NATO on May 27 called on Kosovar authorities to take immediate steps to de-escalate tensions in the Serb-majority northern towns after security forces used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse crowds in three towns and enter municipal buildings in support of recently elected ethnic Albanian mayors.
The situation was calm on May 27, RFE/RL correspondents reported, a day after the unrest shook Zvecan, Leposavic, and Zubin Potok — similarly sized communities of 16,000 to 18,000 people where the ethnic Albanian mayors sought to enter municipal buildings and take office amid opposition from Serb-majority protesters. There was heavy police presence in the area, the correspondents reported.
“We urge the Institutions in Kosovo to de-escalate immediately & call on all parties to resolve the situation through dialogue,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu wrote on Twitter on May 27.
“NATO-[led] KFOR remains vigilant & will ensure a safe & secure environment,” Lungescu added referring to the KFOR protection force that was deployed in Kosovo in 1999 after the NATO alliance’s bombing forced the Serbian Army out of the territory. KFOR comprises nearly 3,800 soldiers.
Five police officers were injured in Zvecan, authorities said, adding that at least four vehicles had been damaged. There were no immediate reports of possible injuries among protesters who had gathered at the town’s main municipal building.
In a move that threatened to further fan tensions, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on May 27 announced that his country’s military remained on high alert after he had ordered troops to deploy closer to the border with Kosovo late on May 26.
The decision to keep troops on high alert was made at a meeting of Serbia’s National Security Council in Belgrade on May 27, the Serbian presidency said, adding that the move was necessary after the “brutal use of force by [Kosovar Prime Minister] Albin Kurti against the Serbian people in Kosovo.”
The unrest prompted the United States and other Western allies to take an unusually harsh line against Kosovar authorities for the aggressive police action after previously assailing the government’s decision to hold elections on April 23 following a boycott announced by the main Serb party.
The so-called QUINT states — United States, France, Italy, Germany, and Britain — had previously expressed concerns about the situation in northern Kosovo, saying the April elections did not constitute a lasting political solution for the municipalities involved due to the boycott.
In a joint statement on May 26, the group condemned the Kosovar authorities’ use of force and also expressed concerns about “Serbia’s decision to raise the level of readiness of its armed forces at the border with Kosovo and call all parties for maximum restraint, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 26 said Kosovo’s government took the action to force access to municipal buildings against U.S. advice.
“We strongly condemn the actions by the Government of Kosovo that are escalating tensions in the north and increasing instability. We call on Prime Minister [Albin Kurti] to immediately halt these violent measures and refocus on the EU-facilitated Dialogue,” he wrote on Twitter.
Blinken urged all sides in the dispute to “refrain from any further actions that will inflame tensions and promote conflict.”
The European External Action Service (EEAS) said in a statement that the “European Union condemns in the strongest terms the clashes between Kosovo police and protesters in northern Kosovo, initiated by the attempt of newly elected mayors to enter municipal buildings.
“Everyone must take steps to reduce the tense situation and immediately restore calm. The EU will not accept any further unilateral or provocative moves and peacekeeping and security on the ground should be a priority,” the statement added.
The ethnic Albanian mayors were sworn in on May 25 to lead majority Serb municipalities, replacing Serb mayors who had resigned last November to protest a cross-border dispute over vehicle registrations.
The subsequent election to replace the mayors was boycotted by the dominant ethnic Serb party, Srpska Lista (Serbian List), which enjoys the support of neighboring Serbia’s government — paving the way for ethnic Albanian candidates to win with tiny vote totals.
A fourth mayor was sworn in last week — in North Mitrovica — in a process that Vucic condemned as an “occupation” of areas of the former Serbian province. Vucic has vowed never to recognize Kosovar independence.
The Serb minority accounts for 5 percent of Kosovo’s 1.8 million population, which is 90 percent Albanian. But they hold majorities in regions near the Serbian border.