Kosovo closed its biggest border crossing point with Serbia on Wednesday (28 December) after protestors blocked it on the Serbian side, adding more tensions to the difficult situation between the two Balkan neighbours, which observers have called the most dramatic in years.
Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have escalated since November when ethnic Serbs living in the north of Kosovo resigned en masse from government institutions, including the police and judiciary, over the Kosovo government’s decision to replace Serbian-issued car licence plates.
Following Pristina’s plans to hold elections to replace some of those who resigned, Serbs set up barricades on various roads in the Serb-majority northern part of the country. Attacks on the central election commission, police, EULEX (the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo), and even journalists have been reported, including with gunfire and grenades.
“The border crossing point in Merdare is closed for entry and exit because barricades have been placed in the Republic of Serbia about two kilometres from the border in Merdare,” said a statement from the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Until further notice, PKK [border crossing point] Merdare will be closed. Other border crossing points should be used!” it added.
The closure of the Merdare crossing brings the total number of border closures to three.
The Jarinje and Brnjak border crossings have been closed for days following the arrest of an ethnic Serb police officer by Kosovo authorities on suspicion of an attack on a Kosovo municipal electoral commission. After being held in custody since 10 December, he was put under house arrest on Wednesday afternoon.
In addition to the barricade near Merdare, two others were established in Dudin Krs and North Mitrovica. On Tuesday, ethnic Serbs put up two barricades in Mitrovica and Zvecan.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, speaking to Bosnian media on Tuesday, said that if KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, is not ready or able to remove the barricades, the institutions of Kosovo will do it. On Wednesday, he said the time given to KFOR to take action was running out.
“Placing barricades on the road is an illegal, unacceptable action and will not be tolerated. In accordance with security assessments, we have given the necessary time and space to KFOR to act, but of course, this time is running out fast,” Kurti said.
“The institutions of Kosovo will not talk and cooperate with criminals but will arrest them. Setting up barricades is an illegal and unacceptable action and will not be tolerated”, he warned.
He insisted that those responsible for the barricades are working on the orders of Belgrade. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has denied the accusations.
The Kosovo government has called on KFOR to respond to their request to remove the barricades, a call not yet answered by the peacekeeping force, which appears to have taken a neutral position.
In a statement, KFOR urged “all sides to help enable security and freedom of movement in Kosovo and prevent misleading narratives from affecting the dialogue process”.
Belgrade denies it is behind the blockades and says it is trying to defuse the situation, but President Vučić also said that the barricades would only be removed if certain conditions were met.
Kosovo’s Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla has said the situation is being fuelled by Russian-influenced propaganda.
“It is Serbia specifically, influenced by Russia, that has raised the state of military readiness, is ordering the erection of new barricades to justify and protect the criminal groups that terrorise citizens of Serbian ethnicity living in Kosovo in particular,” Svecla wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.
Asked about Svecla’s claim, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “wrong” to search for a destructive Russian influence.
“Serbia is a sovereign country, and naturally, it protects the rights of Serbs who live nearby in such difficult conditions, and naturally reacts harshly when these rights are violated,” he said.
Serbia, for its part, has placed its security troops on the border with Kosovo on “full combat readiness” and interior Minister Bratislav Gašić said it was being done so that “all measures be taken to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]