A messy and serious conflict Monday between hard-line Serbs and United Nations peacekeepers in north Kosovo on a sensitive anniversary for Serbs, analysts say, plays into a strategy in Belgrade: keep the Serbian electorate emotionally charged prior to crucial elections in May.
The vote, called after the Serb government fell last week, will decide whether Serbia, the largest state in the south Balkans, chooses a moderate pro-Europe or a radical nationalist pathway – a decision influenced heavily by events on the ground in Kosovo and one closely watched in Western capitals.
"We are holding Belgrade accountable [for the violence in Kosovo]," chief NATO spokesman James Apparthurai told the Monitor. "That's where we are looking in regard to these actions. But we plan to restore order, that's certain."
In the early morning hours Monday, Polish UN police retook a courthouse in Mitrovica occupied nonviolently on March 14 by Serb court employees, judges, lawyers, and staff who wanted to be paid by the UN.
The police detained the protesters, say UN sources in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, and the operation at first seemed peaceful. Yet large crowds attacked the largely Polish UN police force, injuring some 22 of them, along with eight French, and forcefully retook several detainees.
The UN police withdrew around 10:45 a.m. under a hail of grenades, explosives, and rocks – leaving the restoration of order to the UN-mandated NATO troops deployed in Kosovo, known as KFOR.
"After attacks with explosive devices suspected to be hand grenades, and firearms, the police are ordered to withdraw from the north of Mitrovica, while the situation will be taken over by KFOR," said a UN statement.
'An international screw-up'
The timing of the UN action, on March 17, the fourth anniversary of Albanian violence against Serbs in Kosovo that is remembered with great pain – played loudly in Serb media Monday. Serb sources claimed more than 70 were injured and showed photos of female courthouse employees in handcuffs being taken by UN soldiers out of the building.
"I can't imagine a worse policy decision by NATO and UNMIK [UN Mission in Kosovo] in terms of timing," says James Lyon, of the International Crisis Group in Belgrade. "This keeps Kosovo in the news and hot, exactly what [former Prime Minister] Kostunica wants. In terms of visuals and imagery in the Belgrade media, it is an international screw-up."
Conflicting official reports exist over whether automatic weapons fire was used by the Serb crowd, since firecrackers, mistaken for shots, were also thrown. The use of automatic weapons is considered a psychological red line by NATO officials.
'Radicals want problems [in Kosovo]'
Senior UN sources in Pristina and other analysts regarded the episode as a further step toward Serb partition of north Kosovo and a challenge to a planned upcoming European Union civil society mission to Kosovo. Mitrovica, a divided city on the edge of the northern Kosovo region known by the same name, is already partitioned and the area north of the Ibar river is held de facto by the Serb minority.
The incident may be the first step in a hard-line strategy designed to put radicals in power in May, analysts say. The Serbian government collapsed last week and newly elected President Boris Tadic, a pro-Europe moderate, was forced to call snap elections in May. His party will be running against a radical party headed by ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic.
"The radicals want problems on the ground, that helps their cause, it keeps everyone excited in Serbia," says a senior UN official in Pristina. "Most of us who want peace want to see Tadic and the democrats. To hold Belgrade accountable may harm Tadic. But at this point there may not be a way out."
On Monday, Tadic called the UN-NATO actions an "excessive use of force that could lead to an escalation of violence in Kosovo."
Worst clash since Feb. 17
The fracas is the most violent since the 90 percent Albanian-led Kosovo declared independence on Feb. 17, some nine years after NATO intervened to stop Serbian attacks on Albanians. Kosovo is described by Serbs as the cradle of their civilization and is a highly emotional symbol.
One question for the internationals in Kosovo is whether to put Serbs on trial for their occupation of the courthouse – something the Kosovars are calling for. Not to do so would be seen as a capitulation to the Serb crowd. To do so would be to give their trial a perpetual media show for Serbs in the run-up to the May election.