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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

Kosovan PM says he could consider early elections in north if violence ends

US K-For soldiers behind barbed wire carrying guns in front of Serbian supporters.
US K-For soldiers stand guard near the town hall in Leposavić amid rising tensions. Photograph: Fatos Bytyci/Reuters

Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, has said he is prepared to consider early elections in Serb-majority northern Kosovo, as some British sources expressed concern that the US and EU are making a mistake by threatening their ally with punishment over Kurti’s handling of recent violent clashes in the region.

A former UK ambassador said the EU envoy to Kosovo should stand aside, while the UK foreign affairs select committee chair, Alicia Kearns, warned the US against disproportionate punishment of Kurti.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said Kurti had made mistakes and he would be meeting him jointly with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz.

The crisis escalated on Monday after the Pristina government sent in mayors, backed by Kosovan police, to ethnic Serb-dominated northern municipality offices after elections that ethnic Serbs had boycotted.

The area’s majority ethnic Serbs have never accepted Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and consider Belgrade their capital, more than two decades after the Kosovo Albanian uprising against repressive Serbian rule.

Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90% of the population in Kosovo, but northern Serbs have long demanded the implementation of an EU-brokered 2013 deal for the creation of an association of autonomous municipalities in their area.

Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti
Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, at a conference in Slovakia on Wednesday. Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA

After street clashes on Monday that left 30 members of the Nato Kosovo Force (K-For) mission injured, Nato said it was sending an extra 700 troops to bolster the 4,000-strong K-For mission.

Troops have been protecting town halls from Serbian nationalist crowds outside.

The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, has placed his army on full combat alert and ordered units to move closer to the border.

Speaking at a security conference in Bratislava, Kurti said: “If there would have been peaceful protest for early elections it would have my understanding, but not mobs with the letter Z [a pro-Russia symbol] that shoot at soldiers and policemen, throw grenades, shouting ‘kill, kill’. To this fascist mob, we do not surrender our democratic republic. If they want peaceful protests demanding early elections, they have a prime minister who is more than willing to listen to them and perhaps agree with them.”

He asked where the mayors were supposed to work in the three contested municipality offices, a key US demand.

The US and the EU have rebuked Kosovo, normally their ally, for escalating tensions with Serbia, saying the use of force to install mayors in ethnic Serb areas of Kosovo undermined efforts to improve troubled bilateral relations. The US ambassador to Kosovo, Jeff Hovenier, said: “I would be surprised if any Kosovar government official would be able to visit USA at this time.”

But Kearns showed differences between the US and official UK positions, writing: “The posture being taken towards Kosovo is disproportionate. The lack of deterrence towards Belgrade demonstrates a lack of balance, and strategic incoherence. Failing to deter armed militia and their funders and armourers risks emboldening further escalation.” She said Kosovo should be allowed to join the Council of Europe.

Mark Dickinson, a former British envoy in the west Balkans, said: “What is the shortest face-saving time before [the EU envoy Miroslav] Lajčák can have an overwhelming urge to ‘spend more time with his family’? I don’t mind Kurti (and unfortunately Kosovo) getting some blame and punishment. I can even put up with Vučić escaping it. But if the EU fails to accept that it has also contributed big time to this disaster, we can only look forward to repeats.”

In the most recent round of talks, Vučić, the Serbian president, refused to sign an agreement that provided mutual recognition of Serbia and Kosovo as well as a degree of autonomy for Serbs in northern Kosovo that have never accepted Albanian-led rule from Pristina.

The Serb boycott of the local elections in the north allowed ethnic Albanians to take control of the local councils on a turnout of less than 3.5% .

Kurti’s proposal is that if the violence ends, fresh elections can be held well before the mayors’ remaining two-year term ends.

British diplomats fear US efforts to blame Kurti do not examine the root cause of the impasse, including an EU requirement that Kurti accept an agreement struck in 2013 giving sweeping autonomy to an association of Serb municipalities. The EU tried to impose this as part of a 11-point deal at talks in Ohrid in North Macedonia in March, but neither side signed the deal. The EU argued that the deal, including the 2013 clauses providing implicit de facto recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, met Kosovo’s main demand.

Kurti points out that minorities in Kosovo already enjoy independence under the constitution, including Serbian being an official language, guaranteed seats in parliament regardless of election results, representation at a municipal level, the right to nominate key police officials in Serb-majority areas, and at least one minister from the Serb minority in government.

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