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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Serbian political crisis May 2023: unfolding events

In early 2023, there was an unprecedented school shooting in a wealthy central suburb of Belgrade, the capital of the Republic of Serbia. Serbia is notorious for very high rates of (mostly illegal) gun ownership but the use of those guns (which amassed in the country during and in the aftermath of the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990's) in violent incidents tended to be confined to gang warfare between the drug dealing criminal classes. There are admittedly a lot of people in those classes, because Serbian society is awash with drugs and it is one of the principal European centre points (along with the Netherlands, Spain and East Germany, in particular Berlin) for the transit and supply of a range of unlawful recreational narcotics typically considered highly harmful both to their users and to their victims. This was the first use of firearms against civilians outside the context of drug gang violence, arguably since the end of the 1990's Western Balkan wars. Then, shockingly, it was followed by another massive shooting against civilians in Serbia the very next day. The country began some deep soul searching about how an ostensibly peaceful European country had acquired an undercurrent of such abhorrent violence: something everybody always knew had existed, by reason of the prevalence of the drugs trade, but that nobody wanted to talk about.

A period of mourning began, when music was banned. Or it was supposed to have been. There were demonstrations in the streets. But underlying the formalities, a power struggle was underway between those with a pro-western leaning and who wanted to rid the country of guns and drugs, including President Vucic, an essentially benign reformist character who nevertheless was compromised by the drug and guns gangs whose financial support he relied upon to keep him in political office; and the drug gangs themselves, in particular one associated with a well-known Belgrade football club called FC Partizan and led by a mysterious internal security force old guard member now notoriously known within the international community as "Mr Perunovic". The ban on music was actually a ban on the sale of drugs, because the venues that play "live music" as understood in Serbian society is a euphemism for venues that sell drugs. Therefore the ban on music that Mr Vucic announced was really a veiled attack upon the drug gangs and the drug dealers.

The drug gangs decided to fight back. There were a series of ministerial resignations. The Education Minister resigned, although it was hardly obvious that he has at fault for either shooting and nobody was calling for his resignation - except the Russian-backed Opposition, who take every opportunity to stir the pot against pro-Western President Vucic's government and his mightily loathed Prime Minister Ana Brnabic - the Russian Opposition hate her because he had the courage to choose a lesbian in a conservative country. On 27 May 2023 the President mysteriously resigned from the leadership of SNS, the dominant political party in the country that controls over 50% of the seats in the national parliament.

Serbia is formally a parliamentary democracy with an elected President whose powers in theory are relatively modest. In theory decision-making powers lie with a government supported by a majority of MP's. In practice the MP's that comprise SNS representatives are proxies of various drug gang leaders across the country. These drug gang representatives could not force the President himself to resign, since he has a direct popular mandate. However they can force him to resign as leader of the party, since that position lies in the gift of the SNS MP's. And that is what they did, thereby denuding the pro-western, anti-drug President Vucic of authority because they illustrated that he no longer has the support of the SNS parliamentary party (i.e. the drug dealers) and therefore he can no longer effectively pass legislation or control his own government (that are approved by the parliament). And hence the drug dealers and cartel leaders, who are the dominant political force in Serbian society and really always have been, executed a constitutional coup d'état against their own President who they had installed in office as a pro-western leader under sufferance. They had never really liked him and they had done everything they could to compromise him, including trying to get him addicted to drugs and do other compromising things that his traditional conservative base of voters would abhor so that they would be able to manipulate and control him.

All this went against President Vucic's instincts, which genuinely are liberal in outlook. But ultimately the pressure placed upon him, both financial (threatening to withdraw financial support from his party that distributes handouts to the regional voters who support him strongly and are in large part themselves very much against the drugs culture in Serbia) and threats and extortion, overcame his western instincts. President Vucic found himself pleading with the West for funds to liberate himself politically from the shackles of the drug lords; while the West looked upon his requests with scepticism precisely because he was unable to reign these criminals in. At the same time the Russian-backed Opposition had the audacity to engage in repeat visits to Brussels seeking to persuade the European Union that President Vucic is some sort of barbaric illiberal dictator when in fact he is one of the very few liberal voices in Serbian politics. So President Vucic was under attack from all sides. In desperation he used the Serbian civilian shootings as pretexts to strike against the drug dealers; and they used the same thing as pretexts to strike him. At the time of writing, the drug dealers seem to have succeeded over President Vucic, hobbling him of power and reducing his role as President to a nugatory one.

