This could have been just another episode of tension between two hostile neighbors. But this is of particular concern to the international community. A week after the assassination of a Kosovar police officer, Sunday September 24, by a heavily armed Serbian commando, the pressure has not subsided in this former province of Serbia, whose independence Belgrade still does not recognize. On Sunday, a NATO spokesperson announced that the United Kingdom would “deploy around 200 soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Princess Wales Regiment, who will join 400 other British soldiers already present in Kosovo for exercises”.
“Reinforcements will follow from other countries in the Alliance,” which has a force of 4,500 soldiers from 27 countries there, Kfor, since the 1998-1999 war, added the spokesperson. word. This sudden troop dispatch is a response to the "significant Serbian military deployment along the border with Kosovo", including the "unprecedented" deployment of artillery, tanks and infantry units, denounced Friday by Washington. The day after the Serbian commando attack, Russia, Serbia's ally, also interfered in the tensions, accusing Kosovo, supported by NATO, of wanting to drag "the entire Balkan region into a dangerous precipice.
Since it declared its independence in 2008, Kosovo, a former Serbian province populated mainly by Albanians, has seen its sovereignty contested by Serbia, which does not recognize the Kosovar state, unlike around a hundred countries (including 22 of the 27 members of the European Union). The fire, never really extinguished, continued to smolder, with Belgrade accusing Pristina in particular of flouting the rights of the Serbian minority. Some 120,000 Serbs live in the former province, populated by 1.8 million inhabitants. Tensions between the two communities reached a new level in November 2022, when all Serb officials and elected officials resigned from Kosovar institutions, in particular from the four town halls in the north where Serbs are in the majority.
Responding to the call of Srpska Lista, the large party of Kosovo Serbs controlled by Belgrade, they intended to protest against a decision by Pristina, now suspended, to prohibit Serbs living in Kosovo from using license plates issued by Serbia. Elections were then organized by Pristina to replace the resigning elected officials. Initially set for December 18, the vote was postponed to April 23 after a series of violent incidents in the North. The Serbs boycotted this election, allowing the election of Albanian mayors with a participation of less than 3.5% (i.e. 1,567 voters out of the 45,000 registered).
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A few days earlier, the two countries had refused to sign an agreement on the normalization of their relations, during marathon talks conducted under the aegis of the EU. The document, composed of 11 articles, provided that the two parties “mutually recognize their respective national symbol documents” and undertake not to use violence to resolve their differences. It also stipulates that “Serbia does not oppose Kosovo’s membership in an international organization” and that an “appropriate level of self-management” be put in place for the Serbian minority.
The election result and the refusal to sign this agreement have only made the situation worse. Last May, 25 members of the Kfor force were injured in clashes with Serbian demonstrators who were demanding the departure of Albanian mayors. In June, the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica also briefly burned, and 30 NATO troops were again injured. This time, Serbian demonstrators were protesting the arrest by Kosovo police of a man suspected of organizing the previous attack on KFOR troops in May. Three Kosovar police officers were also slightly injured.
Also in June, tensions were exported to neighboring Serbia, after the arrest of three Kosovar police officers in military uniform and armed with automatic weapons. Belgrade accused them of being a “terrorist gang”. Pristina for its part declared that these police officers had been kidnapped in Kosovar territory, as an “act of revenge” for the arrest of the Serb suspected of having attacked Kfor troops. In retaliation, Kosovo banned vehicles registered in Serbia from entering its territory. The police officers have since been released.
These clashes took place while the Kosovar Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, had just presented, under pressure from the United States, a five-point plan to try to initiate a de-escalation, including new elections in the four contested municipalities. But in July, the situation took a political turn. A violent fight broke out in the Kosovar Parliament. The prime minister was sprayed with water by a rival parliamentarian and several deputies came to blows.
After a period of relative calm during the summer, the death of the Kosovar police officer who was patrolling near the border once again added fuel to the fire. The Serbian commando fired heavy weapons before taking refuge in an Orthodox monastery. After several hours of siege, Kosovar special forces announced that they had killed three attackers and arrested six others. Prime Minister Albin Kurti immediately accused Serbia of having “supported and organized” this “terrorist group” which, according to him, wanted to “massively attack the police and institutions of Kosovo”.
Last Friday, a political leader of the Kosovo Serbs, Milan Radojicic, admitted to having coordinated this group, but without Belgrade's knowledge. He declared, through his lawyer, that he had acted in response to the Kosovar government's “terror” against the local Serb community. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic blamed the Kosovar Prime Minister, saying he was “the only one responsible because he wants war”.
Since coming to power in 2021, Albanian-speaking nationalist Albin Kurti has been trying to regain control of the Serbian enclaves in the north of the country. But he comes up against resistance not only from the approximately 40,000 Serbian inhabitants of these territories, but also from his European and American allies, who reproach him for his provocative and inflexible attitude. Serbia, for its part, openly supported by Russia, does not seem ready to recognize the independence of its neighbor.