CG: PR to withdraw special forces from the north, BG to cease supporting paramilitary activities, and KFOR to help control the border

Ilustracija/FOTO: KoSSev

„The top priority is demilitarisation. Kosovo should withdraw its special police units from Serb-majority regions and, until it does, it should deploy them sparingly and only in coordination with NATO’s KFOR peacekeepers. KFOR should help Kosovo control its border. For its part, Serbia should cease supporting paramilitary activity and prosecute those involved in the killing of Kosovo police to the extent they are under its jurisdiction“, states the latest report of the International Crisis Group.

The organization says that while Kosovo is winning the battle for control of the north, hopes for normalisation between Pristina and Belgrade are fading. On the other hand, „Kosovo’s heavy-handed campaign to assert its authority in the north risks provoking further violent resistance and setting back prospects for resolution of its dispute with Serbia over its declaration of independence in 2008“.

They urge Pristina to take credible steps toward assuring self-rule for the northern Serb minority, organize elections and end the northern Serbs’ boycott of government institutions.

The reports says that „these are hard days for the Serb minority, whose future is vital for rapprochement between Belgrade and Pristina“.

„The remaining Serbian institutions on Kosovo territory, which survived the war of 1999 and Kosovo’s independence in 2008, are being dismantled in the aftermath of a Serbian-supported paramilitary operation in September 2023. While limited violent resistance remains possible, northern Kosovo, which was hoping for autonomy or union with Serbia, is grudgingly submitting to Pristina’s authority“.

To remain a community capable of self-government, Serbs need continued access to Serbian institutions, notably in education and health care, plus financial support, the ICG underlined.

„They also need a sense of security, which can only come with the return of Serbs to the Kosovo police force, from which they resigned in protest in November 2022“.

„Serbia also infiltrated several hundred troops to bolster resistance on two occasions in 2022“

The report reminded of the construction of bases in the north in 2021:

„In 2021, Pristina started enforcing its authority in northern Kosovo with a large, militarised special police force that confronted a hostile local population“.

„A new government in Pristina set about asserting sole authority over the northern region, whose Serb population fought to hold on to Serbia’s institutions. The period of escalation began shortly after Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s election in 2021 with a dispute over licence plates. Government pressure and Serb resistance built steadily over the next two years, with sporadic outbursts of violence. Kosovo relied heavily on its police force to impose its will“.

In November 2022, a boycott of Kosovo institutions and massive resignations of Serbs, including in the KP, took place, and they were replaced by police officers from the Albanian and other communities.

The report recalls that barricades were repeatedly set up in the north in previous years by the local population, many of whom were armed.

The International Crisis Group states that Serbia also „infiltrated several hundred troops to bolster resistance on two occasions in 2022“.

The report specifically mentions one-day barricades on July 31, 2022.

„They barricaded roads again. Belgrade inflamed the tensions by infiltrating heavily armed troops (estimated by international officials at between 50 and 300) into Kosovo. In uniform but without insignia, they joined hundreds of other Serbs, many of them armed, facing off against the police. Previous road blockages, which had become a regular feature of life in the north, had not involved such displays of armed force. Surprised and outgunned, Kosovo authorities backed down“.

According to the report, a new „infiltration from Serbia“ took place at the end of December 2022, when the barricades were set up again.

„The barriers stayed up until 28 December, again with help from armed individuals infiltrated from Serbia“.

The report proceeds to state that „to deal with these dangers, and to help ensure police would not be caught unprepared again, Pristina took a series of steps that northern Serbs found provocative“.

„Pristina established four permanent, fortified bases staffed with special police – one near each border post and two more at strategic locations. Another three bases went up to monitor several of the more important „alternative routes“ across the border. A new rapid intervention unit was formed for deployment in crises. The special police, recognisable by their dark blue uniforms, tactical gear, assault rifles and armoured vehicles, became a constant, unwelcome presence in the north“.

Police and Serb outlaws exchanged gunfire frequently, they add.

„In May 2023, an enraged Serb mob trying to attack a special police unit clashed with NATO peacekeepers separating the two groups, leaving many wounded on both sides. Months later, in September, police clashed with a paramilitary group armed with military-grade weapons; an officer was killed by a remotely detonated mine, while three Serbs died in the shootout“.

On Banjska – KFOR negotiate the group’s withdrawal

In the part of the report regarding the conflict between the Kosovo Police and a group of Serbs on September 24 last year in Banjska, it is stated that KFOR informed the Kosovo Police that they had observed unusual movements near the village, but also that allegedly KFOR then negotiated withdrawal of the group.

„A tense standoff ensued between the group and Kosovo special police surrounding them. Fearing a bloodbath, KFOR negotiated the group’s withdrawal into the surrounding woods…“.

Kosovo believes that up to „200 more fighters were hidden at the time in the thick forest between Banjska and the Serbian border“.

Banjska – argument for Kurti’s muscular stance in the north

„The incident gave Pristina a boost in several ways. It encouraged closer coordination between the Kosovo police and KFOR and EULEX, while giving Kurti further arguments for Pristina’s muscular stance in the north. KFOR tightened its cooperation with the police, especially along the border, making it harder for Serbs to smuggle in replacement arms.”
The report adds that the events in Banjska created “strong suspicion that Belgrade was arming and training a paramilitary group for lethal attacks on Kosovo police“.

„Without a convincing alternative explanation, Serbia lost much of the international good-will it had earned with its flexibility in the EU-mediated talks, discussed below, that have run parallel to the rising tensions. The U.S. and EU deemed the Kosovo policeman’s killing to be a form of terrorism and demanded Serbia cooperate in bringing those responsible to justice“.

