The Serbian-Kosovo standoff continues to escalate

Views on what is happening - and could happen - in northern Kosovo

PHOTO/MARTA MORENO - Manifestaciones en el norte de Kosovo
photo_camera PHOTO/MARTA MORENO - Demonstrations in the north of Kosovo

From Kosovo 

Last Sunday some thirty hooded men, described as paramilitaries, entered the Serb-majority municipality of Banjska in northern Kosovo, taking over the town's monastery. An attack in which one Kosovo policeman was killed and two wounded. 

In the words of the Kosovar prime minister, Albin Kurti, "there are at least 30 heavily armed people who are being besieged by our police forces and whom I call on to surrender to our security forces". A night in which the whole country was mobilised in the face of what from the beginning was labelled a "terrorist attack orchestrated from Belgrade". 

The night wore on and little was known: "Be careful who you contact for now. Everyone is too paranoid," advised experts in Pristina during those first hours when those dozens of people, of whom nothing was known at the time, were trapped in the monastery.

Kosovo police sources reported that at around 2.30 p.m. on Sunday, the Rapid Response Unit of the border police noticed that at the entrance to the village of Banjska, two heavy vehicles [without number plates] were positioned, blocking access to the village across the bridge. Subsequently, three police units were sent to the bridge and, as soon as they arrived, they were attacked from various positions with an arsenal of weapons, including hand grenades and explosives. With police squads already entering the municipality, the attackers were forced to lay siege to the Banjska Monastery. Kosovar policeman Afrim Bunjaku was killed in the attack. 

PHOTO/MARTA MORENO - Manifestaciones en el norte de Kosovo
PHOTO/MARTA MORENO - Demonstrations in the north of Kosovo

The Raska-Prizren diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which was accused of collaborating with the attackers, soon denied its involvement in the events. In a statement posted on social media, the monastery assured that "the monastery community and the faithful have locked themselves inside the residence, and the monastery church is also secured. The diocese is deeply concerned that, according to recent reports, a masked armed group stormed the gates of the monastery using an armoured vehicle. Armed and masked persons are reported to be moving around and occasional gunshots are heard. 

From the outset, and again in the words of the Kosovar prime minister, this was "a professional formation" which he defined as "troops supported by the Serbian state". After hours of tension in which the whole country looked to the north, the government announced the end of the operation in Banjska, which ended with three of the attackers dead and six arrested, which, according to initial statements by the government in Pristina, would mean that more than half of those involved had managed to flee. 

In the days that followed, reports - much of them based on supposition - flooded the tabloids. Accusations towards Belgrade seemed to be based on, as is often the case, tensions on both sides of the border. At least in those first hours after the attack, nothing could prove that the attackers were sent - or organised - from Belgrade. 

Dozens of experts placed their "bets" in the hours that followed. Jasmin Mujanović is a researcher specialising in the Balkans, one of the most internationally heard voices. Mujanović explained on social media how "there are two main theories about how the attack happened: first, it was a rebel group of local militants and criminals who decided to take up arms against the Kosovo state; second, it was a Serbian state security operation working (in)directly under the orders of the Belgrade regime". 

The second option has always been favoured in Kosovo. This seemed to be confirmed by the viralisation of a video in which Milan Radoičić, a representative of the political group Lista Sprska, appeared in the group of attackers inside the monastery. 

Radoičić is one of the most emblematic figures of the Lista Sprska political formation, a Serb-majority party in Kosovo. Sanctioned by the US, Radoičić was described by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić as "one of Serbia's guardians in Kosovo and Metohija [as Kosovo is known in Serbia]". In addition, Donika Gërvalla-Schward, Kosovo's Foreign Minister, confirmed that another of the attackers was a bodyguard of Serbia's acting intelligence chief in 2013. 

At the same time as this information came to light, Kosovo police posted on social media the weapons they had found in the largest operation in the north to date. The images released showed the largest arsenal found in Kosovo since the conflict, which, according to state sources, "were manufactured by Serbian state-owned military arms producers". This was evidence from Pristina that "the idea that 26 military utility vehicles and a vast arsenal produced by the Serbian state entered Kosovo without the participation of the Serbian government is simply not credible". 

All this evidence means that no one in Kosovo questions Belgrade's involvement in the attack.

