PRISTINA, Kosovo — Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti has achieved the impossible in American politics: consensus among Democrats and Republicans.
Unfortunately for Kurti (and his country), the point of agreement is that Kosovo’s leader is a stubborn, and at times, reckless politician who has undermined the joint U.S.-European effort to achieve a lasting solution for peace between Kosovo and Serbia.
Washington has laid the blame for the recent outbreak of violence between Kosovo authorities and the Serb-majority communities in the north of the country squarely at Kurti’s feet and has tried — so far without success — to rein him in with public criticism. The conflict, which concerns the future status of the Serbian areas in North Kosovo and Pristina’s demand that Belgrade finally recognize its sovereignty, has spun further out of control in recent days, with Serbia arresting three Kosovar border guards and Kosovo closing the main crossing to Serbian trucks.
Kurti’s critics accuse him of manufacturing the crisis by sending paramilitary police units into Serbian communities and using force in late May to install Kosovar Albanian mayors across the region after Serbs boycotted local elections.
“We have some very fundamental issues with him on whether we can count on him as a partner,” Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia, told Voice of America this month.
That followed a May 26 tweet by his boss, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said: “We strongly condemn the actions by the Government of Kosovo that are escalating tensions in the north and increasing instability.”
Richard Grenell, who served in several senior foreign policy roles during the Trump administration, including as special envoy for peace negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, was blunt in his assessment, saying last week on Twitter that Kurti had given Biden and the Europeans “the middle finger.”
While Grenell has long been critical of Kurti, a left-wing nationalist whose views never aligned with those of the Trump crowd, the public rebuke by the Biden administration was extraordinary on several levels.
For one, Kosovo has been a pet project of Democratic leaders ever since former President Bill Clinton led the successful 1999 NATO campaign against Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milošević, who oversaw the eviction of millions from homes in the ethnic cleansing of Albanians from Kosovo. Many Democrats view Kosovo as a rare example of successful American nation-building.
For another, Hill is a diplomatic legend in the Balkans, having served in the region for decades, most importantly as one of the architects of the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia in 1995. If anyone understands the scale of Serbia’s malign influence across the region over the years, it’s Hill. Yet the veteran diplomat left little doubt that in his view Belgrade was not to blame for the latest escalation.
Serbian President Alexander Vučić and his government “are good partners in this process,” Hill said.
Even the EU, which has shepherded talks to “normalize” relations between Serbian and Kosovo, a prerequisite for either country to join the bloc, has lost patience with Kurti.
Last week the EU said it was suspending high-level visits with Kosovo as well as its “financial cooperation.”
“Despite our repeated calls, Prime Minister Kurti has so far failed to take decisive steps and actions to de-escalate,” spokesman Peter Stano said.
So far, Kurti has shown little willingness to back down, insisting that Vučić’s steadfast refusal to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty and come to terms with the realities of Serbia’s wartime past are to blame for the crisis. Kurti says he’s acting out of principle, not anger.
“What we see from the democratic West is a certain appeasement attitude,” Kurti told POLITICO in a recent interview. “This is how we got here. And I think it’s important for both the EU and U.S. to tell Mr. Vučić to back off.”
Kurti accused Vučić of stirring trouble in North Kosovo by supporting a “fascist militia” there that he says is behind recent attacks on Kosovar Albanian journalists and international peacekeepers.
Few would argue that Vučić, a strongman leader with a long history of antagonizing the West by flirting with both Russia and China, is an angel. Some Western critics have called out Washington for appearing to side with Vučić, just as mass protests in Serbia against his increasingly authoritarian rule are gathering steam.
Nonetheless, Serbia remains the region’s juggernaut and both the U.S. and EU want to ensure that it doesn’t drift further into Russia’s sphere of influence. Most Western observers also doubt the prospects of resistance to Vučić, given how pervasive his hold on power in Serbia has become. Belgrade’s importance was further underscored in April when a leaked Pentagon document revealed that it had agreed to supply weaponry to Ukraine, something Serbia publicly disputes.
Though Serbia has joined U.N. resolutions condemning Russia over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, its official position is to remain neutral in the conflict.
Vučić has never been neutral when it comes to the Serbs in North Kosovo, a community of about 50,000 spread out over four municipalities. As Vučić seeks to quell the protests at home, Kosovo is once again a useful tool for him to distract the public.
Many Kosovo Serbs regard Vučić as their protector. Indeed, it was at Vučić’s behest that locals stayed away from the polls in recent municipal elections. As a result, four Kosovar Albanian candidates, one of whom only received 100 votes, were declared the winners.
Kurti’s decision to forcibly install them, despite what he acknowledged to POLITICO was “hollow” legitimacy, triggered the recent unrest in the region.
But Serbs in North Kosovo say they were fed up with the way they’d been treated by Kurti’s government long before Vučić told them to boycott the election.
Their main gripe involves the presence of the “special police,” heavily armed paramilitary units, which Kurti dispatched to the area in 2021 amid a dispute over Kosovo Serbs’ continued use of Serbian license plates. Locals view the police as an occupying force.
A string of shootings this year of Serbs at the hands of the special police further exacerbated the situation.
Their displeasure with Kosovo’s government runs much deeper, however. Pristina suspects the local Serb communities are preparing to try to secede, noting that even 15 years after Kosovo declared independence from Belgrade, many people in the area continue to receive civil service salaries and social welfare from Serbia.
The structure of public services in Kosovo, from the education system to healthcare, is substantially different from those in Serbia and Kosovo’s northern Serbs say they are loathe to give them up. What’s more, local Serbs say the central government has done little to address their concerns over integrating fully into Kosovar society, especially when it comes to equal treatment of their language and culture.
“We have had a bad experience with integration so far,” said Milica Andrić Rakić, a project manager at New Social Initiative, an independent research group based in Mitrovica, North Kosovo’s urban center, which is divided into Serbian and Albanian sections by the Iber river.
The main problem with the ongoing talks, she said, is that the international effort to resolve the conflict focuses on Serbia and Kosovo, not the locals.
“We’re not in Serbia’s negotiating team and we’re not in Kosovo’s team and yet they’re all talking about us,” Andrić Rakić said. “The international community is trying to build a house from the roof down instead of up from the base.”
History would suggest she has a point. The EU has been trying for a decade to negotiate lasting peace between Kosovo and Serbia. In March, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell claimed to have sealed a deal after a summit in North Macedonia between Kurti and Vučić.
In exchange for de-facto recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, Pristina agreed to embrace “an appropriate level of self-management” for the Serb municipalities in North Kosovo.
Within weeks, however, the wheels came off. The West blames Kurti for forcing the issue with the mayors at a delicate moment, culminating in violent protests in Serbian areas that left dozens of NATO-led peacekeepers injured.
At a time when the U.S. and Europe are focused on dealing with Russia’s war on Ukraine, the last thing they need is another conflict on the Continent. That appears to be their calculus in trying to strong-arm Kurti into backing down.
Regardless of whether the criticism of Kurti is fair, the latest flare-up in Kosovo offers a potent reminder of the West’s own failures in the region and the cost of letting the conflict simmer for years on end.
On Monday, the EU demanded Kurti and Vučić travel to Brussels for a “crisis meeting” or face “harmful” consequences.
As of late Monday, neither leader had agreed to go.