Written by Paul Dybjer
Edited by Miguel Andres Reyes Castro
On 29 May 2023, Serb protesters clashed with troops of the NATO-led mission in Kosovo* (KFOR) after demonstrators attempted to force their way into a government building in Zvecan, located in the Serb-majority northern part of the territory (Bytyci, 2023a). The clashes resulted in approximately 30 KFOR peacekeepers suffering injuries (Bytyci, 2023a). Prior to the incident, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic ordered, on 26 May, an urgent movement of troops to the border with Kosovo after ethnic Serbs had clashed with local police in the country (Al Jazeera, 2023).
Tensions had been simmering for years since Kosovo’s* declaration of independence in 2008. Since the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and France (also known as the Quint) backed Kosovo’s* move, the West has attempted to normalise relations between Pristina and Belgrade (Bytyci, 2023b). The intensification of regional unrest, however, was triggered by the April 2023 elections that Serbs boycotted, leaving ethnic Albanians as victors in four Serb-dominated municipalities (Bytyci, 2023a).
The Quint pressured Kosovar* Prime Minister Albin Kurti to de-escalate by withdrawing the recently elected mayors. Pristina subsequently integrated the West’s diplomatic demands in a plan to defuse tensions on 13 June. The proposal included new local elections and reducing the presence of special police forces (Bytyci, 2023c). On the same day, however, Kosovar* authorities arrested a Serb identified as the organiser of the attacks on the KFOR troops, triggering ethnic Serbs to protest and causing further unrest (Bytyci, 2023c).
In light of these recent events, Europe is attempting to secure its position as a crucial security partner in the region. NATO deployed 700 additional troops in response to the crisis, and announced on 5 June that further reinforcements had started to arrive (Siebold, 2023). Simultaneously, the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo* (EULEX) called for prudence (EULEX, 2023). The EU and NATO are, however, not the only players in the region. Russia has historical ties with the Western Balkans, and most Serbs consider Moscow to be their true ally (Stanicek & Caprile, 2023). Thus, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Serbia has once again emerged as a geopolitical frontline for Russia’s confrontation with the West (Stanicek & Caprile, 2023), and it is likely that the EU and NATO will continue to shore up their role as the primary security actors in a volatile region in response to a potential challenge by Moscow.
Kosovo (*) - This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.
Al Jazeera. (2023, May 26). Serbia puts army on high alert as Kosovo Serbs clash with police. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/26/serbia-puts-army-on-high-alert-as-kosovo-serbs-clash-with-police
Bytyci, F. (2023a, May 31). NATO troops on guard in north Kosovo for third day amid protests. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/us-troops-guard-town-hall-northern-kosovo-2023-05-31/.
Bytyci, F. (2023b, March 19). Serbia, Kosovo reach agreement to implement EU-backed deal normalising ties. Reuters. https ://www.reuters.com/world/europe/kosovo-serbia-leaders-arrive-eu-backed-talks-deal-normalise-ties-2023-03-18/.
Bytyci, F. (2023c, June 13). Kosovo PM presents plan to defuse tensions in Serb-majority area. Reuters. https ://www.reuters.com/world/europe/kosovo-pm-presents-plan-defuse-tensions-serb-majority-area-2023-06-13/.
EULEX. (2023, May 27). EULEX Head of Mission’s interview with Deutsche Welle on the security situation in northern Kosovo. EULEX. https://www.eulex-kosovo.eu/?page=2,11,2774.
Siebold, S. (2023, June 5). NATO says reinforcements arriving in Kosovo after clashes last week. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/nato-says-reinforcements-arriving-kosovo-after-clashes-last-week-2023-06-05/.
Stanicek, B., & Caprile, A. (2023). Russia and the Western Balkans: Geopolitical confrontation, economic influence and political interference [Policy Brief PE 747.096]. European Parliament – European Parliamentary Research Service. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2023/747096/EPRS_BRI(2023)747096_EN.pdf.