Some additional complicating factors should be mentioned. The Russian interests funding the Opposition are aligned with the drug dealers in a coalition of convenience. Both what to see the end, or at least the enfeeblement, of Mr Vucic and his pro-western allies. Russian funding for Serbian political activities has been subverted to be used as drug transit financing. The youth of Belgrade, who form the backbone of the Opposition movement, tend to take a lot of drugs. (The rest of the Serbs, being a deeply conservative people, are highly averse to drugs and that is one reason why Mr Vucic is personally very popular - he is perceived by conservative Serbs for the most part outside Belgrade and not amongst the youth of the country as a force against the wanton proliferation of drugs and drug violence.)

Connected with this issue is the status of North Kosovo. North Kosovo is not controlled by proxies of Mr Vucic in Belgrade, as some international observers might assert; instead it is controlled by a series of drug dealers masquerading as local politicians. North Kosovo, an entirely lawless place in which civilians feel free to walk the streets and enter bars and restaurants with unconcealed firearms, is used as a drugs storage centre of sorts. A number of new apartment buildings have recently been constructed in an area of abject poverty and those buildings are basically constructed with laundered drug money and used to store various types of drugs in transit between Montenegrin and Albanian ports and Western European drug consumption destinations. North Kosovo must be one of the most dangerous and lawless places in the whole of Europe and it is not well understood by many people within the international community. The drugs cartels therefore have a strong interest in North Kosovo remaining precisely as it is. In the face of Pristina's undeniable attempts to assimilate North Kosovo into Kosovo's central government structures, the drug cartels' interests in North Kosovo feel at threat. Hence they find common cause with Russian interests, who wish to maintain a general atmosphere of political chaos in the Western Balkans to bog down the West's EU and NATO expansion plans in the region, make a point of the sanctity of continued Serb control of North Kosovo and periodically wave around various inchoate threats to invade Kosovo in order to preserve "peace and order" in North Kosovo.

The main road between Mitrovica North, in North Kosovo, and Kopaonik, a mountain ski resort in southern Serbia, along which the greater majority of the illicit narcotics trafficking is believed to occur from North Kosovo into Serbia. However there are a variety of less formal roads believed to be used by the drug traffickers to move narcotics supplies from North Kosovo into the rest of Serbia.

These events have come to a head with the appointment of Milos Vucevic, the Serbian Minister of Defence, as Mr Vucic's de facto replacement; he has been announced as the new head of the SNS, which means that he has the support of the drug cartels. Immediately upon his appointment he made a series of alarming statements about Serbia's intention to invade North Kosovo to prevent Kosovar Albanian aggression in the region, an agenda that appeals to both the Russians and to the drug cartels and illustrates the way that they are working in tandem to achieve their distinctive ends.

As a result, international peacekeeping troops based in Kosovo have come into conflict with Serbs living in North Kosovo and as of 30 May 2023 the current state of civil chaos threatens to spiral downward into further violence. Serbian President Vucic, although informally dethroned, has moved to the front line between Serbian and international forces as a full conflict between Serbian troops and the international community appears to be a real risk.

In other developments:

  • A sniper has been observed in a suburb of North Mitrovica, suggesting that Serb militias are infiltrating North Kosovo (irregular Serb militia units are associated with the drugs cartels operating in Serbia)

  • Kosovo Albanian Special Forces have occupied positions in Zubin Potok, a municipality in North Kosovo, paving the way for direct armed clashes between Serbs and Albanians

  • There are concerns that the North Kosovo region might be infiltrated by Islamist militias or terrorist units with a view to supporting Kosovo against Serbia in the event of an escalation in hostilities

  • Members of KFOR, the international peacekeeping force, have been criticised for taking insufficient action to maintain the peace

