After the “license plate dispute”: New escalation in the north of Kosovo

WA few weeks after the “license plate dispute”, which was temporarily overcome in September through the mediation of the EU, the north of Kosovo is once again the scene of violence. The governments in Belgrade and Prishtina accused each other on Thursday of being responsible for unrest in which, according to Serbian reports, several Serbs were injured on Wednesday, one of them seriously shot in the back.

Michael Martens

Correspondent for Southeast European countries based in Vienna.

The trigger for the violence was a deployment of the Kosovar police in the almost exclusively Serbian-populated northern Kosovar area in the hinterland of the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica. The deployment of the police, which took place in other parts of Kosovo at the same time, but remained peaceful there, was directed against smugglers’ gangs and cross-border organized crime, according to the Kosovar government. Belgrade’s allegation that the action was targeted against the Serbian minority was rejected by Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti. This is made clear by the fact that most of the arrested smugglers are Albanians, it was said from Prishtina. The judicial officers involved in the case also belonged to the Serb minority.

Belgrade and the violent young men

According to the head of government in Prishtina, violence broke out because Serbian rioters had obstructed the work of the police. Kurti called on the Kosovar Serbs not to allow Belgrade to drive them into an ethnic conflict. His government is about a fight against crime and corruption, not an ethnic conflict. By contrast, the Serbian government and the media reporting in its favor have been using rhetoric for weeks that is reminiscent of the time of the Yugoslav war of disintegration, which broke out three decades ago. Accordingly, the Serbs in Kosovo are threatened, which is why the Serbian state must rush to help them.

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In such cases, Belgrade can rely on crowds of violent young men in northern Kosovo to set up roadblocks and attack police officers. The transitions between this “patriotic” milieu and organized crime are not always clear-cut. Serbian head of state Aleksandar Vučić announced at a meeting with Kosovar Serbs in a Serbian town near the border on Wednesday, “Whatever happens and whenever it happens, Serbia will be with you.”

Serbian local politician calls for troops

The meeting, which was televised, also attended an alleged criminal suspected in Kosovo of being involved in the murder of the Serbian opposition activist Oliver Ivanović. Ivanović was shot dead on the street in the Serbian northern part of Mitrovica in 2018. The alleged accomplice has now announced that in the event of a renewed Kosovar police operation in the north, they will defend themselves “to the death”. A Serbian local politician from Kosovo asked Vučić to send Serbian troops to the north, if not in uniform, then at least in civilian clothes, but in any case armed.

In addition to police officers from North Mitrovica, journalists were also attacked by protesting Serbs on Wednesday. How exactly the shots came about was initially unclear. What is certain is that the police also used tear gas. The Serbian hospital in Mitrovica announced that the man who was shot at was rescued through an operation.

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