The EU introduced rare restrictions against Kosovo officials as they failed to quell tensions with the ethnic Serb community that escalated in recent days, leading to Belgrade arresting three Kosovo police officers.
The bloc reduced high-level visits, contacts and financial cooperation with the Balkan country, mirroring similar measures taken by the US late last month. The steps are reversible and “incremental”, with “financial and political consequences,” said EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano.
Relations between Kosovo and Serbia fell to an all-time low in May, as ethnic Albanian mayors who had won elections boycotted by the predominantly Serb population in the north of the country tried to take office. Escorted by law enforcement, their attempt led to a violent protest that left dozens of NATO peacekeepers and Serb protesters injured.
Despite recent commitments by the Kosovo government to rerun the elections and gradually withdraw special police officers from the north of the country, tensions have flared up again in recent days. Serb protesters took to the streets on Tuesday in protests that left three police officers injured after an alleged organizer of the demonstrations was arrested in May.
On Wednesday, Serbia seemingly retaliated by arresting three “fully armed” Kosovo police officers; Belgrade complained about an illegal break-in while Pristina called it a kidnapping.
“We suspect they were abducted by the Serbian army, clearly in retaliation by Serbia for yesterday’s arrest of notorious criminal Millun Millenković-Lune, one of the leaders of organized crime and smuggling,” Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said on Wednesday.
Serbia’s chief negotiator with Kosovo, Petar Petković, denied that the policemen had been kidnapped, insisting that they had ventured “deep into Serbia’s territory” while wearing full combat gear. He said Serbian authorities were ready to provide evidence for that claim and called for an international investigation.
Tensions between the two countries have been high since Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 after a brief war against Serb rule in 1999. Kosovo’s four northernmost municipalities, which are predominantly ethnic Albanian, are predominantly Serb and refuse to accept Pristina’s rule. to accept.
Diplomatic talks, urged by Western allies, reached a preliminary agreement in March. But subsequent local elections and rapidly escalating tensions had made that deal all but unworkable, according to local Serbs, who feel that neither Belgrade nor Pristina represents their interests.
According to Milica Andrić Rakić, an activist of the local rights group New Social Initiative, there is always an armed uprising and the situation is now particularly precarious.
“We’re here,” she said, referring to the potential for violent conflict. “It’s a matter of time when it happens. It could have happened just yesterday. We are at the point of a potential conflict that will be difficult to manage.”