to Hungary for treatment, according to the Hungarian defence minister.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said 52 Serbs were injured, three of them seriously.

According to news reports and Xhemajl Rexha, chair of the independent trade organisation Association of Journalists of Kosovo, more than a dozen ethnic Albanian journalists were attacked or harassed while covering the protests.

Their vehicles were reportedly vandalised with Serbian nationalist symbols.

Many Albanian residents approached by Al Jazeera refused to comment, saying their feared retaliation by mobs.

“There is a big sense of insecurity for a few hundred Albanians who live in the Serbian majority populated areas,” said Rexha.

Following the escalation on May 29, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani accused Serbian leader Vučić of trying to destabilise Kosovo, saying “Serb illegal structures turned into criminal gangs” were attacking Kosovo police, KFOR officers and journalists.

Meanwhile, Vucic accused Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti of stoking tensions.

Finding common ground between the two powers is often difficult.

The former Serbian province declared independence in 2008, a decade after the war in Kosovo ended Serbian rule.

But Serbia does not recognise its independence and has lobbied against Kosovo’s membership in international bodies such as the United Nations, stalling its progress.

European Union-backed talks to normalise relations have been dragging on for a decade, but disagreements remain, such as that over the creation of an Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM) in northern Kosovo.

Radosavljevic said protests will continue until the demands of the Serb community are met for the withdrawal of Kosovo police from municipal buildings and for the newly elected mayors to operate their mandate elsewhere until a political settlement is made.

She added they have been “dealing” with a permanent presence of special units of Kosovo police for a year.

“They showed up in the spring, around April when they started permanently settling and setting up bases,” she said.

“The issue of the special police has not been resolved. It has in the meantime increased, and for the community, this is a red line.”

Kosovo [Courtesy of Jovana Radosavljevic]
Jovana Radosavljevic of the New Social Initiative says the presence of special police units is ‘a red line’ for the Serb community [Courtesy of Jovana Radosavljevic]

Analyst Branislav Krstic from Mitrovica told Al Jazeera that “bad decisions were made”, suspending the process of integrating Serbs in Kosovo society, “which has developed to a good extent in the last 10 years or so.

“That process has completely been suspended and certainly the arm of Belgrade [was involved], that is, the decision by the cabinet of President Vucic and his call for Serbs to quit Kosovo institutions [in August 2022],” Krstic said.

Meanwhile, Kurti understands the word “normalisation” to mean “making unilateral decisions”, Krstic said, along with a “continuation of reciprocity … with as few incidents as possible”.

“We can’t speak about legitimacy” when one mayor garnered 85 percent of votes in the elections, he said, adding that “there was an absence of communication with the Serb community”.

“I am afraid that we have gone back 10 years with these unilateral politics, the complicity of Belgrade and the cabinet of President Vucic. [It has additionally] fuelled extremism, nationalism and quarrelled and angered Serbs and Albanians against each other.”

‘Consequences of deeper causes’

For Demush Shasha, head of the Pristina-based European Policy Institute of Kosovo, the crises that regularly arise in Kosovo “are all consequences of deeper causes”, namely the involvement of Serbia, which has not given up on its “Greater Serbia” aspirations of the 1990s.

“[Serbia is] doing its best to sabotage in particular Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo; to sabotage their progress in any way, shape and form towards becoming independent, successful Western-oriented countries and therefore, proving also to other greater powers that these countries cannot really be independent; they cannot really be sovereign,” Shasha told Al Jazeera.

“Therefore, it is better off if these countries come back to how [Serbia] perceives it, to their mother country.”

With the use of politics, the church, economy and disinformation via the media, Serbia has been sabotaging the “internal functioning of these three countries”, Shasha said.

“It is only against this backdrop that one should understand the north. The north is for the Serbian state, the key element to sabotaging Kosovo’s progress towards democracy, rule of law, economy and integration in Euro-Atlantic structures. This is the root cause of the problem in the north of Kosovo.”

Radosavljevic said there is “frustration” towards Belgrade as well.

“People feel betrayed by Belgrade and they feel hostility towards Pristina, so everyone feels kind of left alone,” Radosavljevic said.

“These actions by the Kosovo government [Albanian mayors taking office backed by Kosovo police] happened on the same day when there was a rally organised by the Serbian government in Belgrade, that drove in thousands of people from the north, mainly [Serb political party in Kosovo] Srpska Lista people and supporters, leaving the north vacant and empty of people.

“People were left alone … many are convinced that this was done in agreement with Vucic and Kurti, to do this on the day when many Serbs were actually not in Kosovo.”

On Tuesday, Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz said Kosovo is open to holding new elections in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities.

But she added Kosovo needed “a commitment from Serbia that they will no more threaten Serbian citizens of Kosovo not to participate in the election”, and that people should not feel threatened by mob violence.

Radosavljevic said the demands and concerns of the Serb community need to be readdressed first, “in order to create an atmosphere where the locals would be willing to participate in the elections either as candidates or voters.

“I don’t see an understanding coming from Pristina about the community’s concerns because [of the] narrative … that we, as the community, don’t have our own opinion and every action that has been made has been done by Belgrade, which is wrong,” she said.

“There is this whole idea again that new elections would magically fix things, and I must say that is a dangerous road to follow.”

Source: Al Jazeera