Two months of ‘controlled tensions’

Zid na mostu apokalipsa

Although talks between Belgrade and Pristina have officially stalled since November 8th, US and EU diplomatic activities, as well as moves by the Kosovo government aimed at determining what they see as sovereignty, are becoming more and more popular these days. The mutual relations are marked with one crisis after the other.

Relations between Belgrade and Pristina have rapidly been deteriorating since early November. Multi annual calls for a boycott of Serbian products in Kosovo, as well as allegations directed against the Serbian government and its lobbying activities against Kosovo’s independence, which culminated on November 6th, when the Kosovo government decided to impose a 10% tax increase on imports of products from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

„I believe that from today both the (money) suitcase and Ivica Dacic will be smaller and thinner when working against Kosovo,“ Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister, Enver Hoxhaj said after the measure was adopted, adding that „Serbia is allocating huge sums of money in order to damage the state of Kosovo, and much of that money comes from trade with our country“.

Although this decision was preceded by news of the alleged annulment of the recognition of Kosovo by the Caribbean state of Dominica on November 3rd, followed immediately the next day with the news that Grenada made the same decision, at that moment, the Kosovo Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj claimed that it was a decision made with the aim to protect the domestic market.

The day after the taxes were raised, the Kosovo Foreign Ministry was forced to deny yet another statement by the head of Serbian diplomacy on the annulment of Kosovo’s recognition by the Union of the Comoros.

Two days after this decision, a meeting between Vucic, Thaci and Mogherini failed in Brussels, and Vucic said that „no one will appear in Brussels until the decision on the taxes is withdrawn“.

The first vote that Aleksandar Vucic would later name as one of the reasons for the decision of the Kosovo government to make decisions against Serbia and against the Serbian community in Kosovo was a vote within the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), which the President of Serbia described as an attempt to get the Serbian power grid out of the North of Kosovo. The nature of this vote, which took place on November 10th, was differently described by the ENTSO-E itself.

„Last week, ENTSO-E’s Regional Group Continental Europe ‘RGCE’, representing all TSOs of the 25 countries in the Continental Europe synchronous area, voted on a proposal to resolve the CE deviations. The proposal is aimed at supporting a basis for a temporary solution and is not to impose any principle on either TSO,” the ENTSO-E network announced a few days after the disputed vote.

The voting in INTERPOL followed, which would prove to be the main trigger for further escalations. Although in the weeks before the vote, the Serbian side indicated that Kosovo had the required 2/3 majority and that its membership in this international organization was almost certain, it turned out that Kosovo was not even close to the required membership criteria on November 20th in Dubai.

„The fierce campaign of the Republic of Serbia has once again proved that it is against Kosovo and against the normalization of relations with the Republic of Kosovo, bearing in mind that this membership has a technical – not political nature,“ the Kosovo government blamed the Serbian government for their failure.

On the other hand, the first man of Serbian diplomacy, Ivica Dacic, as well as numerous Serbian officials, celebrated the „victory“.

„They have already entered, I said that many times. They are all on INTERPOL’s arrest warrants. Therefore, they should not be worried. INTERPOL is theirs“ – is just one in a series of triumphant statements by Serbian Foreign Minister, Ivica Dacic about his long-standing partners in the negotiations.

Serbs in North Mitrovica celebrated upon hearing the news of the „victory“ – that Kosovo was not admitted to INTERPOL, by forming a line of cars with Serbian flags which moved from the direction of North Mitrovica to Zvecan and back, followed by sounds of sirens.

The reaction to voting in INTERPOL followed immediately the next day. When Kosovo increased taxes from 10% to 100% on November 21st, the Kosovo government still maintained the line that it was a decision that was taken as a counterpart to Serbia and Bosnia’s numerous obstructions of Kosovo’s foreign trade.

„Taking into account the professional analysis of the Department of Commerce, allow me to propose to you this decision and request approval at this government meeting.

As you know, Kosovo manufacturers are faced with various non-custom barriers in Serbia. Their products cannot enter the Serbian market. The Serbian authorities do not recognize the analysis of Kosovo exporters and seek a reassessment of goods coming from Kosovo. In addition, the issue of transit remains a serious obstacle for Kosovo companies that import products from EU countries through the territory of Serbia,“ reads the beginning of the explanation of the proposal of the Ministry of Trade on the tax increase.

