Towards an escalation of tensions? NATO announced, Tuesday, May 30, the deployment of additional forces in northern Kosovo, the day after clashes with Serb demonstrators that left about thirty members of the International Force in Kosovo led by the Atlantic Alliance (KFor) injured.

"The deployment of additional NATO forces to Kosovo is a prudent measure to ensure that KFor has the capabilities it needs to maintain security in accordance with the mandate given to us by the UN Security Council," Admiral Stuart B. Munsch said in a statement.

While tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have been recurrent since Kosovo's self-proclaimed independence in 2008 – still not recognised by Belgrade – the threat of a new war in Europe is real. France 24 takes stock of the ongoing tensions.


Kosovo: clashes in the north of the country © AFP

  • What is happening in northern Kosovo?

The majority Serbs in four cities in northern Kosovo boycotted the municipal elections in April at the call of Srpska Lista, their main party, very close to Belgrade. As a result, Albanian mayors were elected despite a very low turnout of 3.5%.

Ignoring insistent calls from the European Union and the United States for restraint, the Kosovar government sworn in the mayors last week, setting fire to the fire.

Serb protesters then gathered in front of the town halls concerned to demand the departure of Albanian mayors and Kosovo police forces, whose presence in the region has long aroused their anger.

These protesters tried to force the front door of the Zvecan town hall, but were pushed back by Kosovar forces. The KFor then tried to separate the two sides before starting to disperse the most violent protesters. The protesters responded by throwing stones, bottles and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers.

Nineteen Hungarian and eleven Italian soldiers were injured in the clashes, the KFor said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that they suffered "fractures and burns caused by improvised incendiary explosive devices". "Three Hungarian soldiers were wounded by firearms," the source said.

At least 52 people were injured in the ranks of Serb protesters, three of them seriously, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said.

  • Why did the Serbs boycott these municipal elections?

Pristina organised this election to fill the vacuum left by the mass resignation of Serbs in November from the common local institutions.

Hundreds of Serb police officers integrated into the Kosovo police, as well as judges, prosecutors and other civil servants, had left their posts to protest a decision by Pristina, now suspended, to ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using Belgrade-issued licence plates.

"Each time, it's the same blow: Kosovo multiplies the vexations against the Serbs," said Alexis Troude, professor of geopolitics at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ) and specialist in the Balkans. "Pristina has never respected the 2013 agreements and regularly tries to assert its authority over northern Kosovo, causing tensions with the Serbian population," he added.

  • What does the Serb minority represent in Kosovo?

The Serb minority numbers about 120,000 people – out of 1.8 million inhabitants – largely loyal to Belgrade, a third of whom live in northern Kosovo, near the border with Serbia, which supports them financially. The other members of the minority are scattered in a dozen enclaves.

In these areas, the Serbian flag flies everywhere, people use the Serbian dinar. Any police intervention is a source of tension.

A 2013 agreement providing for the creation of an association of ten "municipalities", including the four cities where the boycott of the municipal elections took place and where the Serb minority lives, remained a dead letter. Belgrade and Pristina do not agree on their competences. Many Kosovar Albanians fear the creation of a parallel government controlled by Belgrade.

"The agreement provided for real autonomy for these municipalities, but it was never implemented. Whenever there has been a beginning of autonomy on the part of the Serbs, the Albanians have been intractable in enforcing their rules," explains Alexis Troude.

  • A self-proclaimed independence never accepted by Serbia

The battle of mayors actually touches on the question of Kosovo's independence proclaimed in 2008, almost a decade after a war that left about 13,000 dead, mostly Kosovar Albanians.

For Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, sovereignty is intangible and nothing can be discussed without the reality of independence being recognised. But many Serbs consider Kosovo as their national and religious cradle, like Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, who wrote Monday on the camera of France Televisions, after his victory in the first round of the Roland-Garros tournament, "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia, stop the violence".

Kosovo is recognized by a hundred countries, including most Westerners, and recently by Israel. Belgrade, on the other hand, has never admitted independence, nor has Russia and China, which deprives Pristina of a place in the UN. Five members of the European Union are also on this line.

The young state was, however, admitted to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Olympic Committee, the International Football Federation and the Union of European Football Associations.

  • Kosovo, a geopolitical issue?

Brussels, which has led negotiations between the parties since 2011, announced in March that the two sides had reached an agreement to normalise relations. But the text was not signed by Belgrade or Pristina.

The European Union on Tuesday called on both Serbs and Kosovars to "de-escalate tensions immediately and unconditionally". Paris called on the "parties, in particular the Kosovo government, to immediately take the necessary measures to reduce tensions."

For its part, Moscow called on the West to "finally put an end to its false propaganda and stop blaming the incidents in Kosovo on the desperate Serbs who peacefully seek (...) to defend their legitimate rights and freedoms".

"These tensions will one day lead to a war in Europe," warns Alexis Troude. The great powers have been operating local rivalries for 20 years and playing with fire. On the one hand, the United States is consolidating Pristina's authority, on the other, Russia is supporting Belgrade. Europe must wake up to avoid the worst."

With AFP and Reuters

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