Conflict Crisis Management Europe & Eurasia NATO Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense The Balkans
New Atlanticist June 2, 2023

Five questions (and expert answers) about the recent clashes in Kosovo

By Atlantic Council experts

All politics is local, all consequences are not. In April, the Serb majority population in the north of Kosovo boycotted municipal elections, which were held after their representatives left the official Kosovo government institutions following a dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, in part about car license plates. With Kosovo Serbian candidates and voters boycotting, Kosovo Albanian candidates won the local elections in the north, in which only 3.5 percent of the local population participated. Protests erupted when four mayors took office under instruction from Kosovo’s Albanian dominated central government and under special police protection, resulting in injuries to intervening NATO peacekeeping troops. Now, Europe and the world watch, trying to prevent an escalation of ethnic violence. Atlantic Council experts answer the critical questions below.

1. How did we get here?

Based on all the information we received from our contacts in civil society, including both Kosovo Serbs and Albanians, the question was not so much “if” but rather “when” the long-lasting crisis would escalate. There were numerous potential triggers for escalation that were plainly evident to those willing to acknowledge them. Many of these triggers stemmed from a series of escalatory decisions made by political leaders on both sides. 

Just to highlight a few examples: the withdrawal of Kosovo Serbs from Kosovo institutions, particularly the police force; the deployment of Kosovo special police forces to the streets in the northern region; the expropriation of land in municipalities predominantly inhabited by Serbs; the refusal to participate in the elections; and ultimately, violent clashes between the Serbian minority and NATO soldiers this week triggered by four newly elected Kosovo Albanian mayors taking office in northern Kosovo after April elections that were boycotted by Kosovo Serbs.

Maja Piscevic is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center and representative of the Center in the Western Balkans.

The Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo have long been the flashpoint in the protracted dispute between Kosovo and Serbia. The escalation earlier this week followed a series of tit-for-tat actions on both sides after the most recent tense standoff over license plate enforcement on the Kosovo-Serbia border in late 2022.

What is different this time is the series of political miscalculations the government in Pristina seems to have made about its US and European allies’ postures. Having invested significant political capital into the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue led by the European Union (EU) for normalizing relations between both sides, Washington and its allies from Brussels to Paris and Berlin warned Pristina not to escalate the situation further. Instead, US and EU partners wanted to focus on progress in the dialogue. The government’s decision to double down on enforcing the outcome of the April local elections, which the Serb majority boycotted and in which less than 3.5 percent of the population in northern Kosovo participated, added fuel to the fire. With this escalation, Kosovo now risks losing part of what used to be largely unqualified US and European support.

Jörn Fleck is the senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council.

The situation in the north of Kosovo reached its current point due to a combination of factors and events. The lack of implementation of the Ohrid agreement to normalize relations and the failure to deliver on the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities created a growing frustration in the international community. One crucial factor is the lack of maturity displayed by leaders involved in the dialogue process and their challenges in engaging and moving forward through strong political will. It appears that the incentives for both sides to adhere to the agreements were not strong enough and therefore progress was hindered.

The catalyst for the situation in the north can be traced back to Kosovo Serbs’ deliberate withdrawal from local institutions, including by mayors and police officers. This helped create a vacuum which Kosovo’s government seized upon—by insisting on holding local elections and enforcing the mayors’ taking office to demonstrate that the north exists as a separate political reality outside Kosovo’s institutional framework.

Ilva Tare is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center and was most recently a broadcaster with EuroNews Group.

2. What could tip this into a more serious conflict?

Even if it seems that all sides are trying to lower the temperature in recent days, a combination of factors could further escalate the situation. Russia has long been an opportunist meddler in the region with significant disinformation tools, especially among Serbian media and audiences. A rally-around-the-flag effect among Kosovo’s majority Albanian population could put government decisionmakers in Pristina on the spot. They repeatedly seem to have chosen standing on principle over politically constructive solutions and have doubled down on symbolic actions, despite warnings by Western allies to avoid escalation. That could make it harder for them to back down. And Serbia has influence over gangs that can inflame the situation if they choose—or are instructed—to.

