Raids by Kosovo police on 28 May in a large anti-corruption operation triggered a serious deterioration of already-strained Kosovo-Serbia relations in the following days, prompting significant engagement on the part of European and UN diplomats. The European Union, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), and KFOR (the NATO-led international military presence) all quickly called for calm, but emotions continued to run high.
The police raids, concentrated in the northern sections of Kosovo that Serbia considers its own territory, produced the arrests of 19 customs and police officials and 16 civilians. The key issue has been the ethnic makeup of those arrested, as six ethnic Serbs and two UNMIK officials were among those taken into custody. One of the UNMIK officials was Russian. Those arrests, triggering reactions from Belgrade and Moscow, immediately turned the police action a larger international concern. Some light injuries were reported during the arrests.
The raids were centered in Zubin Potok, Mitrovica North and South, and Skenderaj, all areas north of Kosovo’s capital Pristina.
Kosovo’s prime minister moved quickly to ease the crisis. “I confirm that the operation is about law enforcement and nothing else. I call Serbs in the north to stay calm and respect the law,” Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said.
Responding to the raids, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic informed parliament he had ordered all units of the army to be put on alert, an almost routine occurrence during tensions with Kosovo and practically invisible.
“I guarantee you if an escalation of the conflict occurs, if an attack against the Serbian people occurs, Serbia will win,” Vucic noted.
Hundreds of people reportedly joined a demonstration in Mitrovica in protest of the Kosovar police operation. The head of Kosovo’s main ethnic Serb party, Goran Rakic, claimed that civilians had been beaten just because they were Serbs.
And tough Kosovar counter-reaction
Kosovo’s government says it will ban Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who has openly declared her status as a member of the LGBT community, from entering the country after she made comments that Pristina considered as being “racist.”
Specifically, Kosovo Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli on May 30 accused the Serbian head of government of “disgusting and unacceptable” comments made during a news conference on 29 May. Pacolli referred to a statement Brnabic made during the handover of a European Commission progress report in Belgrade where she referred to Kosovo’s leaders as people who “literally came out of the woods.” This is a direct reference to the current political leaders of Kosovo – President Hashim Thaçi and Haradinaj – who led guerilla units in the 1998-1999 independence battles
Moscow reacts, ignoring the unhelpful role its citizen played
Russia condemned the detention of the Russian national (UNMIK employee) who had been quickly released once his identity was confirmed.
“We consider this blatant act as yet another manifestation of the provocative line” by the Kosovo authorities, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated.
An additional complication emerged as the district prosecutor in Mitrovica, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo, demanded to waive diplomatic immunity for the Russian UNMIK staffer, claiming he participated in trying to block the police with barricades. Russian diplomats in Serbia also blasted this assertion as an attack on UNMIK staff.
EU attempts to calm the waters
With ongoing Serbia-Kosovo bilateral talks seemingly in limbo, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that the incident “shows us that the status quo is not sustainable and that both Pristina and Belgrade need to come back to the dialogue table.”
“I see the risk of the dark forces of the past coming back, in terms of confrontation, even of conflict” if the two sides continue facing off, Mogherini noted.