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Tensions Mount Between Ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo

The Serbian army briefly deployed artillery within range of Kosovo
The Serbian army briefly deployed artillery within range of Kosovo. Credit: Ministry of Defense and Serbian Armed Forces / Twitter

Tensions are escalating between the Serb minority and the Albanian majority in Kosovo, prompting the Serbian armed forces to enter a state of high alert. Serbian military intervention is unlikely but remains a distinct possibility.

Northern Kosovo is the epicenter of the deteriorating situation. On December 10th, ethnic Serbs set up roadblocks in the region to protest the arrest of police officers of Serbian descent.

The Kosovo Force (KFOR), the NATO-led peacekeeping force, has reported a rise in shootings and violence in areas affected by the protests.

What is causing tensions in Kosovo?

Ultimately, ethnic tensions in Kosovo are rooted in the broader geopolitical dynamics that have defined the Balkans for decades. The country emerged as an independent state in 1999 as a result of the Kosovo War.

The present crisis has several triggers. In November, hundreds of ethnic Serbs in the Kosovar police force, judicial service, and local government left their jobs. They left in protest against a law that would ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using Belgrade-issued license plates.

Pristina abandoned the law, but tensions have persisted. The government scheduled local elections in Serb-majority municipalities for December 18th, but these were postponed after Srpska Lista, the main Serb political party, said that they would boycott them.

On December 10th, a former policeman was arrested after it was alleged that he had been involved in violent attacks against ethnic Albanian police officers. The arrest caused anger amongst the ethnic Serb community, which responded by setting up roadblocks at border crossings.

The security situation

The mass resignation of police officers and law enforcement officials has left a security vacuum in the northern part of the country, making it easier for criminals to conduct smuggling operations.

However, the greatest concern is that the situation will lead to armed conflict. Low-level violence between ethnic Serbs and Albanians could prompt the Serbian government to respond with military force, thus causing a war between Serbia and Kosovo.

KFOR reported a sporadic burst of gunfire on Christmas Day in the vicinity of roadblocks. It is unclear who fired the shots. Nobody appears to have been hurt.

In a separate incident, EU police officers reported that they were targeted with a stun grenade. None of the police officers, who were participating in mission EULEX, were injured in the incident.

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti has requested that KFOR remove the roadblocks. “If KFOR is not able to remove the barricades, or does not do it for reasons unknown to me, then we have to do it,” he said on Tuesday.

Serbian military response

According to Miloš Vučević, Serbia’s defense minister, the Serbian armed forces were placed on the “highest alert” in case a response was needed to events in Kosovo. Relations between Belgrade and Pristina have been historically poor, and Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state.

On Monday, the Serbian army positioned howitzers just two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the border with Kosovo. The artillery pieces were only deployed for a few hours and were returned to their barracks after the pro-government media took photographs.

“We have to give our best, all of us together, to try to keep the peace,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said on Wednesday. “We are really on the brink of armed conflicts, thanks to unilateral moves from Pristina.”

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