  • There are reports of a breakdown in coordination between the lawful authorities of Kosovo and the international peacekeeping forces present in the region, although this has yet to be reliably confirmed

  • Civilians are reported as serving as human shields in the North Kosovo region, although the precise details of this development remain to be reliably established

  • A full-scale propaganda war appears to be developing between the Kosovo and Serbian sides

  • The former Prime Minister of Sweden and former High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Carl Bildt, has issued a statement blaming Kosovo for the escalation

  • There are reports that some 50 civilians have been injured in the clashes in North Mitrovica so far

  • The US Ambassador to Pristina has called for de-escalation in tensions

  • There is an open question as to whether the international community believes that Kosovo officials ought to continue working in the territory of North Kosovo in all capacities

  • The President and military leaders of Serbia are reported to have been meeting with international representatives with a view to defusing tensions

  • Serbian President Vucic has described the unrest in North Kosovo as a "pogrom" against Serbian people, threatening unspecified consequences as a result

  • Kosovo Special Forces units are reported as being in North Kosovo

  • Serbian President Vucic is threatening to withdraw from international security forums in consequence of the unrest

  • The Bosnian Serb leader, a former businessman whose political position is uncertain, has in the recent past accused the West of wanting to create a "Greater Albania" and advocated unification of the Serb parastate Republika Srpska within Bosnia and Herzegovina with Serbia apparently as some sort of retaliatory measure

  • President Vucic of Serbia has accused the Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti of seeking a military confrontation between NATO and the Republic of Serbia

  • The Russian Federation has so far refrained from comment upon the crisis

  • The QUINT (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and Italy, together with the European Union) have called upon the authorities of Kosovo not to use force to enter municipal buildings in North Kosovo

  • Forty-one KFOR soldiers were reported as injured as of Monday 29 May in the North Kosovo clashes, according to a respected Italian news agency

  • Thousands of Serbs are reported as involved in street protests against the installation of Kosovo government officials in North Kosovo

  • The British Ambassador to Kosovo has condemned attacks upon KFOR troops and journalists in North Kosovo

  • Vehicles associated with Kosovo have been vandalised with Serb nationalist graffiti

  • KFOR has surrounded North Kosovo municipal buildings with barbed wire and metallic cordons and KFOR has deployed military vehicles across North Kosovo

  • All schools in North Kosovo have been closed due to dangers to pupils

  • As of lunchtime Tuesday 30 May 2023, the situation in North Kosovo is understood to be calm but tense

Updates with effect from afternoon of 30 May 2023

  • There have been calls within Germany to suspend Kosovo's application to join the Council of Europe (the Strasbourg body overseeing European human rights standards), albeit from a right-wing political party within Germany

  • Russia remains silent on the conflict in North Kosovo

  • The US Government has withdrawn cooperation with Kosovo over common military drills in consequence of Kosovo's movement of security forces and other personnel into North Kosovo; at the same time, the United States has suspended diplomatic visits between the United States and Kosovo

  • The US Government is threatening sanctions against Kosovo if it does not withdraw its personnel from North Kosovo

  • NATO has announced deployment of resources to North Kosovo to keep the peace, and the Commander of NATO Allied Command Joint Forces Naples appears to have taken command over NATO's participation in the North Kosovo crisis

  • The former Slovakian Foreign Minister and former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Miroslav Lajcak, who currently occupies an EU role for mediation between Belgrade and Pristina, is seeking to broker talks in Bratislava, Slovakia between Serbian President Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti, but President Vucic has so far indicated a disinclination to participate

  • The number of KFOR troops injured on Monday has been downgraded from 41 to 30

  • Journalists reporting from North Kosovo are reported as having been attacked by Serb groups; it is not entirely clear who the aggressors are; nor is it immediately obvious who the journalists attacked were, but reports suggest that they were predominantly or exclusively Kosovo journalists

  • Nobody has reported as having been killed, although shots are reported as having been fired

  • A notional Serbian Armed Forces unit has been dispatched to the region but it is not immediately obvious that their intention is to deploy Serbian military units into North Kosovo, despite public statements that might be perceived as indicating otherwise

