In the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo, the security situation worsened on Wednesday. As a reaction to the erection of further road barricades on the Serbian side, the government in Pristina closed the most important border crossing to the neighboring country and asked the NATO peacekeeping forces for help in clearing the barricades erected on the territory of Kosovo.
The US and EU called on both sides to de-escalate, while Russia reiterated its support for Belgrade. On Tuesday evening, demonstrators on the Serbian side of the border used trucks and tractors to obstruct traffic to Merdare, the main border crossing between the countries. In a joint statement, Brussels and Washington called on all those involved to “exercise the greatest possible restraint”, to take “immediate action” for “unconditional de-escalation” and “to refrain from provocation, threats or intimidation”.
The EU and the US also said they were working with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti to find a political solution to one of the most serious escalations in northern Kosovo in recent years. Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said Belgrade was ready to settle the conflict but gave no details.
Tensions had already flared up in northern Kosovo on the border with Serbia in the past few weeks. Hundreds of Kosovo Serbs set up roadblocks to protest the arrest of a former Serb police officer and have since blocked traffic near two border crossings. After that, Kosovan security forces and soldiers of the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force (KFOR) were repeatedly attacked, some with firearms.
On Wednesday, a court in Pristina ordered the release of the former police officer. He will now be placed under house arrest, said a court spokeswoman. The decision could help ease tensions.
Serbian President Vucic called on representatives of the Kosovo Serbs on Wednesday evening to end the road blockades. “What’s in it for us if the barricades remain? I can tell you five hundred things that we can get if they are removed,” Vucic said, according to state broadcaster RTS.
The federal government demanded that the road blockades be dismantled as quickly as possible. A spokesman for the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin said that at the same time Kosovo had to accept the implementation of the agreed Serbian community association. The house of Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) is “very concerned” about the tensions.
Berlin also criticized the strengthening of the Serbian military presence on the ground. This sends a “completely wrong signal,” said the foreign ministry spokesman. This had been made very clear to the Serbian side.
Serbia announced on Monday evening that it would put the army on increased alert because of the conflict and increase the presence of the Serbian armed forces.
Russia, on the other hand, reiterated its support for Serbia. “We support Belgrade in all its measures that are being taken,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in Moscow.
It is “natural that Serbia defends the rights of Serbs living next door in such difficult conditions and that it reacts relentlessly when their rights are violated,” he said. Moscow and Belgrade have “close ties” that are “historical and spiritual.”
On the one hand, Serbia is an official candidate for EU membership, but on the other hand it is considered to be Russia’s closest ally in the Western Balkans. Belgrade has condemned the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. But it refuses to join Western sanctions against Moscow.
Kosovo, with its predominantly Albanian population, declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, but is still considered by Belgrade to be a breakaway southern Serbian territory. Belgrade is encouraging the Serb minority in northern Kosovo in their attempts to defy the authority of the Pristina government.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has announced the dismantling of the barricades erected by ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo. This will be completed in the next 24 to 48 hours, he said on Thursday night, according to the Serbian state television RTS. He had previously met with representatives of the Kosovo Serbs in the southern Serbian town of Raska.
Kosovo, which is now almost exclusively inhabited by Albanians, used to belong to Serbia and has been independent since 2008. To this day, Serbia has not come to terms with this and is claiming the country’s territory for itself. The area north of the divided city of Mitrovica is almost exclusively inhabited by Serbs. Belgrade has repeatedly relied on the local people to stoke tension and unrest.