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  • Writer's pictureClarissa Sung

NATO Soldiers Attacked in Kosovo

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Prime minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti (Johanna Kuchling, Flickr).


Around 25 NATO peacekeeping soldiers were reported injured in a confrontation with Serbian protesters in Kosovo on May 29. The conflict erupted when Albanian mayors were placed in charge of ethnic Serbian regions by the Kosovo government, a move criticized by the United States and other international allies. The protests in Kosovo represent the latest development in a string of tension-building incidents between ethnic Serbians and Albanians in Kosovo, already exhibiting social divides within the just fifteen-year-old country.


NATO’s Background in Kosovo


Ever since the end of NATO’s 78-day air campaign against Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslavian regime in 1991, NATO has maintained an active presence in now-independent Kosovo in the form of the international Kosovo Force (KFOR). Consisting of soldiers from a variety of NATO countries, this force’s purpose is to “[maintain] a safe and secure environment in Kosovo and freedom of movement for all,” according to a NATO report. This same force was tasked with defending town halls, municipality offices, and other local administrative buildings during the recent Serbian protests, where 25 soldiers were reported injured, at least 7 seriously so.


Serbian-Albanian Tensions in Kosovo


With an estimated 93% ethnic Albanian population (according to Minority Rights Group International), Kosovo has a long history of tension between ethnic Albanians and its Serbian minority. In northern Kosovo, where Serbians maintain a majority, many residents refuse to recognize Kosovan sovereignty over the region and continue to demand autonomy. These ethnic groups do not recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence from the former Serbian territory, signed just fifteen years ago in 2008. Serbia has yet to formally recognize Kosovo’s independence; accordingly, residents of many northern Kosovan regions view themselves as Serbians and Belgrade (the capital of Serbia) as their capital. Local administrations financed by Belgrade have been carrying out administrative work until the recent elections held by Kosovan authorities on April 23.


Election Contention


At the heart of the recent protests were the widely-disputed mayoral elections held by the Kosovan government in late April to select local authorities for the northern regions unrecognized by Serbians. In a show of resistance, Serbians conducted a boycott of the elections: the municipality of North Mitrovica, for instance, reported a meager voter turnout of 3.5 percent. When asked why he would not be voting in the elections, Serbian resident Jovan Knezevic replied, “Democracy by force? No.” Many Serbians are pushing instead for increased regional autonomy with the creation of Kosovo Serb municipalities, referencing a decade-old E.U.-brokered deal with the Kosovan government.


When the prime minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti placed Albanian mayors in charge of northern Kosovan regions despite general turnouts of under 4 percent, Serbians responded with violent protests, using in multiple accounts tear gas and stun grenades against NATO troops. Only escalating the situation was the buildup of Serbian troops along the Kosovo border in “a state of full combat readiness,” despite calls from NATO for de-escalation. At municipality offices and local administrative buildings members of NATO, KFOR forces were attacked, resulting in several serious injuries to the mainly Hungarian-Italian troops. The incident has since sparked international criticism. Since the attack, NATO has labeled the incident “unacceptable” and France “condemns [the violence] in the strongest possible terms.” The United States has taken measures against Kosovo for inflaming tensions by excluding Kosovo from certain NATO exercises and announcing it has “no enthusiasm” towards aiding Kosovo in its pursual of greater international standing and E.U. or NATO membership. Additionally, NATO has announced the deployment of an additional 700 KFOR troops in Kosovo in response to the situation.


Regional and International Stability


The Serbian-Albanian clashes in Kosovo are representative of longstanding ethnic and regional tensions in the region that have the potential to destabilize the region. The presence of NATO troops, including U.S. soldiers, only heightens the importance of closely observing events in Kosovo and finding a peaceful solution to the Serbia-Kosovo border dispute in a timely manner.



 


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