  • Tear gas and stun grenades have been used to disperse Serb protesters surrounding North Kosovo municipal buildings occupied by Kosovo Security Forces, although it is not immediately clear whether these tools were deployed by Kosovo Security Forces or by KFOR troops

  • A local Serb leader has accused of incoming Kosovo Mayors seeking to take office in municipalities in North Kosovo as having gained as few as 50 votes in boycotted municipal elections

  • It is reported that Interim Explosive Devices were used against KFOR troops but it is not immediately obvious who was responsible for deploying these devices or why they were used at all

Updates with effect from morning 31 May 2023

  • We are not aware of any reported fresh violent developments during the night of 30-31 May 2023, which was presumed quiet

  • The number of additional NATO troops to be sent to Kosovo has been confirmed by reliable sources as 700

  • A stand-off remains reported between Serb citizens, KFOR troops and Kosovo Special Police units in Zvečan, a suburb of Mitrovica North, the informal capital of North Kosovo, where it is also reported that the Kosovo authorities have arrested some Serbs albeit that it is not clear what they were arrested for

  • Also in Zvečan, it is reported that a giant Serbian flag has been unravelled that runs through the high street

  • The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been reported as earlier condemning the violence in North Kosovo and seeking an immediate de-escalation

  • The Russian Federation remains steadfastly silent on the conflict, in line with its apparent policy in prior flare-ups in North Kosovo

  • US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has called upon both sides to de-escalate the conflict in North Kosovo, principally blaming the Government of Kosovo

  • The Prime Minister of Kosovo is refusing to withdraw armed security officials of Kosovo from the streets of North Kosovo

  • There are reports of dozens of injuries from stun grenades and tear gas

  • Five Serb protesters have been confirmed arrested by the Kosovo authorities

  • The Serbian Minister of Defence, who now appears to be serving as de facto leader of Serbia, has predicted a "very high" risk of violent escalation and has said that the Serbian military will not "stand by" if Serbian lives are put at risk or Serbs are displaced from Northern Kosovo, and has ominously asserted that Serbia "is ready to carry out any task" if its "vital national interests" are jeopardised (this might be construed as a reference to drug cartel interests but it is far from clear what he was talking about); he has also started using language suggesting a possible genocide of Serbs by Kosovar Albanians

  • A prominent North Kosovo Serbian politician has mysteriously denied the presence of the Russian paramilitary organisation the Wagner Group in North Kosovo

  • US Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill has berated the government of Kosovo for failing to follow US advice

Giant flag unravelled in the high street of Zvečan, a suburb of Mitrovica North, in North Kosovo

Updated with effect from evening 31 May 2023

Updated with effect from morning 1 June 2023

  • Serbian President-in-name Alexander Vucic calls for withdrawal of Kosovo government officials from government institutions in North Kosovo, apparently following the lead of US Ambassador Christopher Hill

  • President Vucic has travelled to Moldova, a fragile western ally in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, to attend political meetings with Western leaders and representatives

  • The President of Kosovo attended the same meetings in Moldova, and highlighted that President Vucic is compromised by criminal gangs. It is unknown whether the Presidents of the two countries met in Moldova but it is strongly suspected that they did, which might be construed as a move to sideline the Prime Minister of Kosovo who has come under extensive Western criticism

  • The President of Kosovo has a reputation as a more moderate political figure in the politics of Kosovo than the Prime Minister of Kosovo

  • Serbian President Vucic and the Prime Minister of Kosovo appear to be avoiding contact, the former attending meetings in West-leaning Moldova while the latter has been attending meetings in Bratislava under the auspices of EU envoys, one of whom is believed to harbour close relations with Russia

  • More Serbian politicians in North Kosovo, a number of them believed to be associated with the drug cartels, have issued calls for Kosovo government officials to leave North Kosovo, while it has been admitted that Serb officials in North Kosovo presumed to be associated with drug gangs have resigned on the basis of a boycott principle

  • KFOR troops remain deployed in the flashpoint of Zvečan

Updates 2 June 2023

  • Pristina court remands to Serbs in custody for entering Kosovo with knives and explosive devices with a presumed intent to commit terrorist offences.

  • