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High Tensions in Kosovo: Arrests and Deportations of the Highest Serbian Officials

Arrest of Đurić by Kosovo Special Police

On Monday, the Kosovar authorities denied entrance to several Serbian government officials who had traveled to the north of the country, and their Special Police units detained and deported Marko Đurić, the head of the Serbian Government's office for Kosovo, in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica in the Serb-run far north of the country. Local media reported that Đurić was supposed to participate in a discussion that forms part of Serbia's "internal dialogue on Kosovo" in North Mitrovica, while Aleksandar Vulin, the Defense Minister of Serbia, was planning to visit Kosovo Serb family.

Before the incident, Kosovo Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli said the two men would be arrested if they tried to enter Kosovo. "Neither Đurić nor Vulin have permission to enter Kosovo today, anyone who enters Kosovo illegally will be arrested," Pacolli wrote on Facebook. Specialised Operational Unit of the Kosovo Police was deployed around 200 metres from the border crossing at Jarinje in north of the country. Serbia has disputed the presence of this unit in the Serb-run north of Kosovo in the past, although international KFOR peacekeepers have underlined that the unit can patrol the whole territory of Kosovo without any need for permission.

Kosovo Police stormed the Mitrovački Dvor venue in northern Kosovska Mitrovica, accusing Đurić of illegally entering the country, arresting him and later transporting him to Priština where he was taken before a misdemeanor judge and then deported to central Serbia. Kosovo Police used stun grenades and tear gas to disperse a crowd of ethnic Serbs protesting against the arrest, leaving several citizens inside and in front of the Mitrovački Dvor injured.

Serbian media also reported that the Kosovo authorities also banned Vladan Vukosavljević, the Serbian Culture Minister, from Kosovo on Sunday. According to reports, he wanted to visit several Kosovo monasteries and churches. Vukosavljević called the alleged ban "wrong and absurd" and told the media on Monday that his visit was announced but that he had received the information that "the so-called Priština authorities didn't allow it." On the contrary, Kosovo Police said that Vukosavljević had not been banned, and that it was his decision to go back to Serbia after he crossed the border.

Đurić spoke publicly shortly after his arrest and said he was "proud of the Serb people, who defended themselves using Gandhi's methods." Speaking about the members of Kosovo police who arrested him, he said "To me those are not police officers, that's a raging terrorist gang. They were sent against unarmed people. That's disgraceful for them, and for those who kept silent and in that way agreed to it." Đurić also described members of Kosovo police as "an armed falange" rather than official persons, and stressed that he was "dragged like a dog as attempts were made to humiliate him, Serbia, and the Serbian nation."

"They put me in a transporter, struck me, attempted to intimidate me, pushed a rifle against my stomach, one of them took out a knife, they took selfies. On the way to Priština (from Kosovska Mitrovica) they chanted takbir," Đurić recounted his ordeal, adding that although he is experiencing pain, he feels good. "If there weren't for one call from Belgrade, the violence and the terror against the Serbs would have continued," he said, but would not reveal what call he had in mind. Đurić also said Priština lied that his trip to Kosovo was unannounced, saying this was done the first time 70 hours ahead of the planned gathering in Kosovska Mitrovica, and then several more time.

Before he addressed reporters, Đurić attended a meeting with representatives of the Serb List, along with President Aleksandar Vučić. The meeting behind closed doors was dedicated to Belgrade's next moves, and those of the Serb List, which announced afterwards it would leave the Kosovo government, and then form the Community of Serb Municipalities on its own.

Speaking after a meeting of the Committee for the National Security, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Monday denied that the head of Serbia's Kosovo Office, Marko Đurić, who was arrested in Kosovo and deported back to Serbia, had violated the Brussels Agreement, saying he notified Priština of his arrival 75 hours before his visit. "He sent them notice on March 23. According to the Brussels Agreement, we don’t need to ask for permits, but only notify officials of arrival in Kosovo," he said.

