by Maddalena d’Aquilio for Unimondo*

Born in 1982, Ilir Beqiraj grew up in Peja, a small town in western Kosovo. A graduate in psychology, after the end of the war he became involved in various projects and initiatives proposed by Italian NGOs in the fields of community integration, conflict resolution, local development and sustainable tourism. For almost 10 years he worked in the Italian development cooperation, in particular for projects of the Trentino cooperation. He currently works as a freelance Italian translator.

Beqiraj, what led to the current situation?

A few months before the clashes, tensions had already been rising in the northern part of Kosovo because of the Kosovo government’s determination to expand law enforcement in the three northern municipalities where the majority of the population is ethnic Serb. Last year there was the Serbian number plate affair: Serbian number plates (with the names of Kosovo cities, ed.) became illegal because they had to be replaced with normal Kosovo RKS (Republic of Kosovo, ed.) plates after a 2011 agreement expired. Tensions rose as Serbia pressured Kosovo Serb citizens to change their plates, with Kosovo police threatening to punish those who did not comply. Belgrade urged Kosovo Serb citizens to leave institutions (municipalities, courts and the police itself). Kosovo Serbs had already ‘left’ the institutions in an organised way before the March agreement – which Serbian President Vučić refused to sign. The first demonstrative act was the resignation of some 500 Serb policemen and the return of their uniforms. These resignations left an ‘empty space’ in terms of security in the north of the country. In short, tension breeds tension, and that is how we arrived at the situation we have seen, which culminated in violent protests and the wounding of KFOR soldiers, but also in the arrest of two Kosovar policemen on the Serbian side. Serbia said that these policemen would enter its territory, but this seemed unlikely. As a Kosovar, I was deeply shocked by the reaction of the international community to the Kosovar institutions. We have the impression that the international community is ‘caressing’ Serbia to get it out of the Russian orbit. As a result, Kosovo is paying the highest price. In fact, the international community isn’t putting pressure on Serbia, which is the party fomenting tension and conflict and which has the most power. It is putting pressure on Kosovo, which is in a weaker position. It seems to me that in a situation where it was Serbia that incited certain groups to attack the police and KFOR, it makes little sense to call on Kosovo to reduce tensions. It should be added that in the days following this episode, Kosovar journalists in the north who were covering these events were also attacked.

What do you mean when you say that Serbia is putting pressure on the Kosovo Serbs”?

The Brussels Agreement of 2013 between Kosovo and Serbia implies an association or community of Serb-majority municipalities. The agreement was signed, but it was also written in an ambiguous, interpretable way. One of the points of the agreement was that this association of municipalities, once created, should be reviewed by the Constitutional Court of Kosovo. The court was to assess its constitutionality. In 2013, the party now in power, Vetëvendosje!, was in opposition. Vetëvendosje had sent the agreement to the Court, which ruled that some parts of the text were not in the spirit of the constitution. The Court recommended that the Kosovo government amend 18 articles. However, the agreement was not completely annulled. On the other hand, Serbia objected that the association of municipalities should be judged by the Constitutional Court of Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo’s political forces have strongly opposed the creation of the Association. The Association is seen – with reference to the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina – as a mechanism to block the rule of law, which could prevent the development of Kosovo and the normal functioning of the State. On the other hand, the agreement stipulated that Serbs could be part of Kosovo’s institutions (police, courts, etc.) and could have – informally – representation through a political party, Lista Srpska. Before this agreement, Serbs had heterogeneous political positions. Whereas now, with this one-party reality under the dictates of Belgrade, the interests represented are those of Belgrade rather than those of the Serb citizens of Kosovo. Since then, the Serbian community in Kosovo has had only one voice, imposed by Belgrade.

So Serbs are not really represented?

There are different voices among Kosovo Serbs, especially those who live in areas other than the north. Many do not agree with the policies of the Srpska List and do not feel represented, or at least not sufficiently represented. Almost every day I read in Serbian newspapers or news websites opinions that are not in line with those of the Srpska List. After all, the line is dictated by (Serb) President Vučić to eliminate the “little obsequious” Kosovo Serbs who disagree with him. As a result, those among them who oppose the official voice of Belgrade are somewhat marginalised, sidelined. And this is noticeable: in some cases, Serbs who think differently are not only sidelined, but even considered ‘traitors’.

