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Riots, wounded NATO soldiers and new elections: five questions answered on unrest in northern Kosovo

Violence broke out in northern Kosovo last month following local elections in four pro-Serb municipalities. At least 25 UN peacekeeping force soldiers were injured in riots. Several of Kosovo's traditional allies have - most unusually - identified Pristina as the main culprit in the unrest. This article answers five questions about the situation in Kosovo.


What happened in northern Kosovo?

The recent violent riots cannot be separated from the months of unrest surrounding local elections in the four municipalities that make up the North Kosovo region: North Mitrovica, Leposavić, Zvečan and Zubin Potok. The elections - held in late April - were boycotted by the pro-Serb party Srpska Lista. The boycott was largely followed by the ethnic Serb population, resulting in an extremely low turnout of 3.47% (1,567 out of 45,095 citizens allowed to vote).

Despite this alarmingly low turnout, the government in Pristina - led by Prime Minister Albin Kurti of the Vetëvendosje party - decided to go ahead with the results. Vetëvendosje won in North Mitrovica and Leposavic, while the Democratic Party of Kosovo won in Zvečan and Zubin Potok. Protests by pro-Serb political leaders began with the swearing-in of Erden Atiq - the new mayor of North Mitrovica. Pro-Serb leaders called the swearing-in an "invasion of the north". The other three mayors were sworn in on 25 May.

A day later - when the newly sworn-in mayors wanted to enter their offices - it became clear that the ethnic Serb population would not leave it at that: demonstrators clashed with policemen escorting the mayors. In the process, five policemen were injured. Attempts by the US and several EU member states to de-escalate proved fruitless, as a large-scale clash with police and NATO-led peacekeeping force KFOR erupted on 29 May. As many as 25 KFOR soldiers and 50 protesters were injured in these riots. Reportedly, journalists were also attacked by the protesters. Some masked protesters were seen spraying the letter "Z" - a symbol of support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine - on buildings and vehicles.


What happened in the weeks after the riots?

In the first days after the violent outburst on 29 May, protests continued in three of the four municipalities. An ethnic Albanian group of protesters - responding to anonymous online calls for "a march to the north" - was ordered to stop by Kosovo Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla. Meanwhile, Turkish troops have arrived in the region to support the KFOR peacekeeping force.

Although tensions remain high, no incidents similar to the May 29 riots have occurred. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti on 13 June presented a five-part plan for de-escalation in the region. Key points were early elections in the four municipalities, prosecution of violent protesters and security assessments every 15 days by the Kosovo police, KFOR and EULEX. On the same day, however, the Kosovo government announced the arrest of Milun Milenkovic, accused of having had a major role in the 29 May riots. Police reportedly used tear gas during the arrest, which was watched by dozens of civilians.

Last week, a new possible source of conflict surfaced when three Kosovo policemen were arrested by Serbia. Kosovo claimed the officers had been abducted from Kosovar territory and Serbia claimed the officers had been arrested on Serbian territory. Pristina demanded the immediate release of the detained officers and tightened border controls. Belgrade has since launched an investigation into the officers and a court has already ordered that the officers be detained longer.


How has Serbia responded to the unrest?

On 26 June - when the protests began in northern Kosovo - Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić responded swiftly by putting the country's army on a state of alert. Some military units were also ordered to move closer to the Kosovo border. Vučić then published a statement on Instagram urging Pristina to "keep its promises" - such as the creation of a community for Serb municipalities - and calling on ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo to vote in the next elections.

Vučić's reaction to the unrest in Kosovo should be seen in the light of large-scale protests on his own soil. The Serbian president is facing the biggest criticism in his 10-year rule, triggered by two mass shootings in May. Protesters blame Vučić and his government - which allegedly promotes a "culture of violence" - for the shootings. According to Milomir Mandic of the research group Demostat, the tensions in Kosovo are an advantage for Vučić, as it enhances his image as a strong leader and defender of Serbs and Serbian interests.


How did the international community respond?

Even before the large-scale violence on 29 May, Prime Minister Kurti's government was warned - in a joint statement - by the US, Germany, France, the UK and Italy. "We condemn Kosovo's decision to continue access to municipal buildings in northern Kosovo, despite our calls for restraint." The five countries fear the events could lead to a renewed flare-up of tensions between Kosovo and neighbouring Serbia.

Dissatisfaction among the US and the four European countries only increased after the events of 29 May. A day after the riots, Jeffrey Hovenier - the US ambassador to Kosovo - announced that Pristina would not participate in a US-led military exercise. Moreover, the Americans will no longer support Kosovo in the fight for recognition of its independence by the international community.

The US sentiment was shared by French President Emmanuel Macron: "We made it very clear to the Kosovo authorities that it was a mistake to go ahead with this election." On 14 June, EU member states voted unanimously in favour of "temporary and reversible" measures, with their duration depending on how Pristina handles the situation in the future.

Russia, on the other hand, supports the pro-Serb protesters. "We support Serbia and Serbs unconditionally... We believe that all legal rights and interests of Kosovo Serbs must be respected," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.


How will the situation evolve?

International observers expect to reach a solution in the coming months. Under heavy pressure from Western allies, it is considered likely that Kosovo authorities will not hold new elections in the four municipalities in northern Kosovo. While Serbia will undoubtedly remain a destabilising factor in the region, greater interference from Belgrade is still unlikely. Any Serbian military aggression will be hampered by the international peacekeeping force stationed in Kosovo.