Vučić added that, after Kosovo did not reply, Đurić sent a second notification, after which Kosovo informed Serbia that it could not "reply positively" on 25 March at around 11:00 PM. "We will not go over that, all those who took part in the abduction of Đurić will respond to the Serbian authorities in charge," Vučić said, adding that Đurić was humiliated because "terrorists dragged him on Priština streets." He added that he will not allow anyone to destroy the Serbian people or expel them from northern Kosovo. Vučić also warned that he will think about the continuation of the EU-led dialogue with Kosovo with a cold head and added that starting positions will in future be different.

Nikola Selaković, Secretary of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, described Đurić's arrest as a scandalous act. "It is scandalous act by the Priština authorities because it was terror of armless people, the arresting of hones of people who did not provide resistance, had no weapons and didn't pose a threat to anyone," he said at a press conference in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica after the arrest.

Goran Rakić, the president of Srpska Lista (the main Kosovo Serb party), said on Tuesday that an Association of Serbian Municipalities will be set up independently from Priština and that the party will leave the Kosovo Government. "We informed President Aleksandar Vučić of this, and he said we have his support," Rakić said after meeting Vučić in Belgrade, adding that the Association will be formed on 20 April. The decisions came in response to Monday's arrest and deportation. The establishment of the Association of Serbian Municipalities to represent Kosovo Serbs’ interests was envisaged by the Brussels Agreement signed by Belgrade and Priština in 2013, but the idea has been on hold since then. Rakić also claimed meanwhile that Monday's incident was a test to see how Kosovo Albanian forces could take over the north of Kosovo.

Enver Hoxhaj, the Deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo, said that "Đurić's entry into Kosovo is in violation of the law, constitutional order and the Brussels Agreement." He added that "Such actions are highly dangerous and are intended to destabilize Kosovo. Kosovo will take all the necessary measures to maintain a peaceful situation within our territory." Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci called for calm, saying the incident "should not violate the communication between Kosovo and Serbia."

Greg Delawie, the US ambassador to Kosovo, expressed concern over the incident and said there was "no alternative to dialogue between Belgrade and Priština." EU spokesperson Maja Kocijančič said that the EU calls on Kosovo and Serbia authorities to show restraint so that the current situation in Kosovo does not escalate any further. "All issues of mutual concern need to be addressed within the framework of the EU-facilitated Dialogue, which as an ultimate goal aims at a normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia," she said. Kocijančič added that the EU deplores today's events in Kosovo, which run counter to normalization of relations. "We expect both Serbia, in accession negotiations with the EU, and Kosovo, having a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU in place - to respect fully, in letter and spirit, agreements reached between them in the Dialogue."

Tensions remain high, both between Belgrade and Priština and between Kosovo's dominant majority ethnic Albanian population and its minority Serbs. Kosovo's Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade has refused to recognize the former province's statehood despite its recognition by 116 other countries. EU-brokered normalization talks have stalled in spite of a framework deal signed in 2013. A day of EU-brokered negotiations between the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia broke up late on March 23 without any reported progress on efforts to normalize relations. The EU is pushing for completion of the normalization agreement by the end of 2019.

Putting aside the question of the legality of entry and arrest, the usual daily political controversy between the Serb and Kosovar politicians, the clichéd stories about "Gandhi and terrorists" and so on, the real question is – can this crisis escalate into the war? At the end of December, the BalkansPost published a summary of the CFR's annual Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS) for 2018 which evaluated ongoing and potential conflicts based on their likelihood of occurring in the coming year. After many years, the report once again listed the Balkans as a stability problem, highlighting the risk of renewed violence and political instability is growing in the region, and political assassinations as triggering incident for a potential conflict. Only two weeks later, Oliver Ivanović, a prominent Serb politician in Kosovo and a rare voice for coexistence of ethnic Albanians and Serbs, was shot and killed in Mitrovica. He did not enjoy popularity among Kosovar Albanians and his party was not backed by the government in Belgrade. It is difficult to say which side prefers the instability and the conflict, but it is certainly that both Kosovo and Serbia feel more powerful after Albania's entry into NATO and the strengthening of Russia's international influence.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.