Kosovo’s PM Kurti defies US demands to withdraw special police from troubled north

Kosovo’s PM Kurti defies US demands to withdraw special police from troubled north
Kosovo’s PM Albin Kurti rejected US calls to withdraw police from municipal buildings in three Serbian-majority municipalities.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje May 31, 2023

Kosovo’s PM Albin Kurti has openly rejected US demands for Kosovo’s police to withdraw from the municipal buildings in three Serbian-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo. 

The US demand was part of international appeals to Pristina de-escalate the tensions that escalated in northern Kosovo when Kosovo Serbs clashed with KFOR and Kosovo special police units on May 29. The clashes occurred as Serbian residents gathered in three municipalities with a Serbian majority in the north to prevent newly elected Albanian mayors, whom they deemed illegitimate, from entering the municipal buildings.

During his stay in Bratislava, where he took part in the Global Security Forum (Globsec) 2023 on May 31, Kurti underlined the need for special forces to remain stationed in front of municipal buildings as long as there is an angry "mob" in the streets threatening potential attacks, according to a video clip published by Kosovo-online.

Kurti's tone appeared confrontational when he stated that the solution to this crisis lies in "the mob, either back to Serbia or in prison in Kosova”.

According to Kurti, there should be a two-track approach to address the tensions. Firstly, the rule of law must be upheld, leading to the dispersion of the mob. This would be followed by a gradual reduction in the police presence and the normalisation of the situation.

Secondly, he advocated for the swift and complete implementation of the basic agreement with Serbia, which had been previously agreed upon.

Western officials exerts pressure on Kurti

The US ambassador in Belgrade, Christopher Hill, has stated that Pristina will face consequences due to its failure to heed the advice of the US, and warned that this would impact relations with Washington.

However, Hill clarified that he is not fully informed about all the details surrounding the situation. He emphasised the importance of making progress in normalising relations between Belgrade and Pristina, including the formation of the Association of Serbian-Majority Municipalities (ASM) and the continuation of the dialogue.

In response to Western pressure, Kurti expressed readiness to consider holding early elections in municipalities with a Serb majority, as reported by The Guardian.

However, the fulfillment of two conditions is required by Serbs for elections to take place: the formation of the ASM and the withdrawal of Kosovan special forces from the northern region.

Miroslav Lajcak, the EU's special representative for the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, emphasised the urgent need for a political solution to the tensions in northern Kosovo, stressing that violence is unacceptable. In a tweet he called for de-escalation and a return to the dialogue process to implement the previously reached agreement.

EU High Commissioner Josep Borell conveyed a similar message.

"We need urgent de-escalation and a solution through the Dialogue to return to our work on implementing the Agreement reached,"

Met Prime Minister @albinkurti in Bratislava to discuss the tensions in the north of #Kosovo.

The current situation is dangerous and unsustainable.

We need urgent de-escalation and a solution through the Dialogue to return to our work on implementing the Agreement reached. pic.twitter.com/cOhKtEothA

— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) May 31, 2023 Borell tweeted from Bratislava.

French President Emmanuel Macron, also speaking in Bratislava, said he held Pristina responsible for the unrest in northern Kosovo. 

He plans to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, as well as the leaders of Belgrade and Pristina, during the week.

UK envoy for the Western Balkans Stuart Peach said after meetings with representatives of Pristina that the government decision to impose mayors by force in the municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo was unwise and led to damaging consequences.

Meanwhile Russia, a key ally of Serbia, has expressed its support for the protection of the rights of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.

Moscow Times reported on May 30 that Russia called on the West to cease its "deceitful propaganda" following clashes between ethnic Serbs and KFOR members in northern Kosovo.

"We call on the West to finally halt its deceitful propaganda and stop blaming the incidents in Kosovo on desperate Serbs, who are trying to defend their legitimate rights and freedom peacefully and without weapons," the foreign ministry said, according to the article. 

Demonstrations continue 

For the third day in a row, several hundred Kosovo Serbs gathered in the morning of May 31, in front of the municipality building in Zvecan, which has been at the centre of the recent unrest. KFOR soldiers and members of the Kosovo special police were still stationed there. The number of special police forces and armoured vehicles increased throughout the day, heightening tensions in the area.

KFOR members have placed multiple lines of barbed wire around the municipal building. In response, the Serbs unfurled a 250-metre-long Serbian flag on the barbed wire set up by KFOR. Demonstrators plan to gather again on June 1 to voice their concerns, Serbian broadcaster RTS reported.

Serbian Defence Minister Milos Vucevic expressed serious concerns about the security situation in northern Kosovo. He attributed the risks to the “unilateral, illegal and illegitimate” decisions made by the Pristina administration.

The Serb List, a political group representing the interests of the Serbian people in Kosovo, urged citizens not to endanger the safety of KFOR soldiers, emphasising that doing so would work against the Serbian people's interests.

Goran Rakic, president of the Serb List, said the crowd will not disperse until two arrested Serbs are released. Other two demands include the withdrawal of special police forces from municipal buildings in northern Kosovo.

Rados Petrovic and Dusan Obrenovic, the two arrested Serbs, have been put into 30-day detention by the basic court in Pristina. They are accused of committing several criminal acts, including an attack on the constitutional order.

Criticism at home

Former Kosovan prime minister and now leader of opposition the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), Ramush Haradinaj, urged Kurti to resign over the situation in Kosovo and for the deterioration of relations with the US.

Haradinaj criticised Kurti and President Vjosa Osmani, accusing them of undermining past successes during their time in power and regressing Kosovo's progress by a decade.

Haradinaj specifically pointed out the exclusion of Kosovo from the Nato Defender Europe 2023 exercise as a concerning development for national security. Haradinaj argued that this exclusion is an alarming signal.

“He [Kurti] has only one chance, once in his life to do something good for Kosovo! Resign today!” Haradinaj said in a Facebook post.