NATO is sending 700 additional personnel to bolster its peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, in response to a spate of violent protests by ethnic Serbs leaving around 30 Kosovo Force (KFOR) troops and 52 protesters wounded.
The unrest stems most immediately from a recent ethnic Serbian boycott relating to previous Mayoral elections. This reflects a broader surge in friction between that community and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority. At the same time, there are also fears that the ongoing tensions there might be further fueled by anti-NATO and anti-Western sentiment in the country, as well as elsewhere in the Balkans, as an extension of the war in Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters in Oslo alongside Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, announced the decision to send reinforcements to Kosovo yesterday. The 700 troops are being drawn from an operational reserve force for the Western Balkans. An unspecified number of additional personnel assigned to another battalion of reserve forces have also been put on a heightened state of readiness to be available to intervene if necessary, Stoltenberg added. Stoltenberg did not make it immediately clear yesterday where specifically the 700 additional KFOR troops were coming from and what unit has now been alerted for possible deployment. The War Zone has reached out to NATO for clarity on these points.
While describing the new measures as “prudent steps” to ensuring that KFOR has “the forces and capabilities it needs to fulfill its mandate,” Stoltenberg did not outline a timetable for when the additional troops would be deployed and how long they might be expected to remain in place.
Commenting on the recent violence against KFOR units, Stoltenberg said: “such attacks are unacceptable and must stop. KFOR, the NATO forces, will take all necessary actions to maintain a safe and secure environment for all citizens in Kosovo, and will continue to act impartially, in line with our United Nations mandate.”
“Violence sets back Kosovo and the entire region, and puts Euro-Atlantic aspirations at risk,” he continued. “Both Pristina and Belgrade must take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation, refrain from further irresponsible behavior, and engage in the EU-facilitated dialogue, which is the only way to lasting peace.”
The move to deploy more troops to Kosovo, and the recent unrest there, stems from a number of ethnic Albanian mayors assuming office on May 25. The election of those mayors in the north of Kosovo took place earlier in April. As ethnic Serbs refused to take part in the elections, ethnic Albanian candidates won the mayoralties in four Serb-majority municipalities with a 3.5% turnout. A majority of the country’s population is made up of ethnic Albanians, with a minority of Serbians to the north bordering Serbia.
Tensions between ethnic Serbian protesters and officials began to build on May 26, with five Kosovar police officers injured in Zvecan – Zvecan is located 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The protesters demanded that both Kosovo police and the newly elected ethnic Albanian mayors must leave northern Kosovo. In response to the violence on May 26, the Serbian army was put on high alert, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also ordering an “urgent” movement of troops closer to the border.
The worst of the violence took place later on May 29. In Zvecan, Serbian protesters threw Molotov cocktails at NATO’s KFOR troops, beating their riot shields with metal pipes. Protesters also attempted to infiltrate the city’s municipal building. In a bid to control the situation, police officers in Zvecan, made up of ethnic Albanians, sprayed pepper gas to repel the protesters, Reuters reports.
A statement released by KFOR yesterday noted that 30 NATO peacekeeping soldiers (11 Italians and 19 Hungarians) “sustained multiple injuries, including fractures and burns from improvised explosive incendiary devices” as a result of the violence in the municipality of Zvecan.
NATO peacekeeping troops and protesters clashed in other areas of the north, too. In all, three separate town halls in Zvecan, Zubin Potok, and Leposavic were descended on by ethnic Serbs on May 29. In Leposavic, for example, U.S. peacekeeping troops in riot gear placed barbed wire around the town hall to protect it, as Reuters reports.
Since then, protests have continued. Just today, hundreds of ethnic Serbs gathered outside the city hall in Zvecan, demanding that the "fake" mayors should withdraw from Kosovo, as The Associated Press reports. The protesters in Zvecan also unfolded a large 250-meter-long Serbian tricolor flag (which some have argued could have been a Russian flag) but remained peaceful, the paper notes.
NATO peacekeeping forces, supported by U.S. troops, have reinforced defenses around municipal buildings in other parts of the country today, too.