PHOTO/MARTA MORENO - Manifestaciones en el norte de Kosovo
PHOTO/MARTA MORENO - Demonstrations in the north of Kosovo

From Serbia

While all this information was spreading like wildfire in Kosovo, Belgrade was doing its own thing. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić blamed Kosovo's prime minister, suggesting that "some Kosovo Serbs" had started a rebellion by setting up barricades, motivated by a desire to resist what they perceived as "Kurti's oppressive policies". 

Serbian front pages echoed Vučić's words, and dawned blaming the Kosovar prime minister for what had happened: "Kurti provoked", "Kurti's terrorists kill Serbs" or "Kurti has blood on his hands" were the headlines that could be read in media such as Alo!, Novosti or Informer the morning after the attacks. Two of the attackers were killed in the attack and six have been arrested. Serbia proclaimed a day of mourning for the "Serbian heroes killed in Kosovo", and Belgrade squares were filled with citizens lighting candles and writing messages of recognition to the perpetrators of the attack. 

Two days after the attack, the Serbian prime minister met with the ambassadors of the US, the EU, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, demanding that KFOR "take care of all security matters in northern Kosovo instead of the Kurti police". One of the main demands of the Serb community in Kosovo. 

And as the evidence began to make clear Belgrade's connection to the bombing, Vučić announced on Thursday that "Serbia will investigate the events that led to a shooting in a monastery in northern Kosovo that Pristina has attributed to Belgrade", denying any involvement of his government in the incident. 

It was not only the two sides to the conflict that acted accordingly. Sarajevo lit up its town hall with the Kosovo flag in solidarity with the deceased policeman, something that was not seen in a positive light by Belgrade: "In Sarajevo they supported Kurti and his special forces harassing Serbs in northern Kosovo and Metohija" read the media Alo! Meanwhile, Republika Sprska declared a day of mourning for the Serbs killed by Kosovo police. 

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama also spoke out after the attacks, condemning Serbia's decision to declare a day of mourning in honour of those who attacked the Kosovo police, saying it "glorifies the involvement of a criminal group in carrying out acts of terrorism in northern Kosovo". 

PHOTO/MARTA MORENO - Manifestaciones en el norte de Kosovo
PHOTO/MARTA MORENO - Demonstrations in the north of Kosovo

From Brussels (and Washington)

In recent months northern Kosovo has been the scene of a series of incidents that have demonstrated the instability in the area. A crisis whose beginning is known as the "number plate crisis" has highlighted the fragile situation in the municipalities of northern Kosovo. A reality resulting from the non-implementation of agreements, the existence of parallel structures in these municipalities [linked to Belgrade] and the fact that the parties involved [Pristina and Belgrade] do not want to lose the influence they both have in the north. 

This situation led these governments to meet, with the mediation of the EU, in order to reach an agreement for stability. These meetings demanded that Kurti hold elections for these Serb-majority municipalities and create the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities. For his part, Aleksandar Vučić was to 'de facto' recognise Kosovo, which would mean accepting documents issued by Kosovar institutions and allowing Kosovo to participate in the international exercise. And although Kurti has agreed - in word - to the creation of such an association and the holding of such elections - scheduled for this autumn - Vučić is reluctant to accept the conditions imposed by Brussels. Moreover, in May - following the acceptance of Kosovo's application for membership of the Council of Europe - he began an international campaign for the "de-recognition of Kosovo". 

PHOTO/FILE - Albin Kurti
PHOTO/FILE - Albin Kurti

Throughout all these months - and events - Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Miroslav Lajčák, the EU's Special Representative for the Belgrade-Portugal Dialogue, and the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, the main mediators in the conflict, have maintained a neutral stance, demanding that both sides do what is necessary to maintain stability in the region and the smooth running of the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue process. Although it is true that they have been more critical of the Kurti government, which they did not hesitate to blame - and sanction - after the incidents of last May. 

And it is from this equidistance that Brussels has condemned what happened last Sunday in northern Kosovo. This has been criticised by both regional and international voices. 

British politician Alicia Kearns argued after Sunday's events that "the recent tendency to punish Kosovo and pander to the increasingly autocratic Vučić is leading us into a deepening cycle of violence, instability and resentment, while the light at the end of the tunnel of normalisation and EU membership for both is increasingly fading". 

