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Tensions resurface in Kosovo after government imposes sanctions on Russia

Illustration by Big Eye, used with permission.

This story was originally published by Sbunker as part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub, and was written by Fitim Gashi, with contributions by Demira Krujezi, Petrit Zogaj, and Bardhi Bakija. An edited version is republished in two parts by Global Voices with permission. Read Part 1 of this article here.

The Kosovo government in sync with the European Union and the United States has imposed sanctions on Russia. The sanctions consist of the freezing of assets in the Republic of Kosovo of sanctioned individuals or entities; a travel ban for sanctioned individuals; prohibition for individuals and entities in  Kosovo to make funds available, either directly or indirectly, to sanctioned individuals and entities.

The Kosovo Assembly also discussed the crisis in Ukraine and adopted a 12-point resolution. In addition to condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Assembly opposed the approach and conduct of countries aligned with Russian aggression and terror against Ukraine, starting with its northern neighbor, Serbia.

The Assembly asked the government that in addition to its willingness to house 20 Ukrainian journalists, to coordinate all further actions with international partners, as well as to express readiness for the eventual accommodation of up to 5,000 refugees from Ukraine. It also requested that a special fund be set up to assist the Ukrainian people, coordinated between the two respective governments, Kosovo and Ukraine.

The situation in Ukraine also brought back on the agenda Kosovo’s requests for membership in international organizations, which for more than a year had been suspended. Kosovo had continued to implement the moratorium tacitly by not filing any applications. On the eve of the expiration of the moratorium, the US encouraged the parties to continue to give the dialogue with Serbia a chance with the aim of reaching a final agreement.

An agreement was reached in Washington on September 4, 2020. It provided that until September 4, 2021, Kosovo would not apply for membership in international organizations and Serbia would stop its derecognition campaign.

Now the Assembly has asked the government to take all the necessary measures to submit applications for membership in NATO, the European Union, the Council of Europe and other international organizations. The Speaker of the Assembly has been asked, in coordination with the government and international partners, to address the highest state institutions of Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus, with the request to recognize Kosovo’s independence. The neighboring countries were invited, too. The resolution concludes:

“The Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo, taking into account our common aspirations for membership in the European Union and the consolidation of democracy and security in the region, invites the Parliament of the Republic of Albania, the Parliament of the Republic of Northern Macedonia, the Parliament of the Republic of Montenegro, The Parliament of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina to join this initiative and express their support.”

The resolution was not voted on by the MPs of the Serb List, who left the hall when the document was put to a vote.

In support of Ukraine, a number of civil society organizations held a march condemning Russian aggression. President Vjosa Osmani joined this solidarity protest stating that the war in Ukraine recalled what Kosovo had experienced in 1998–1999.

Tensions resurface

At the height of the crisis in Ukraine and amid warnings that a similar scenario could be repeated in northern Kosovo, an increased Kosovo Force (KFOR) presence there was requested. Currently, this force is in charge of Kosovo's borders. Members of the U.S contingent patrolled the administrative border of Kosovo and Serbia near the village of Jarinje. This was announced by KFOR, stating that patrols were needed to gather information for decision-making and planning future missions.

In addition to the presence of KFOR, Kosovo officials proposed building a permanent U.S. base in Kosovo.

A wide-scale campaign for Kosovo’s membership in NATO has begun in media and social networks. Since the declaration of independence, Kosovo has expressed the unequivocal goal to join this alliance. The #KosovoinNATO campaign launched by the Minister of Defense Armend Mehaj on social networks has been distributed by thousands.

However, NATO still does not officially recognize the change of mandate of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) from a security force to an army, as stipulated by legislation adopted by Kosovo Parliament in 2018. Thus, the deployment of KSF in the north can be done only with the special permission of the KFOR commander.