After the adoption of this decision, the main centre of escalation was transferred to the north of Kosovo where the citizens, in the early morning of November 23rd, were abruptly awoken by an air raid siren which could be heard for an hour as a warning due to an arrest action conducted by a special unit of the Kosovo Police in the Grey building in North Mitrovica. Three people were arrested, who appeared to be suspects in the case of the murder of political leader, Oliver Ivanovic, and who have been in detention ever since. The fourth suspect, the Vice-President of Srpska Lista, Milan Radoicic, avoided arrest.

After a protest on the day of the arrest, which was previously scheduled to protest the 100% tax increase of the Kosovo government, the first reaction of the political leaders of Srpska Lista arrived on November 27th, when the Mayors of Zubin Potok, Leposavic, Zvecan and North Mitrovica municipalities in the Kosovo system resigned and local assembly members signed a declaration ceasing communication with the Pristina institutions.

The Crisis Staff of Srpska Lista have been organizing daily protests in North Mitrovica since November 27th.

Immediately after the resignation of his colleague from the North, the Mayor of South Mitrovica, AgimBahtiri publicly declared that he wants to become the Mayor of a „united Mitrovica“, and since then this topic has been increasingly gaining popularity among the public. The Law on Administrative Boundaries of Municipalities is of „vital interest“ and thanks to Ahtisaari, it is not easy to change municipal borders in Kosovo. Despite this, as well as the refusal of the Kosovo Ministry of Administration and local self-government to pass the decision of MA South Mitrovica on the unification of the city to central institutions, Bahtiri will launch a petition for unification today.

The month of December started with two more annulments of the recognition of Kosovo by the Solomon Islands and Madagascar. Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry was again forced to deny these allegations, while the dissatisfaction with the work of Kosovo Foreign Minister Pacolli increases.

On December 3rd, the Kosovo government, but also the public, received probably the worst news of the year. European Commissioner for Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, who came to Pristina to urge for the abolition of taxes and to solve trade problems through a special forum, also said that a visa-free regime for Kosovo will most likely not happen by 2020.

Fortunately for the government of Ramush Haradinaj, whose resignation was demanded by the opposition several times during the parliamentary debate on the failure of foreign policy, the decision on tax increase has brought great popularity to the Prime Minister himself. In addition, after a set of KSF transformation laws passed in October in the first reading, the rest of the parliamentary procedure was coming to the end and the date of final adoption was made public.

Before the plenary session during which the Assembly of Kosovo adopted a set of laws on the transformation of KSF into the armed forces, correspondence between the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Federica Mogherini, Commissioner for Enlargement Policy, Johannes Hahn and the trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom on the one side, and Prime Minister Haradinaj on the other,started on December 12th, which was announced for the first time on December 16th.

In that letter, the EU reiterated Johannes Hahn’s proposal from December 3rd and offered Haradinaj the replacement of the UNMIK / Kosovo inscription in the CEFTA agreement with“Kosovo*”, as well as the modernization of the CEFTA agreement and the resolution of other trade issues. As a sign of good will, Kosovo was required to suspend taxes until the meeting of the Stabilization and Association Council, which was held on December 17th.

In the next three days, Haradinaj took actions with which he tried to establish control over dialogue, but also to consolidate the elements of statehood.

Firstly, on December 13th, Haradinaj presented the final draft agreement with Serbia to the ambassadors of the Quint and the EU chief in Pristina.

Secondly, on December 14th, with the support of the United States and despite the disapproval of the NATO and the EU, Kosovo extended the mandate of the Kosovo Security Force into an armed forces. The implementation of the decision, which was criticized mainly due to the sensitive moment in which it was brought – in the midst of a new crisis and tensions in the relations between Belgrade and Pristina, will require 10 years and significant budgetary allocations before it is fully implemented.

Tensions in Serbia over the adoption of these laws are at a high level, Vucic visited military bases, telling Serbs in the north of Kosovo that Serbia will have the strength to protect them and announced a session of the UN Security Council.

„You do not have to worry, any attempt to attack Serbs, a pogrom of the Serbian population, Serbia will have the strength to protect you. Any abuse of their army and entry where its entrance is banned in accordance with the agreement reached by Serbia with NATO – without the consent of the Serbian local population, there is no entry of armed formations in the north of Kosovo and Metohija. If you are attacked, Serbia will have the strength to protect you,“ the Serbian President said.

