Brussels and Washington urged Serbia and Kosovo on December 28 to reduce tensions in the midst of one of the worst regional crises in years. In the last few hours, Pristina closed its biggest border crossing into Serbian territory and this week Belgrade put its troops on the border on “combat alert”. The latest outbreak occurred over the arrest of a former Serbian police officer, but the two sides have accumulated years of confrontation after Kosovo’s independence in 2008, which has not been recognized by Serbia.
The tension grows in the north of Kosovo and raises the concern of the international community.
In a release Together, the European Union and the US government urged Serbia and its former province to reduce the clashes, which have been going on for more than two weeks.
“We call on everyone to exercise maximum restraint, take immediate measures to unconditionally reduce the situation and refrain from provocations, threats or intimidation,” remarked the written statement issued on Wednesday, December 28.
Washington and Brussels indicated that they are in talks with the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, to find a political solution that calms the latest tensions.
The recent outbreak of violence between the Balkan territories dates back to December 10, when ethnic Serbs erected barricades to protest the arrest of a former Serb policeman suspected of involvement in attacks against ethnic Albanian policemen.
That was one of the most relevant episodes of the so-called license plate crisis, stemming from Pristina’s controversial decision to ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using Belgrade-issued vehicle registration plates, a policy that was ultimately scrapped amidst of violence.
Around 600 policemen, as well as Serb mayors in northern Kosovo municipalities and local judges resigned their posts in rejection of the measure and since then barricades, clashes and exchanges of fire have increased.
However, this is just the latest chapter in a longstanding tension between Belgrade and its former province, which claimed independence in 2008 and has enjoyed limited recognition as a country ever since.
Serbs in Kosovo, especially in the north where they make up the majority of the population, unlike ethnic Albanians who are the largest group in the rest of the country, regularly challenge Pristina’s authority.
Kosovo closes main border crossing with Serbia
On Tuesday night, dozens of protesters on the Serbian side of the border used trucks and tractors to stop traffic leading to Merdare, the biggest crossing between the neighbors, a move that forced Kosovo police to close the point. entry this Wednesday.
“Such an illegal blockade has prevented the free movement of people and goods, which is why we invite our citizens and compatriots to use other border points for transit,” the local police said in a statement.
However, Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic described the roadblocks as a “democratic and peaceful” means of protest, adding that Belgrade has “an open line of communication” with Western diplomats to resolve the issue.
The escalation of one of the worst crises in the sensitive region increases after last Monday, December 26, Serbia raised the combat alert to the maximum for its troops on the border with Kosovo.
The Serbian Minister of the Interior, Bratislav Gasic, assured that he “ordered the complete preparation for combat” of the Police and other security units by order of President Aleksandar Vucic so that “all measures are taken in order to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo”.
A move with which he ignored NATO’s calls to calm tensions in the Balkan Peninsula, at a time when Europe is going through the war in Ukraine, launched by Russia.
Former Serbian policeman released in bid to de-escalate fighting
The Kosovo authorities confirmed this Wednesday that former police officer Dejan Pantic, whose arrest sparked the recent clashes, will be transferred from prison to his home, where he will remain under house arrest.
It is not yet clear when the transfer will take place, but it is hoped that the decision will contribute to an alleviation of the confrontations, since this has been one of the conditions of those who protest to raise the barricades.
His lawyer, Nebojsa Vlajic, explained that according to local laws an arrestee must be detained at his home after 30 days of preventive detention.
“The (Kosovo) Police have an obligation to transfer Pantic to the address where he lives,” said Vlajic, who appealed against his client’s arrest.
Pantic was accused by a Pristina Court, on December 13, of having attacked an electoral commission facility to prevent municipal elections in the north of the country, which were scheduled for this December and to which the Serbs opposed.
In the midst of the turbulent panorama, the president of Kosovo, Vjosa Osmani, finally announced that the elections in that area would be delayed until April 23, 2023.
Kosovo remains a potential flashpoint in the Balkans years after the 1998-1999 war, which ended with NATO intervention. Serbia insists on not recognizing the independence of its former province, while Western efforts to broker a solution have so far been unsuccessful.
With Reuters, AP and EFE