The international community has criticised PM Kurtis stance. In terms of political expediency, don’t you think that the Prime Minister’s ‘determination’ is of little use to Kosovo?

Part of the population also has doubts about the legitimacy of the elections. It has to be said that the Serbs were given a two-week campaign period, which was then extended by five days. But the Serbs decided to boycott the elections. Instead, the Albanian political parties – which are a clear minority in the north – took part in the elections and were, of course, elected by the few voters. These elections were recognised as legitimate by the United States and most of the international community. Obviously, the question of legitimacy has arisen. It is logical that a person elected with less than 4 per cent of the vote cannot be considered legitimately elected, even though they are legally elected. The moment the Prime Minister decided to proceed, protests and violence erupted. However, the violence is unjustified and appears to have been caused by ‘gangs’ infiltrated from Belgrade, not just Kosovo Serb protesters. Tensions were exacerbated by the decision of elected Albanian mayors to physically take up residence in municipal buildings, when they could have been working without taking up office. In fact, they insisted that the mayors did not have to work in these buildings: their presence gave an additional reason for the protest.  Personally, I don’t agree with Kurti’s decision to go ahead with the election of Albanian mayors, but I don’t think this gives the Serb protesters the right to use violence, to attack the police, KFOR or journalists. Furthermore, I believe that this affair has demonstrated Serbia’s unwillingness to cooperate in the integration of Kosovo Serbs into Kosovo’s institutions. Even if they do not admit it publicly, Serbs are aware that they live in a different State from Serbia. They do not accept that a mayor from another ethnic group should decide on the administration of their municipality. And I think it is interesting to add that the Kosovo Serbs are tied to Belgrade, also because Belgrade basically pays them. What I mean is that where there is a Serb community in Kosovo, the education system, the health system and the social system are financed and managed by illegal ‘provisional bodies’ that are dependent on Serbia. Instead, Kosovo manages the administrative part, the public services, the municipalities. As a result, many civil servants such as teachers, doctors, university professors, etc. are paid by Serbia. For this reason, Kosovo Serbs are tied to Belgrade, which often uses them for its own ends. For example, during Vučić’s last demonstration in Belgrade, Kosovo Serbs were transported by couriers – in an organised way – to show their support for the President (this was a counter-protest organised by the Serbian Prime Minister in response to the demonstrations against the violence following the two school massacres in early May). During the days of the counter-protest organised by Vučić, it was difficult to work in northern Kosovo: schools, for example, were closed. This is not the first time this has happened: something similar was organised during the election campaign of the Serbian president. So today there is a kind of dual sovereignty in the north of Kosovo, and the Kosovo Serbs are tied to Belgrade. I think that historically the Kosovo Serbs have been manipulated by Serbia, but in the last ten years, with Vučić in power, the situation has become much worse. I am not saying that those who attacked the police and KFOR are directly ordered by Vučić, but that these people follow his political line. And certainly, Vučić’s policy is not one of reconciliation and dialogue, but one of rejection, mistrust and opposition.

Do you think that Prime Minister Albin Kurtis statements in the past, for example about union with Albania, are detrimental to Kosovo’s stability?

Since its foundation, the programme of Vetëvendosje (Kurti’s party) has always included unification with Albania. But it must also be said that Albin Kurti himself has changed a lot over the years compared to his original intentions. The Albanian population of Kosovo itself – although the latest polls show that more than 70% would be in favour of union with Albania – is aware that this option is not a realistic goal. First of all, because Kosovo has other priorities at the moment. We all know that Kosovo is not yet a fully-fledged state on the international stage. Therefore, the long-term goal is to consolidate it as a democratic state where nobody feels excluded or discriminated against, including ethnic Serbs. Beyond the international image, it is in the interest of the Kosovar State itself that all citizens are and feel integrated.

* This piece first appeared on our partner website

To learn more, read our Kosovo conflict factsheet

On the cover photo: Aleksandar Vucic, president of Serbia © ToskanaINC/