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Interethnic tensions threaten the fragile peace in Kosovo

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States has spent decades trying to keep the peace in Kosovo, in Europe. And the stakes are high because that peace is being threatened now for a young European democracy that declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley recently visited and sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: At the end of May, four newly elected mayors, all ethnic Albanians, entered the town halls in their districts in northern Kosovo, which is populated mostly by ethnic Serbs and is contiguous with Serbia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: The mayors were soon met by chanting crowds. There were clashes. More than 30 NATO soldiers were injured trying to keep the peace. Schoolteacher Maria Stevanovic (ph) was in front of the municipality building in her town of Zvecan.

MARIA STEVANOVIC: I mean, it's a small place. And then whenever something happens, you just hear it word of mouth. And then you just go out into the street.

BEARDSLEY: Stevanovic, an ethnic Serb, says the reason they protested is because they didn't vote in this election. They boycotted it on orders from Belgrade after a dispute over license plates. Many Serbs still have Serbian plates on their cars, and Kosovo's government began fining them for it. Stevanovic says Serbs feel unfairly targeted by the government in Pristina. And being forced to accept these mayors, elected by a tiny sliver of ethnic Albanians, was a step too far.

STEVANOVIC: This was quite a shock for all of us. Zvecan has been always ethnically clean. I mean, Serbs mostly live here. We would never vote for an Albanian, especially not in any Serbian community, especially not here.

BEARDSLEY: Twenty-four years after NATO intervened to stop the persecution of ethnic Albanians by the forces of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, they're still needed to keep the peace in this corner of the former Yugoslavia. Serbia, which considers Kosovo the birthplace of its religion and culture, does not recognize Kosovo's independence.

SRDJAN SIMONOVIC: Here, we have two truth. We have Serbian truth and Albanian truth. Simple as that.

BEARDSLEY: Srdjan Simonovic is a political analyst with Kosovo civil society organization the Human Center.

SIMONOVIC: They claim that Kosovo is Albanians' country, and that is their truth. We claim that Kosovo is Serbian country. It's our truth. And we both have some solid evidence to back it up.

BEARDSLEY: Simonovic says the Serbs here feel loyal to Serbia. But they've also been participating in Kosovo's institutions for the last 10 years, and things have mostly been working. Still, he says, Kosovo Serbs feel like pawns in a bigger game.

SIMONOVIC: Should they belong to Kosovo or should they belong to Serbia? At the end, these citizens - I mean, Serbs in Kosovo, they're deceived from both sides.

BEARDSLEY: Since 2013, Serbs have been members of Kosovo's parliament and judiciary. They've served in the multiethnic Kosovo police force. But in November of last year, due to disagreements between Pristina and Belgrade on a number of issues, Serbs pulled out of Kosovo institutions entirely. This has left a vacuum that's hurting the local populations, says Igor Markovic (ph), who works for an organization helping the Serb minority in Kosovo.

IGOR MARKOVIC: The situation around the normalization process between Kosovo and Serbia is, from their perspective, high politics.

BEARDSLEY: Which means neither Belgrade nor Pristina bothered to consult the local Serb community, he says.

MARKOVIC: For example, from Belgrade's perspective, they usually say, yes, we are fighting for the rights of the Kosovo Serbs. But they are not actually doing anything.

BEARDSLEY: And Kosovo's government, says Markovic, is playing the ethno-nationalist card to shore up support among majority ethnic Albanians. A particularly harmful move, he says, was Prime Minister Albin Kurti sending up special armed police units to the north last summer to fight what Kurti calls rampant organized crime there.

MARKOVIC: You have this very popular discourse on the side of the current prime minister that north Kosovo is basically a Wild, Wild West where you have, you know, criminals running around. If you're a ordinary citizen, this is something that doesn't make you feel comfortable at the end of the day. They ask themselves, why are those special units present in northern Kosovo and not in other parts of Kosovo? Because the illegal smuggling is present everywhere in the Balkans?

BEARDSLEY: Markovic says those special police units helped usher in the new mayors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: In Kosovo's capital of Pristina, the cafes are full of young people who support Kurti. Many feel their country's progress is being blocked by the small Serb minority. Twenty-two-year-old graphic designer Murat Hyseni (ph) says it's good that the prime minister installed the new mayors in the north.

MURAT HYSENI: It's legal. It's right because most of the people there, they chose themselves not to vote. So we're not really to blame for the people that voted. It's democracy, you know? And they did that because of the pressure from Serbia.

BEARDSLEY: Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s in a paroxysm of interethnic violence, so the world is watching how Kosovo treats its ethnic Serb minority. The U.S. and EU have taken an unusually tough line with Kosovo's government. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Kurti's use of force in installing the new mayors and urged him to refocus on interethnic dialogue. Visar Ymeri is a former member of Kurti's political party but now a critic.

VISAR YMERI: The measures and the decisions that have been taken by the government since last year has made the situation worse on the ground in terms of the Serb community integrated into Kosovo's institutions and in terms of interethnic relations.

BEARDSLEY: In an interview with NPR, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti says they're trying to work together and accommodate Kosovo Serbs. He lays the blame on Serbia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRIME MINISTER ALBIN KURTI: The key problem we have is these violent extremists and criminal gangs financially supported and politically ordered from Belgrade to destabilize Kosovo.

BEARDSLEY: Kurti says he's open to new mayoral elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KURTI: Because I acknowledge that these mayors that we have in the north, they are legal, but they lack proper political legitimacy.

BEARDSLEY: But he says those elections can only take place once the criminal gangs have been dealt with.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: A month after the violence over the mayors, residents of Zvecan are still gathering outside their town hall, holding an around-the-clock peaceful sit-in until the mayor leaves. Serbs here agree holding new elections could solve the problem.

NATASHA PANTIC: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Natasha Pantic (ph) says she's open to voting in a new election if, she says, it's what Belgrade tells us to do.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, in northern Kosovo.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMOCK'S "TAPE RECORDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 28, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
The story incorrectly states that Kosovo Serbs were fined for having Serbian license plates. While fines were one of the punitive measures discussed by the Kosovo government, they had not actually come into force
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.