On May 29th, violence broke out on the streets of northern Kosovo. Serbs, who represent the majority population in this region, staged protests relating to the results of local elections, which saw ethnic Albanian mayors take control of local councils. As Serbs tried to physically prevent the mayors from entering their offices, Kosovo police joined forces with NATO peacekeepers in an attempt to maintain law and order by seizing municipality buildings. Fierce clashes ensued when local Serbs refused to back down, forcing police to use tear gas to disperse them. The conflict resulted in over 30 NATO peacekeepers and 50 Serbs suffering injuries, with another 700 peacekeepers being sent to Kosovo in the following week to ensure no further harm occurs.
Historical conflict between Kosovo and Serbia
The conflict between Kosovo and Serbia has deep ethnic and nationalist roots. Both countries lie in the Balkans, a region in southeastern Europe that is marked by political instability and turmoil. Tensions regarding Kosovo developed over centuries as Kosovo Albanians, the majority population in the country, viewed themselves as a distinct ethnic group with their own language, culture, and identity. This stands in contrast to the Serbian belief that Kosovo is an integral part of its historical and national heritage.
The dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s marked a critical turning point for the conflict. As Yugoslavia disintegrated, Serbia aimed to maintain control over Kosovo as part of its territorial integrity. However, Kosovo Albanians faced political marginalization and discrimination under Serbian rule, which led to increased demands for self-determination. These demands ultimately led to armed conflict in the form of the Kosovo War, which took place from 1998 to 1999.
The war arose when Kosovo Albanians, organized under the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), initiated an armed insurgency against Serbian forces. The war resulted in a humanitarian crisis, with widespread violence, human rights abuses, and the displacement of thousands of civilians being conducted by the Serbian government. International intervention, led by NATO, played a pivotal role in ending the conflict through military intervention and the subsequent establishment of UN administration in Kosovo.
In spite of NATO’s involvement, tensions have persisted between Albanians and Serbs in the 21st century. Considering that Kosovo is today composed of over 90% Albanian muslims, anti-Serb riots have sporadically broken out in response to threats of Serbian aggression. Furthermore, Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 received a divided international
response. 99 UN countries, including the US and UK, recognize Kosovo’s independence, whereas other countries such as Russia and China do not. This has resulted in Kosovo being blocked from gaining membership to the UN.
Implications for NATO
This recent outbreak of violence in Northern Kosovo is concerning as we await response from the international community. So far the United States, a key ally of Kosovo, condemned the actions of both the Kosovo government and local Serbs, with secretary of state Antony Blinken calling for a halt to all violent activities in the region. Blinken put the emphasis on Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to act, urging him to refocus on the “EU facilitated dialogue.” The Serbian government has reacted to the perceived aggression from Kosovo policemen by stationing troops near the border and issuing warnings to Kosovo officials that the troops will intervene if Serbs are attacked again.
The European Union has attempted to resolve the tension by pressuring the Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo to meet in the presence of French and German leaders on June 1st. However, the meeting appears to have been largely unproductive, considering Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić accused his Kosovan counterpart Vjosa Osmani of refusing to speak to him about the volatile elections. This may be in part due to French president Emmanuel Macron’s tactless comments, where he claimed Kosovo authorities were alone guilty of the situation since they allegedly reneged on their EU-agrred obligation to allow Serbian mayors in the north. Kosovo officials instead maintain that the “fascist mobs controlled by the Serbian government” are to blame, since they broke the peace by unlawfully attacking democratically elected mayors. The meeting ended with Macron advising Kosovo to hold new elections in the north to de-escelate tensions, although it seems unlikely that this option will be exercised.
Perhaps the most anticipated response to the conflict is Russia’s. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the tensions were alarming and may lead to a "huge explosion" in the heart of Europe. Russian media has already started backing Serbia however, with Russian Telegram channels spreading unverified reports of tanks being deployed at the Kosovo border in order to mobilize support for Serbia’s cause. These cases of misinformation can prove to be detrimental to NATO. Although it is unclear whether the local Serbs who attacked NATO peacekeepers were ordered by Belgrade or acting alone, it nevertheless puts immense pressure on NATO to find a solution that satisfies all parties.
NATO’s relationship with Russia is already heavily strained due to their war with Ukraine. If the tension in northern Kosovo fails to subside, Serbia may stage a military intervention against NATO peacekeepers with Russian aid. Needless to say, this drastic situation
must be avoided at all costs. Let’s hope the two governments reach some sort of compromise in the coming weeks - whether or not that involves holding new elections, only time will tell.