February 4, 2023

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Reaction to blockades: Kosovo closes key border crossing with Serbia

VAmid tensions in Kosovo, the leadership in Pristina has closed the main border with Serbia near the town of Podujevo. The move came Wednesday after Serbian militia blocked access to the Serbian side of the border. Media in Belgrade, near the Serbian city of Merdere, said trucks were parked across the road leading to the border crossing.

It was the third border crossing between Kosovo and its northern neighbors that had to be temporarily closed. Almost three weeks ago, Serb militias set up roadblocks leading to the Branjak and Zarinje crossings in northern Kosovo. Meanwhile, militants have blocked roads elsewhere in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo.

These measures have the support of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Today, Kosovo, which is almost entirely inhabited by Albanians, belongs to Serbia and has been independent since 2008. Serbia, which does not accept this, claims the country’s territory as its own. Serbs live almost exclusively in the area north of Mitrovica, a bifurcated city on the Ibar River, and directly bordering Serbia. Vucic encourages residents of the region not to recognize the sovereignty of the Kosovar state.

A Kosovar police officer patrols the northern part of the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica

Source: REUTERS

The Serbs’ blockades are primarily directed against the arrest of a former Kosovo police officer of Serbian origin. According to Kosovan officials, he allegedly attacked officials of the electoral commission. Behind the bars, however, are Serbs and their relatives, often from criminal and secret service backgrounds.

The recent tensions were first sparked by the government in Pristina invalidating the old Serbian license plates that most residents of northern Mitrovica and the surrounding area still use today. Under pressure from Western embassies, Prime Minister Albin Kurdi suspended the implementation of the relevant regulation.

However, Vucic always seems to find excuses to increase tensions over Kosovo. Two weeks ago he demanded that the Serbian army return to Kosovo. However, this must be approved by the command of KFOR, the nearly 4,000-strong, NATO-led security force. Vucic applied for a permit, but it was unlikely he would get it.

In 1998/99, Serbian security forces killed and displaced civilians in a war against the UCK, a Kosovar rebel militia. So NATO intervened in March 1999 and bombed the rest of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). Serbian security forces and Serbian administration had to withdraw from Kosovo. Until the declaration of independence in 2008, the country was a member of the UN. Managed by Mission UNMIK.

Earlier in the week, Vucic put the Serbian military and police on high alert. To date, the Serbian army must respect a five-kilometer-wide buffer zone on its own territory along the border with Kosovo, which it can enter only with KFOR permission. This was part of the agreements reached after the end of the NATO intervention.

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Local Serbs near a roadblock in the city of Mitrovica

With Albin Kurdi ruling Kosovo from March 2021, Europe’s youngest state has a head of government that doesn’t shy away from conflict. The 47-year-old was jailed in Serbia for more than two years as a Kosovar-Albanian dissident. He heads the Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) party, which is committed to the implementation of Kosovo’s statehood unconditionally, but also to reforms of a somewhat corrupt state apparatus.

Kurdi describes the Serb blockade in the north as illegal. “Government institutions don’t deal with criminals, they arrest them,” he said after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. KFOR, which is responsible for the country’s public security, has been given “more time to act” to remove the sanctions. However, this time is over.

A court in Pristina on Wednesday surprisingly freed a former Serbian police officer, whose arrest was allegedly triggered by barricades, to house arrest. Kurdi was also surprised that the prosecutor’s office and courts in Kosovo are independent of the government. “I’m curious which state attorney applied for it and which court decided it.” It was not at first known what effect the court ruling would have on the Serbs’ activities in the north.

Central Foreign Office: “Completely wrong signal”

The German government has criticized the increased presence of the Serbian army in the conflict with neighboring Kosovo to the south. A spokesman for the Foreign Office in Berlin said on Wednesday that it was sending “absolutely the wrong signal”. This was made very clear to the Serbian side.

The Foreign Office is “very concerned” about tensions in northern Kosovo, according to a spokesman. The roadblocks that have been set up for several weeks should be removed immediately.

At the same time, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Kosovo must accept the implementation of the agreed Serbian Community Association. In this regard, the Ministry supports the ongoing negotiations of the EU Special Envoy Miroslav Lajcak.

The EU and the US are concerned about the situation in Kosovo

The United States and the European Union are concerned about the tense situation in Kosovo. The European Union’s External Action Service (EEAS) and the US State Department said in a joint statement on Wednesday: “We call on all involved to exercise the utmost restraint. Immediate steps should be taken to defuse the situation and avoid provocation, threats or intimidation.”

The EU-US statement welcomed the Kosovo leadership’s assurance that Kosovar Serb citizens would not be arrested or prosecuted for peaceful protests or blockades. As part of EU Mission EULEX’s mandate, investigations and subsequent actions will be closely monitored to promote respect for human rights.

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