It is by far the most serious aggravation of the situation in the Balkans since the end of the war in former Yugoslavia. Serbia and Kosovo are in fact on the verge of a new armed confrontation.
What caused the escalation of an old conflict is the arrest of Marko Djuric, head of the Serbian government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija, by the law-enforcement bodies of the partly recognized state. Despite the entry ban imposed by official Pristina, the Belgrade official was trying to take part in a roundtable in Mitrovica, a Serb enclave in northern Kosovo. The local Serbian community, including Serbian leaders of Kosovo’s local government bodies, and representatives of Serbia’s central government, planned to discuss the status of Kosovo and Metohija, with due account of the necessity to improve Belgrade-Pristina relations on the eve of Serbia’s accession to the European Union.
As is known, normalization of Serbia-Kosovo relations is the main demand of Brussels to Belgrade, but Serbia is not going to recognize independence of its province and considers Kosovo and Metohija, “Kosmet,” to be part of the Serbian state.
The roundtable in Mitrovica never took place. Kosovo’s law-enforcers broke it up because some Serbian top officials, who were forbidden to enter Kosovo, came to take part in it.
Some time after the beginning of the forum, a Kosovo special police unit conducted an operation to apprehend Djuric. The people who were trying to block the entry of policemen into the conference hall were dispersed by means of stun grenades and teargas. The head of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija was arrested and taken to Pristina for interrogation. Then he was deported to Serbia.
These events triggered an avalanche-like growth of the conflict.
Representatives of the Serbs (Serbian List parties) in the Kosovo government announced their withdrawal from the ruling coalition, which will inevitably result in a political crisis and put the question of snap elections on the agenda.
At the same time, political leaders of Kosovo’s Serbian community said they were going to form an association of Serb-dominated municipalities.
This autonomous formation on the territory of Kosovo is to be formed under the Brussels Agreement on the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina signed in 2013. It calls for establishing a Serbian autonomy within Kosovo, which will have ample powers to maintain ties with Serbia regardless of the central Kosovo government. But the Constitutional Court of Kosovo ruled in December 2015 that, although the establishment of the Association of Municipalities in the Serb-dominated areas is legitimate, this entity cannot have powers of authority because this is a prerogative of the central government of the Republic of Kosovo under the constitution.
As a result, the idea of a legalized Serb enclave was never implemented, and now the Kosovan Serbs have said in no uncertain terms that they will be acting unilaterally in spite of the Kosovan side’s position.
Representatives of the Serb-majority municipalities announced at the March 28 meeting that if Pristina did not begin to form the Association of Serb Municipalities in the next three weeks, Serbian communities would begin to form the autonomy by themselves, relying on overt support from official Belgrade.
Yet Pristina rejects the ultimatum. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj had said shortly before that the Association of Serb Municipalities should be formed in compliance with the principles of the Brussels Agreement and the Constitution of Kososvo, and the ruling of the republic’s Constitutional Court. The Kosovo leaders pointed out that Pristina is meeting its commitments in the course of a dialog on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. But, at the same time, they emphasized that “hreatening tones of Serbia against Kosovo are of no avail. Kosovo institutions believe that the dialog, not the ultimatum, is the only way to build a European and multiethnic Kosovo.”
The EU and the US have also said it is necessary to keep peace. But the situation in the region has not calmed down in the past few days.
On March 26, the day Djuric was arrested, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic held a Security Council meeting. They seriously discussed the possibility of sending Serbian troops to northern Kosovo, but Vucic “chose peace instead of war.” The Serbian leader told the “Prva Televizija” channel that he had really examined the possibility of using the army and police because it is the constitutional duty of him as president to protect the integrity of Serbia and he had to consider this option as well. But, in his words, he chose “tolerance, patience, and maintenance of peace.” “I will always choose such an option if we do not reach the final situation from which you cannot get out and you have to seek the use of the army,” Vucic said.
As is known, Vucic spoke to Vladimir Putin on the phone. According to the Serbian president’s press service, Vucic asked his Russian counterpart about what he thought of countering Pristina’s violence and aggression. Putin said he resolutely condemned Pristina’s violence against the Serbian people and emphasized that Serbia is the key partner of Russia in the Balkans and Europe and Russia will support Serbia in its struggle for the preservation of its independence and territorial integrity. The two presidents expressed a hope that common sense would prevail and all the political conflicts would be resolved peacefully.
Yet, in spite of its declarations of peace, Belgrade actively began to check the combat readiness of its army. On March 27, a military exercise Sadejstvo 2018, which involves infantry, artillery, armored, and airborne units, warplanes, and air defense systems, began at the Pasuljanske Livade proving ground (not far from Kosovo). The exercise’s objective is to practice joint actions during a counterterrorist operation.
On March 28, residents of Kosovo’s Presevo municipality on the border with Serbia photographed, videoed, and posted in social media a flight of Serbian warplanes. The NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) announced on the same day that it would make a check and called for remaining calm.
Meanwhile, on March 29, the proving ground saw the live-fire stage of the exercise. On the same day, Serbia’s to leadership, including the president, watched the war game.
It remains to add that “Pasuljanske Livade” hosted in 2016 the “Slavic Brotherhood” exercise participated by the Serbian, Russian, and Belarusian military. The three counties trained together to neutralize illegal armed formations and conduct joint counterterrorist operations.
Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia, said that the Kosovo government acted “absolutely irresponsibly,” having arrested Serb diplomat Marko Djuric in Kosovan Mitrovica, Yevropeiska Pravda quotes Rs.n1info as reporting.
“Ukraine does not recognize independence of Kosovo, and we support the Brussels Agreement and a dialog between Belgrade and Pristina. I met with [Serbia’s Foreign Minister] Ivica Dacic and other ambassadors and can say that the actions of the Kosovo government were totally irresponsible and its reaction was inadequate,” Aleksandrovych said. The ambassador emphasized that this kind of situations must not emerge in the future. “Ukraine fully supports Serbia in this case,” the ambassador added.