What's In Blue

Posted Sun 22 Oct 2023

Kosovo Briefing

Tomorrow afternoon (23 October), the Security Council will convene for its second regular briefing this year on the situation in Kosovo. Special Representative and head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) Caroline Ziadeh is expected to brief on the Secretary-General’s latest report on UNMIK, which was issued on 5 October and covers developments from 19 March to 18 September. Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić will participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure and and President Vjosa Osmani of Kosovo is expected to participate under rule 39.

Ziadeh is expected to highlight key political and security developments in Kosovo during the period covered by the Secretary-General’s report. She may note that, although there was notable progress earlier this year in the push to normalise relations between Belgrade and Pristina, the reporting period witnessed several setbacks in the EU-mediated dialogue.

On 27 February, Prime Minister Albin Kurti of Kosovo and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić agreed to an EU proposal to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The 11-point agreement commits Kosovo and Serbia to developing normal, good-neighbourly relations with each other on the basis of equal rights. It also stipulates that neither can represent the other in the international sphere and that Serbia will not object to Kosovo’s membership in international organisations. In exchange, Kosovo commits to forming “specific arrangements and guarantees…to ensure an appropriate level of self-management” for the Serbian community in Kosovo. On 18 March, Belgrade and Pristina agreed on an annex outlining steps for the agreement’s implementation. Notably, it emphasises independent advancement of the agreement’s 11 points (that is, that progress on one point is not conditional on another). On 18 April, the sides established a Joint Monitoring Committee to oversee the agreement’s implementation.

Diverging views on the sequencing of the agreement’s implementation, however, have hindered concrete progress. The Secretary-General’s most recent report on UNMIK notes that “[w]hile Belgrade insisted that concrete steps towards establishing the Association/Community needed to take priority, Pristina maintained that no article of the Agreement could be a precondition for the implementation of other articles and that articles needed to be advanced “independently”. (The establishment of the Community/Association of Kosovo Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo was stipulated in the 2013 First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalisation of Relations, with a subsequent agreement reached in 2015 outlining the formation steps. However, the 2015 agreement was not adopted by the Kosovo Assembly due to objections from the opposition.)  Additionally, the report points out that the Joint Monitoring Committee has yet to convene. Despite bilateral meetings, such as those held on 15 May and 19 July, between EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, Miroslav Lajčák, and leaders Kurti and Vučić, no consensus on the next steps was reached.

On 14 September, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell facilitated direct discussions between Kurti and Vučić in Brussels. However, they failed to agree on how to sequence the agreement’s implementation. The stalemate, according to Borrell, arose from Kurti’s demand that Serbia officially recognise Kosovo before advancing with the February agreement. After the talks, Borrell shared that while Vučić was amenable to the EU’s suggestion of concurrent implementation of political normalisation aspects, “Kurti was not ready to move forward and start a credible process towards establishing the Association/Community”, insisting instead “on formalising de facto recognition [of Kosovo] as the first step”. He emphasised that this deadlock could hinder both parties’ aspirations to move closer to the EU.

On 21 April, the predominant political party in the Serb-majority northern Kosovo, Serbian List, called on the ethnic Serb community to boycott the elections that were held on 23 April in the four northern municipalities. While ethnic Albanians constitute over 90 percent of Kosovo’s overall population, they represent a small minority in the north, where more than 50,000 ethnic Serbs reside. Serbian List had previously set forth its conditions for participating in the elections, which included the creation of the Association/Community and the removal of special Kosovo police units from the northern region. As a result, fewer than four percent of eligible voters participated in the election. This low turnout paved the way for the victory of ethnic Albanian political parties, particularly the ruling Movement for Self-Determination (Vetëvendosje) party and the Democratic Party of Kosovo. After the election results were announced, Milan Radoičić, the former vice president of Serbian List, declared that ethnic Serbs in the northern municipalities “would never accept” governance by officials elected with such a low voter turnout.

On 24 April, the Spokesperson of the European External Action Service, Peter Stano, released a statement acknowledging that the elections were conducted “in line with the legal framework of Kosovo”. However, it stressed that the results do not provide a “long-term political solution”. This stance was echoed by the Quint—comprising representatives from France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the US—in a joint statement on 18 May.

On 26 May, tensions escalated as Kosovo police escorted the newly-elected mayors into their municipal offices, amid protests by Kosovo Serbs in three northern municipalities. The situation turned volatile in the town of Zvečan/Zveça, where police intervention led to confrontations with the protesters, resulting in dozens of injuries. In response to the clashes, Vučić put the Serbian army on high alert and ordered Serbian troops to the Kosovo border. The situation deteriorated further on 29 May when the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) stepped in to disperse the Kosovo Serb protesters, leading to over 140 injuries, including approximately 50 civilians and 93 NATO troops. On that day, NATO issued a statement condemning the “unprovoked attacks against KFOR troops” in northern Kosovo as “totally unacceptable”. On the following day, NATO announced the deployment of an additional 700 troops to Kosovo to stabilise the situation.

Tensions persisted in northern Kosovo throughout June, prompting international calls for de-escalation between Belgrade and Pristina. On 3 June, the EU called on Pristina to suspend police operations near municipal buildings in northern Kosovo and to organise early elections “as soon as possible” in the four municipalities. In a 13 June letter to Borrell, Kurti outlined a five-point plan to defuse tensions in the north. On 29 June, Kurti agreed to scale back police deployment and to schedule early elections in the northern municipalities. On 13 July, Pristina reduced the police presence around the municipal buildings by 25 percent. A further reduction of 25 percent took place on 3 August.

In September, tensions in northern Kosovo escalated again when heavily armed Kosovo Serbs reportedly clashed with Kosovo police in the village of Banjska on 24 September, leading to the deaths of three Kosovo Serbs and one Kosovar police officer. Several arrests were made, and significant amounts of military-grade weapons were reportedly confiscated. In the wake of the incident, on 26 September, US Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey M. Hovenier said that the attack was “coordinated and sophisticated” and that “the quantity of weapons suggests this was serious, with a plan to destabilize security in the region”. On 29 September, US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said that the US was “monitoring a large Serbian military deployment along the border with Kosovo”. Describing the military build-up as “unprecedented” and “a very destablising development”, Kirby called on Serbia to withdraw its forces. Serbia, in turn, decreased the number of troops stationed near Kosovo by nearly half.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are expected to condemn the recent surge in violence, discourage further unilateral actions, call for the de-escalation of tensions, and encourage both parties to address ongoing issues through dialogue. Some Council members—including Albania, the UK, and the US—are likely to argue that the recent events are isolated episodes in an otherwise stable environment. As such, they may raise the issue of modifying UNMIK’s mandate with a view to its possible drawdown. Russia is expected to maintain that the recent incidents are indicative of broader instability in Kosovo and demonstrate that the mission’s presence is necessary to maintain order.

Sign up for What's In Blue emails

Subscribe to receive SCR publications