After Banjska – northern resistance to government authority broken

The report states that on September 24th „international revulsion, and the group’s amateurish look, broke northern resistance to government authority“.

„Pristina took advantage, moving quickly to cement its authority over the north. In December 2023, it struck a deal with Serbia for mutual recognition of licence plates. In January 2024, the government banned import and use of the Serbian dinar, cutting off financing to Serbia’s remaining institutions along with pensions and other benefits. In February, it began raiding and closing Serbian government offices in villages in southern Kosovo and confiscating dinars found in Serbian post offices“.

Reasonable solution already on the table

Pristina ignored U.S. and European demands to suspend these measures until a workable solution could be negotiated, the ICG added.

The report highlighted that a reasonable solution is already on the table – self-governing unit for the Serbs.

„In December 2022, the EU, which has been mediating the Belgrade-Pristina dispute since 2011, proposed a far-reaching normalisation deal by which Serbia would not recognise Kosovo’s independence formally but would act as though it had. In return, Kosovo would give its Serb minority a self-governing unit comprising its ten Serb-majority municipalities (as it promised a decade ago but has not yet done)“.

The report recalled the Brussels agreement on the ASM from 2013.

„Since then, disputes over the unit’s powers – and visceral Kosovar (Kosovo Albanian) opposition to autonomy – kept it on the drawing board. Serbia touted it as a state within a state, modelled on Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, which was unrealistic for a rural region of scarcely 50,000 residents. Kosovo sought the opposite, a minimal body with a purely coordinating role for its member municipalities“.

The other stumbling block, according to ICG, is Serbian de facto recognition of Kosovo.

„De facto recognition means treating Kosovo like an independent state without a formal declaration and consenting to other countries and international bodies like the UN recognising and accepting it as a member. Serbia is grudgingly willing to deal with Kosovo one on one but determined to keep its status an open question“.

They assessed that there is scant hope that the EU dialogue can get over these hurdles, and the Belgrade-Pristina relationship is likely to remain frozen.

„Against this backdrop, both the parties and outside actors that want calm in the Western Balkans should turn their attention first to defusing the short-term risk of violence and after that to achievable goals that can encourage political stability failing a breakthrough on the normalisation deal“.

The top priority is demilitarization, PR should withdraw its special police units from Serb-majority regions

This organization cited demilitarization as a main priority leading up to this.

„Kosovo should withdraw its special police units from Serb-majority regions and, until it does, it should deploy them sparingly and only in coordination with NATO’s KFOR peacekeepers, who northerners see as more trustworthy given their commitment to neutrality“.

To increase Pristina’s sense of security, KFOR should help Kosovo „control its border, prevent further smuggling of heavy weapons and find caches brought in earlier“ – they added.

For its part, Serbia should „cease supporting paramilitary activity and prosecute those involved in the killing of Kosovo police to the extent they are under its jurisdiction“.

On the other hand, they said that „absent an overarching political settlement the burden will be on the EU, the U.S. and NATO to maintain the peace and ward off escalation until conditions for a negotiated deal are ripe“.

„That will mean pressing both Pristina on special police withdrawal and Belgrade to take the above-referenced steps, while retaining and, if need be, reinforcing the NATO peacekeeping presence“.

Serbs to leave Kosovo if left without jobs and benefits from Serbia

According to ICG, another priority is securing the Kosovo Serb minority’s needs – with or without a formal framework for autonomy.

„The northerners depend on schools, universities and health care facilities operated by Serbia. Most of the population works in jobs paid directly or indirectly by Belgrade, and many receive social security, all in Serbian dinars, through a network of post offices and banks Pristina wants to shutter“.

The organization says that ethnic discrimination and language barriers keep all but a few Kosovo Serbs from the regular job market.

„If they lose access to Serbian jobs and benefits, many will emigrate“.

Moreover, the EU and U.S. should urge Kosovo to guarantee that these core Serbian services will remain in place.

„They should also continue pressing Pristina to end its ban on food and medicine imports from Serbia, as on use of the Serbian dinar. On all these items, Kosovo should follow the EU and U.S. lead“.

Serbs lost faith in their political representatives

The report states that the Serb minority needs a voice.

„It has lost faith in its political representatives, who were appointed by Serbia’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party and take their cues from its leaders. Many fear Pristina and feel betrayed by Belgrade, while feeling ignored by Brussels and Washington“.

The EU called on Kosovo to set up sustainable participatory democratic institutions for its Serb minority, to no avail. Instead, Pristina is slow-walking new elections in the northern municipalities. Fresh polls should be held no later than the summer of 2024 – they emphasized.

Even as Brussels and Washington pursue these objectives, however, they should continue to explore with Pristina whether it might embrace the terms of the EU normalisation deal on offer, including for the creation of a Community/Association of Serb municipalities.

„This deal would be good for the northern Serbs but also for Pristina: moving toward northern autonomy will surely be an essential part of any arrangement that brings Kosovo more fully into the international system, and Kosovo may never get a better offer than this one“.

On the other hand, Belgrade may baulk at acquiescing in Kosovo’s independence, but if Pristina takes such an important step, the pressure on it to reciprocate by accepting Brussels’ terms would almost surely mount.

„For Pristina, the political risk is manageable, and the potential upside is great. It should take the plunge“.

Preuzimanje i objavljivanje tekstova sa portala KoSSev nije dozvoljeno bez navođenja izvora. Hvala na poštovanju etike novinarske profesije.