Contrary to the KSF status, there was false news that the government might even send the KSF to Ukraine, based on an article from the portal news308media.com entitled “The whole world is talking about him, Albin Kurti sends Kosovo Army in the war against Russia.” This text, which was later removed and debunked, was in fact published two months before the escalation of the war in Ukraine with content that doesn't match its title. It mentions a December 9, 2021 statement by Kosovo's prime minister expressing his willingness to send the KSF to Ukraine, if required by NATO.

“First of all, I wish that there are no new conflicts, and I am following closely until late hours what is happening at the border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. NATO was alarmed about this, in particular, the United States and the EU, and whatever NATO deems necessary we are of course ready.”

In February, the government also decided to set up the Security Fund in order to strengthen the army. The funds raised are intended to be used in accordance with the state security strategy expected to be approved by the government of Kosovo.

Serb-dominated northern Kosovo continues to be sensitive to Pristina's efforts to strengthen control in that part. Actions taken to combat smuggling have also met with resistance.

The escalation of the situation in Ukraine, after the Russian attack, has increased the vigilance of security mechanisms. Kosovo police sent logistical equipment and containers to the Brnjak border crossing, which was closed for several days last year after Serbs set up barricades there. Controls have also been stepped up on the mountain roads that Serbia has used for smuggling in the north.

This move was interpreted by Serbian officials as an attempt to fuel tensions in the north. The president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, stated that Serbia will not “accept the game of provocations.”

The Office for Kosovo in the government of Serbia also stated that the police action is contrary to the Brussels agreements and constitutes a “dangerous provocation” and a destabilization of the situation on the ground. The head of this office, Petar Petkovic, even accused Kosovo politicians of wanting to disrupt the peace in the Balkans, which the Serbian president will maintain at all costs.

Detention of Serbs with KLA insignia

Suspicions that a plan was being prepared to provoke tensions in the north, following the Russian scenario, have led to the arrest of five people by the Kosovo police. The action was preceded by a Kosovapress report that the five were planning to make a video as if some soldiers wearing (1993–1999) Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) uniforms were ready to invade northern Kosovo. According to reports, through this tactic, Serbia is planning to have a pretext before the international community to intervene militarily in the name of protecting Serbs in Kosovo. Although the reasons for the arrests were not revealed, the police report states that the necessary verifications were being made against them, in coordination with the Office of Special Prosecution. However, less than 48 hours later, they were released. According to the prosecutor of the case, there was no evidence to proceed in court.

This situation revealed the contradictions between the political and security institutions. The Minister of Justice Albulena Haxhiu called a press conference where she said the prosecution’s negligence constituted an indifference to the threat posed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo. According to the Minister, security institutions have information that at least one of the five people held had numerous communications with persons from the Russian Federation and the Serbian intelligence service, “raising suspicions that the persons in question together with Serbian structures [were] planning activities that would jeopardize security and incite inter-ethnic tensions.”

There were also warning statements from state leaders that there could be Serbian aggression on Kosovo. Moreover, according to the Speaker of the Assembly, Glauk Konjufca, there should be extra caution because the state's relationship with Serbia was worse than that of Russia with Ukraine.

On the other hand, Serbian officials were also active in sounding the alarm against the danger posed to Kosovo Serbs. As a pretext, they cited graffiti with the inscription “UQK” placed on Serb houses. The director of the “Kosovo office” in the Serbian government, Petar Petkovic, asked the rapporteur on Kosovo in the European Parliament on Twitter whether she was aware that “Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija are still waking up to terrorist KLA threats?” The Serb official jumped to conclusions despite the fact that law enforcement agencies have not identified the reasons for, nor the authors of the graffiti. Residents of the Serb community themselves said they did not know who was responsible.

In conclusion, we can add that during this two-week period the general opinion has been created that if the war in Ukraine continues for a longer period of time, we will see more attempts to misinform public opinion and create situations that would jeopardize public safety in Kosovo.

Read the full report here.


 

Image courtesy of Giovana Fleck.

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.

 

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