Slowing Goods from Serbia ‘Risks Humanitarian Crisis in Kosovo’ Serb Politician warns

Aleksandar Arsenijevic tells BIRN that curbs on traffic from Serbia could lead to food shortages in northern Kosovo, worsening the crisis there.

After one more questionably successful meeting in Brussels, which EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell held with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti on Thursday – separately – the situation in the north of Kosovo is still deteriorating. 

The majority-Serb pocket of the country faces another crisis in the aftermath of violence that broke out at the end of May, after the Kosovo government installed new mayors in four municipalities. 

Kosovo Police then arrested people they claimed organised the violence, after which Serbia arrested – Kosovo claims “kidnapped” – three Kosovo policemen. 

The Kosovo government has responded with tighter border controls. 

As the government spokesperson told BIRN: “Border controls with Serbia have been tightened by limiting traffic and increasing controls on vehicles that come from Serbia, especially those for transport.” Meanwhile, Kosovo authorities arrested two more people. 

Aleksandar Arsenijevic, Kosovo Serb leader of the civic initiative “Serbian Endurance” (Srpski Opstanak) says this move could lead to “a humanitarian crisis” in the north.

“Regarding the announced ban on the entry of products [from Serbia] and everything else, I think people are afraid to go to the southern [government controlled] part of Kosovo lest they are harassed, attacked, arrested, [so] they have no other alternative to get food … and this could lead to a humanitarian crisis in the north,” Arsenijevic told BIRN in mid-June.

Before this measure and the Serbian arrest of the Kosovo policemen, Kosovo Police arrested Kosovo Serb Milun “Lune” Milenkovic, on suspicion of orchestrating attacks against NATO peacekeepers at the end of May and of participating in an attack on election commission premises in December 2022. 

He was arrested on June 13 in the divided town of Mitrovica in a hair salon, in an action that some claim was over-violent.

Arsenijevic said Milenkovic lives in a part of town with a mixed population and so the police “could have arrested him at the family house at 5 am with five policemen without any problems”.

“However, after a meeting with the ambassadors of the QUINT [the US, UK, France Germany and Italy], where he [Kosovo PM Kurti] announced a package of measures for de-escalation, he just destabilized the north of Kosovo with the public paraded arrest of Milun Milenkovic at 12 in the afternoon, when the city was full of people, using special forces both in civilian clothes and in uniforms,”Arsenijevic told BIRN.

The insecure situation in the north, meanwhile, also has repercussions for Serbs living in other parts of the country, which is where the majority of the Serbs live in Kosovo.

Crisis triggered by election of new mayors

The newest crisis was triggered on May 26 when the new, disputed, mayors of Zubin Potok, Leposavic/Leposaviq and Zvecan/Zvecane tried to enter the municipality buildings. 

In violent clashes between Kosovo Police and locals, according to the media, dozens of citizens were injured, tear gas was used, gunshots were heard and police vehicles were burnt. Police later said that five policemen were injured. 

Arsenijevic said these buildings operate also as offices of institutions that still work within the system of Serbia, which does not recognise Kosovo.

“It was often the case in the past that they [the mayors] performed double functions, that the president of that temporary body was also the mayor, and all of that was fine as long as they were people who were voted in by the citizens,” Arsenijevic told BIRN. 

Local Serbs dispute the legitimacy of recent elections that they boycotted en masse and in which only 3.47 per cent of people voted.

“I don’t even understand why the municipalities were raided [by police] … as Serbs have left these institutions, so he [the new mayor] will not be able to assemble the quota of employed persons in the municipality and the municipality would certainly be dysfunctional,” Arsenijevic said.

When protests started on May 26, many Serbs from the north of Kosovo were allegedly in Belgrade attending President Vucic’s counter meeting, intended to oppose the weekly protests being held in Serbia against violence – triggered by recent two mass shootings in Serbia, which left 18 dead. 

Arsenijevic, who was in Zvecan/Zvecane that day, claims the protest in northern Kosovo that day was peaceful and that he negotiated with Kosovo Police special about some of their members leaving the municipality building without being provoked or hurt. 

“The citizens obeyed and followed passive resistance and let the policemen whom I led out go – but five minutes later, reinforcements arrived, EULEX [the EU law enforcement body] ran away and they [Kosovo Police] attacked me and the women, sprayed me with tear gas and took me between two cars and beat me to brutally,” he claimed.

Arsenijevic said he has filed a criminal complaint to Kosovo Police Inspectorate, but without any outcome so far. 

‘I wouldn’t participate in elections now’

After the meetings on Brussels on June 22, Borrell said the EU had expectations from both Serbia and Kosovo, and one of these is fresh local elections in which local people participate.

The EU wanted local elections “as soon as possible, in all four municipalities with the unconditional participation of the Kosovo Serbs”, Borrell told the media. 

But Serbs are still conditioning their participation in elections, among other things, with the establishment of a long-promised Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo.

According to Arsenijevic, when the April elections were held, he proposed “that if the mayors do not work in the interests of the citizens … we should collect a petition to overthrow them”.

“That [idea] everyone is using now, but no one wants to take the ‘hot potato’ in their hands,” he said.

“In addition to all that, in this atmosphere I do not want to participate in elections,” he added. 

Arsenijevic entered political life in Kosovo in 2021 and is among a handful of Kosovo Serb politicians who is not part of Srpska Lista, the Kosovo Serb party backed by Belgrade. 

When Milun Milenkovic was arrested on June 13, Serbs protested in the centre of the northern part of divided Mitrovica. At one point, they shouted “Betrayal” and against Srpska Lista and President Vucic. 

Arsenijevic claims that Srpska lista “has lost its credibility with the people”.

People think “they [Srpska lista leaders] may be working for their own interests, because we have not seen in the past 10 years that they are doing anything in the interests of citizens,” he said.

“That reaction from frustrated people is justified, despite the announcements from Belgrade that the [Kosovo Serb] people will be defended [with] the [Serbian] army and everything else, and … people started chanting in frustration,” he said. 

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