Even as the United States and European nations issued calls for de-escalation, Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian president, and Albin Kurti, the prime minister of Kosovo, accused each other of fomenting the violence, raising fears of further unrest between the two adversaries in southeastern Europe.
Washington has penalized Kosovo over the unrest and canceled its participation in a U.S.-led military drill in Europe, Jeffrey Hovenier, the U.S. ambassador in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, said at a briefing Tuesday.
What is behind the latest flare-up?
The violence erupted when newly elected ethnic Albanian mayors in Serb-majority areas of northern Kosovo took office, angering the Serbs who had boycotted elections held in April. Serb protesters outside the municipal offices clashed with local police and NATO peacekeeping troops in the towns of Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic. Videos of the clashes showed tear gas being fired, explosives and bottles being thrown at NATO soldiers and injured troops being dragged away.
The United States had earlier condemned the move by Kosovo to access the buildings “by force,” which the State Department said in a statement had “unnecessarily escalated tensions.”
Tensions have simmered since last year over Kosovo’s attempts to force Serbs in the north to use license plates issued by its authorities.
What is the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo?
Serbia and Kosovo were once part of undivided Yugoslavia, and its disintegration along ethnic lines was marred by bloodshed.
Kosovo, a largely Muslim Albanian enclave that was part of Serbia, an Orthodox Christian-majority nation, declared independence in 2008, but Serbia has refused to recognize its statehood.
The precursor to the independence movement was a brutal war in the region between 1998 and 1999 that killed thousands and displaced millions. After failed attempts at mediation by international powers, NATO was drawn into the war and launched a bombing operation against Yugoslavia. The conflict ended in June 1999 after Belgrade agreed to withdraw from Kosovo and signed an agreement with NATO.
“Tensions persist because Serbia does not want to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Thus, every attempt to reinforce Kosovo statehood in Serb-majority areas are controversial,” Florian Bieber, a political scientist and historian specializing in southeastern Europe at Austria’s University of Graz, wrote in an email.
He added that Serbia continues to wield enormous influence in northern regions of Kosovo populated by Serbs. “This allows it to contribute to stirring up trouble despite not having any formal say in northern Kosovo,” he said.
With a population of 1.9 million people, Kosovo is recognized as a country by more than 100 nations, including the United States, according to Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry. In 2010, the International Court of Justice supported Kosovo’s independence after Serbia petitioned it for an advisory opinion.
But some European countries, including Spain and Greece, do not recognize it. Late last year, Kosovo applied to become a member of the European Union, and it has campaigned for support to join NATO, too.
Kosovo Force, or KFOR, is NATO’s peacekeeping force stationed in the country since 1999. Approved by a U.N. Security Council resolution, it was initially made up of 50,000 troops drawn from NATO members and allies to ensure security and deter the resumption of ethnic conflict that had killed thousands in the region.
As the security situation improved, the number of troops has been reduced significantly in recent years to about 3,500.
What is the Djokovic controversy?
Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic waded into the political controversy at the French Open this week. After his first-round win, the Associated Press reported, he wrote a charged message on a camera lens: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence.”
In a post-match conference, speaking in Serbian, Djokovic doubled down. As the son of a man born in Kosovo and as a public figure, he said, the message he wrote was the least he could do.
The comments were immediately criticized by tennis authorities in Kosovo for stoking tensions, while the tournament organizers in France said that occasionally political discussions can make an appearance at sporting events.
Experts say the latest incident, while being one of the most serious in recent years, is unlikely to devolve into a protracted armed conflict.
“If Serbian forces tried to cross the border, they would risk an open conflict with NATO, something which Serbia cannot afford and has nothing to gain from,” Bieber wrote. Instead, the Vucic government, which is facing domestic pressures, prefers “sporadic instability” to gain leverage internationally and locally, he added.
Another expert warned that the latest flare-up shows that talks brokered by the European Union are not working. Earlier this year, Serbia and Kosovo had agreed to normalize relations after mediation from the E.U., a move touted by the bloc as a step toward regional stability and security.
But the agreement, said Marko Prelec, an expert on the region at the International Crisis Group, is like a lot of international law — “binding in theory but ignored in practice because it’s vague, has no enforcement mechanism, and because the E.U. arm-twisted Belgrade and Pristina to agree to something they didn’t fundamentally want or even understand.”
The fresh unrest, he said, shows that the situation in northern Kosovo is getting out of anyone’s ability to control.
Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.