It is worth noting that European policy towards the Balkans - especially in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine - seems focused on bringing Serbia into the Western fold, in order to distance it from Russia. A strategy that Serbia would use to, in the words of then US State Department official Hoyt Brian Yee, "sit on two chairs". And while Vučić has long made clear his good relationship with the Kremlin - along with Milorad Dodik they are Putin's main partners in the region - the West seems to be dancing with Serbia. 

There was no denying, until earlier this week, that Pristina bears responsibility in the north. That, although Kurti is keen to portray otherwise, Pristina has no sovereignty in the Serb-majority northern municipalities where Belgrade continues to hold sway. The arguments that Kurti and his proxies use to justify their actions in the north, centred on respect for national sovereignty, cannot be applied to these municipalities. This situation - and the need for stability in the region - could justify, until last Sunday, the neutral position of Borrell and Lajčák; it is realpolitik about the legitimate right of a sovereign state [Kosovo is recognised as a sovereign state by most European states].

However, to use this same strategy with regard to the attacks of three days ago, when all the information - at least so far - would show Belgrade's influence on them, is evidence of the EU's favourable position towards Serbia as far as "Kosovo-Serbia" is concerned. In the latest communiqué from Brussels recognises the attack as "terrorist" but merely states that the EU has not yet decided whether to impose sanctions on Serbia. This is in contrast to what happened with Kosovo last June, when sanctions were imposed on the Pristina government for its role in the incidents in northern May. 

This inaction on the part of the EU is constantly being questioned - and condemned - from the ground. International relations expert Aidan Hehir in an article for Kosovo 2.0 uses the fable of the frog and the scorpion to analyse how "for many years, Western leaders have ignored Vučić's growing authoritarianism while gleefully posing with him and celebrating his electoral victories. The logic behind this policy seemed to be that appeasing Vučić would remove him from Russia's influence and preclude Moscow's ability to sow instability in the Balkans. Despite his past and his openly nationalist political views, Western leaders believed that Vučić could be tamed [...] The naivety of those in the West who believed they could tame and trust Vučić - a man whose entire political career has been based on stoking aggressive sectarian nationalism - is now evident." 

A view shared by other experts on the region such as Mujanović, who calls Sunday's events "a categorical failure of current EU and US policy in the region". The security expert argues that "President Biden and the relevant EU capitals concluded that their priority in the Western Balkans was not to curb or combat Russian influence per se, but to pacify the prospects for conflict". Mujanović claims that "Vučić believes he has Americans and Europeans cornered and scared."

AFP/EMMANUEL DUNAND  - El presidente serbio, Aleksander Vucic
AFP/EMMANUEL DUNAND - Serbian president Aleksander Vucic

With all this, the only thing that can be made clear is that one cannot read what happened last Sunday in the same way that we analyse the incidents that have taken place in the north of the country over the course of the year. The escalation of tensions in Kosovo's Serb-majority municipalities is a consequence of the policies - or lack thereof - that protect the Serb community. Pristina, Belgrade and even the international community bear responsibility for this. 

Now that the terrorist motivation for Sunday's attack has been accepted, Brussels' equidistance is neither understandable nor acceptable. Holding the state that suffered a terrorist attack responsible for it can only bring a sense of impunity for the perpetrator. The reality is that Serbia, directly or indirectly, bears responsibility for what happened in Banjska. Whether by organising such an attack or by glorifying - and arming - Serb paramilitary groups in Banjska, Serbia, directly or indirectly, bears responsibility for what happened in Banjska.  

Serb paramilitary groups in northern Kosovo, mediators cannot overlook - just as they cannot overlook Pristina's attitudes towards the Serb community in Kosovo - the role of the Vučić government in the attack. 

However, as Mujanović rightly concludes, "nothing we have seen in the last few hours suggests that the relevant figures in Washington or Brussels are willing to admit how they have contributed to the resumption of armed conflict in the Balkans" by ignoring the Vučić government's attitude towards Kosovo for so long. 

For it is clear from Sunday's events that equidistance is no longer a valid response to what is happening in the Western Balkans. If Brussels were to bow its head - again - to Serbia, it would condemn the region to a sense of orphanhood, showing that it is Serbia that sets Europe's agenda in the Balkans.

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