At the same time, Serbia's President Vucic maintains that his country's armed forces "cannot ignore" the violence that has unfolded and will be "forced to respond" if it escalates any further.
Kosovo was a province of Serbia until 1999, following a NATO-led intervention in response to the Serbian government's ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovar Albanians. In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, which Belgrade, among others, does not recognize.
Currently, the NATO-led Kosovo Force peacekeeping mission consists of approximately 3,800 troops provided by 27 countries. The mission was first launched in 1999. KFOR is designed to “support the development of a stable, democratic, multi-ethnic and peaceful Kosovo.” Its command rotates among allied partners, while troops regularly train and exercise together to ensure readiness – including Crowd and Riot Control (CRC), patrols at checkpoints and Liaison and Monitoring Teams, which interact with local communities across Kosovo, according to NATO.
Of course, the decision to deploy additional KFOR troops to Kosovo marks the latest in a long line of KFOR deployments to the country since 1999. In 2006, along with a German army battalion part of NATO's Operational Reserve Force (ORF), KFOR “increased its presence in northern Kosovo,” according to a NATO press release – an exact figure of how many troops this constituted was not provided. KFOR reinforcements have also been deployed to the country in more recent years, as well, with a significant number originating from Hungary.
Broadly, the recent violence in Kosovo has been viewed with trepidation by the international community, fearing the instability it may bring to Europe given the wider destabilizing impact of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. The E.U. and U.S. have intensified efforts to negotiate an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo in recent days, AP reports, while both have been critical of Pristina for provoking tensions in majority-Serb areas in the north by allowing the mayors to assume office.
“We have too much violence in Europe already today. We cannot afford another conflict,” Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, told reporters in Brussels on May 30, AP reports. Both Belgrade and Pristina should “urgently take measures to de-escalate tensions immediately and unconditionally,” he noted.
While European countries, including France and Italy, have generally aimed to take a balanced approach to the violence, others have sided firmly with Serbia. “We support Serbia’s effort to safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning said on May 30, as CNN reports, and called for Pristina to establish Serb majority municipalities. Russia – which Serbia remains an ally of – had previously blamed Kosovo, the U.S., and the E.U. for rising tensions in the Balkans as of late.
From the Serbian side, pressure has been mounting for some time to undo the recent mayoral elections in northern Kosovo. Speaking in April, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic said: "our people in Kosovo have shown in which country they want to live," AP reports. Vucic also said that the vote boycott by the Kosovo Serbs represented “a peaceful political uprising” against their ethnic Albanian “occupiers,” the paper indicates.
Moreover, there has been growing military pressure from Serbia to intervene in Kosovo as of late. Back in January, NATO's mission in Kosovo denied a request by Serbia to send 1,000 police and army personnel to Kosovo, following unrest between Serbs and Kosovo authorities. Serbian forces have also maintained pressure near the administrative border of Kosovo as the recent unrest has unfolded over the past days.
That the violence in Kosovo could be connected to broader tensions stemming from the war in Ukraine has been suggested given Serbian protesters' spraypainting of the pro-Russian "Z" sign on KFOR vehicles and riot shields.
These wider tensions are also being felt in other parts of the Balkans, exacerbating long-harbored ethnic divisions. The Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik recently indicated his desire to declare the autonomous Serb Republic independent from the rest of Bosnia, with hopes of uniting with Serbia. Dodik's pro-nationalist, pro-Russian approach has raised fears that Bosnia may split once again along ethnic lines, a generation after the U.S.-sponsored Dayton Peace Accords ended nearly four years of war in the country in 1995. How far these developments may have been coordinated in conjunction with the Kremlin remains unclear.
Just yesterday, a pair of U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flew low over Sarajevo and several other Bosnian cities as a demonstration of “a rock-solid commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Bosnia, Michael Murphy, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, said according to Air Force Times.
Only time will tell when the unrest in the Balkans will dissipate, as additional NATO troops aim to stabilize ethnic divisions within Kosovo.
Joseph Trevithick contributed to this article.
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