On the same day, as the public will find out four or six days later, US President Donald Trump sent two similar letters to the presidents Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic. The letters mark them as the key persons in the dialogue and urge for a quick conclusion of the final agreement. Trump also proposed that the celebration of the historic agreement is celebrated at the White House.

The following day, Haradinaj continued with attempts to introduce more control over the dialogue and he spent the entire Saturday, December 15th, in the assembly together with all his deputies and ministers, seeking to gain support for the Resolution on the dialogue and the negotiating team composed of deputies and government representatives. In the early evening, the Assembly managed to gather a quorum of 61 deputies, of whom 59 voted in favor of the appointment of the eleven-member negotiating team that, as Haradinaj announced, should take over the role of president in the negotiations.

The Kosovo President himself interpreted his role in further negotiations somewhat differently and tweeted that he is looking forward to „working together“ with the new team.

„I welcome the important decision today on creation of the Negotiations Team for the dialogue with Serbia co-headed by Mr. Limaj & Mr. Ahmeti. I look forward working with them together in reaching a final, comprehensive settlement that will open UN, NATO and EU doors for Kosovo,” Thaci tweeted.

That Saturday, Haradinaj also wrote the first response to the EU letter stating that it is too late to resolve the trade problems with Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in isolation. He asked for a more comprehensive solution to a number of problems between Belgrade and Pristina.

The meeting of the Stabilization and Association Council for Kosovo in Brussels was held on December 17th. Kosovo did not suspend the decision on taxes as previously requested by the EU, and after the meeting, Mogherini’s and Ramush Haradinaj’s joint conference was cancelled. The media reported on the tense atmosphere during the meeting after which the EU,in an independent statement,expressed its regret over the decision on taxes and called for the implementation of the agreement on the Community of Serb Municipalities.

While Ramush Haradinaj stayed in Brussels, preparations were made in New York for the UN Security Council meeting late on the same day. Unlike the EU protocol that decided to put the inscription Kosovo* in front of Ramush Haradinaj in Brussels, only Thaci’s name was written in front of Hashim Thaci in New York. No decisions were reached during the UN SC Council meeting.

On Monday, December 17th, another letter from the EU was sent to the Kosovo government. It expressed regret over the refusal to participate „in a special format for resolving trade disputes within CEFTA“. It denied Haradinaj’s assessment that the dialogue is stalling, but also called on the government and the negotiating team appointed by the Assembly of Kosovo on December 15th to „pull all your weight behind the efforts of the President in the Dialogue”.

On Wednesday, December 19th, Vucic and Thaci met again, this time in Brussels, where four other Western Balkan leaders informally met with Federica Mogherini.

Unlike his previous estimates, Vucic was more optimistic about the decision on taxes after that meeting, declaring that he hopes that they will be withdrawn soon.

„I believe and I hope that these taxes will be withdrawn very quickly. I simply think that no one can be alone in the world and that everyone from the world will continue to insist on it, Serbia is not lonely here. If this were to be completed, then the path to the continuation of the dialogue is absolutely open, we are ready for that,“he said.

Finally, a sharp response from Ramush Haradinaj to another letter from Brussels was published yesterday. Haradinaj told Mogherini that his government will continue to respect its constitutional obligations, and accused the EU that it is „rewarding“ Serbia,who is failing to implement technical agreements, by opening new chapters and granting financial assistance packages.

Media Wars

The media situation is in no way better. The media headlines are filled with tense content, often with elements that can cause fear and panic, as well as messages that can lead to hatred and are insulting to members of another nation.

“Pregnant women fleeing Kosovo,”“There’s food for now, but medicine is running out,” “Terror, they are burning Serbian goods like Nazis burned books, the hospitals are running out of oxygen tanks, the prices of food in Kosovo is sky-rocketing and the Serbian newspapers are on the blacklist,” “It is like Serbs are in a concentration camp,” “They will accuse Serbia of killing Oliver,” “The hangman has a hellish plan: I’m creating a Great Albania in January,”“A dangerous gathering in Pec. A seal on Great Albania in Metohija,” “We reveal America’s real scenario. Trump is preparing hell for Haradinaj, he will send him to jail, and he wants the partition of Kosovo next year” – these are some headlines of Belgrade-based tabloids.

The frequent statements by senior state representatives about foreign agents are also followed by media inscriptions in Belgrade: “NOVOSTI REVEAL THE DANGEROUS PLAN OF LONDON AGENTS: Britain is forming its own Srpska Lista“.

„Serbian secret services with plans to carry out attacks in Kosovo“, Criminal Groups and Serbian BIA are trying to repeat the „Panda“ scenario? – the Kosovo media warned the public this week, referring to the documentary program „Roads“ on the Kosovo public television service. „The attack could happen at any time and in any place in Kosovo, and there is a great chance that this will happen in populated areas outside the northern part, in order to blame Albanians,“ Kosovo media reported, also recalling the Panda café attack from 20 years ago, when six Serbian men were killed in a cafe bar in Pec. The Serbian media also recalled the Panda attack.

The Army of Kosovo will not be led by Arkans,“ “The criminal profiles of Serbian mercenaries who risk destabilizing northern Kosovo,“ „Serbian terrorists, 370 Serbian mercenaries on the Russian front against Ukraine,“ „100% tax –millions of euro loss for Serbia“ – are also some of the recent headlines in the Kosovo media.

From the show to violence?

While tensions are increasing, there are also warnings about planned scenarios, but also a danger of the spread of violence and a wider plan of „ethnic borders“ in the Balkans as a „high-risk strategy“ for the Balkans, which „cannot be realized without plenty of violence“:

„I doubt that this is an inflated drama aimed at allowing Vucic and Thaci to say –we have come up with a solution. I’m not saying that there is no risk, I think there really is a risk, and that’s why this is so dangerous. Until recently, such a kind of dangerous game would not be allowed, the West would say, no. Now, however, there is no common Western position, it is clear, but I deeply doubt that this is actually what a Russian political scientist would call dramaturgy. You create a dramatic sense of crisis and then say, we have come back from the edge and now we will be more reasonable, so even those who would otherwise be against the agenda which you are advocating would see it as less bad than other options. This is done for dramatic reasons and because of this we have this dangerous game centered on the army, on the taxes.“(Kurt Bassuener from the Berlin Democratization Policy Council)

„It seems to me that there is a big show underway that is supposed to show the whole world that Serbs and Albanians cannot live together, but also that they cannot live next to each other. The world, of course, should draw the conclusion that the only way out of this situation is the partition of Kosovo. And so the East and the West put a stop to this frozen conflict. And when we make our national (and possibly ethnically clean) states, we should build our great walls – then we will live long and happy…“(journalist Milivoje Mihajlovic)

„My friend, I also have an idea that there is a big show underway that is supposed to show the whole world that Serbs and Albanians cannot live together, but also that they cannot live next to each other. The crisis managers, of course, should draw the conclusion that the only way out of this situation is the partition of Kosovo. In short, the avalanche of spinning, to complete the process of normalization in this way,is accelerated. It’s getting closer to the epilogue.“ (professor at the Faculty of Political Science in Pristina, Behlul Beqaj)

„… and hence increasingly frequent provocations. From raising customs to the announcement of army formation. And there will be more of them: Gazivode, Valac, Jarinje … Tension maintenance is a way of not talking about other open issues. Crisis management is a mechanism to block placing all these problems on the agenda. Both for Albanians and their sponsors. And that will continue in every variant. Even if, hypothetically, they get a chair in the UN. Even if that famous plan of demarcation is realized.“(professor of political science and security, Dusan Prorokovic)

„The time is ahead of holidays, Catholic and Orthodox. So from December 15th to January 15th, that’s a dangerous period. That was the case with the Gazivoda Lake. A time when they take into consideration that international representatives have their holidays. We are afraid that something will be organized, some stronger unrest, in order to normally work on a partition project. That’s what scares me.” (professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Kosovo Serb politician, Rada Trajkovic)

„We are in a barrel of gunpowder that can explode at any moment and, when I say that, I am fully aware that the far way controllers of the crisis in more than one other centre are probably managing the crisis at the moment. The history in the Balkans has taught us that even when someone is managing a crisis in the context of controlled violence, as a rule, such events get out of hand.“(journalist Tatjana Lazarevic)

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