—Jörn Fleck

There are any number of potential flashpoints, but it is important to focus on the region, to recognize what the citizens of the area see as their grievances, and seek, in good faith, long-term solutions. The recent events are clearly a setback to this process.

Cameron Munter is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Europe Center. He spent three decades in the US Foreign Service, where he served as US ambassador to Serbia during the Kosovo independence crisis.

3. What should EU countries and the US do right now?

First of all, the United States and the EU should stop considering the Western Balkans as a peripheral issue, which they have for the last decade. Some progress has been made, but, for example, the five members of the EU that have not recognized Kosovo (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain) should not be allowed to simply pretend their actions do not make a difference. They, along with their fellow EU members, should make new efforts to seek resolution and not simply wait for someone else to address the issues.

—Cameron Munter

The current status quo in the north is unsustainable, as it is dominated by parallel structures, as the Kosovo government states. Addressing this issue and stopping the violent elements from the north should not distract from the broader political dialogue, which is brokered by the EU and supported by the United States. 

The escalation of events in the north of Kosovo in recent days was an unfortunate distraction for Kosovo and Serbia in their efforts to normalize relations through political dialogue. The situation is back to square one, with the same requests for both sides and the urge for the parties to demonstrate loyalty to their Western allies and show that they can be credible and trustworthy partners in their Euro-Atlantic aspirations—especially for Kosovo, which cannot afford to lose the support of the United States or of key members of the EU. 

—Ilva Tare

The United States and Europe should not reward spoilers of the progress made in the normalization process in recent months, following significant US and EU political investment. The current escalation is helping leaders in Pristina and Belgrade avoid executing on some tough steps toward normalization and dealing with domestic political challenges. Europe and the United States should make clear that the only way out of the current situation ultimately runs through the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue.   

—Jörn Fleck

4. Will new elections defuse this situation?

In order to move toward a resolution, new elections should be held with preconditions such as the involvement of Kosovo Serbs, the establishment of working conditions for Kosovo police and mayors, and the complete withdrawal of special police units of the Kosovo government deployed in the north, which is one of Kosovo Serbs’ stated requirements to take part in local elections. Progress with the Association of Serb Municipalities by mid-November is now a concrete condition with a deadline for the Kosovo government to deliver.

—Ilva Tare

It’s worth discussing. Clearly, new elections would have to be conceived and implemented very carefully, to ensure their result would be recognized by all sides as legitimate. Thus, it’s not a guarantee of solving the problem, but it’s one possible way to address it.

—Cameron Munter

5. Are there any more creative solutions for Serbia and Kosovo to get to more stable relations?

In the current atmosphere of deep-seated distrust and personal animosity between the two political leaders, it is challenging, if not impossible, to envision any innovative solutions. This is a harsh reality that the West still appears hesitant to acknowledge, despite the events unfolding over the past two years involving Prime Minister Albin Kurti of Kosovo and President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia. It is becoming increasingly clear that, at some point, the West will need to pause and reconsider its approach, asking itself a crucial question: Are the current political leaders genuinely willing and capable of achieving and ensuring a lasting normalization between the Serb and Albanian populations in Kosovo?

Maja Piscevic

If the context is right, other initiatives, such as those described in the Berlin Process and discussed as part of Open Balkans, might make a difference. They would open the aperture, so to speak, going beyond the tense immediate points of contention to the larger, more substantive solutions to the local problems. But these more strategic and long-term solutions are hard to develop if the situation on the ground remains as tense as it now is.

—Cameron Munter

Further reading

Related Experts: Maja Piscevic, Jörn Fleck, Ilva Tare, and Cameron Munter

Image: NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers clash with local Kosovo Serb protesters at the entrance of the municipality office, in the town of Zvecan, Kosovo, May 29, 2023.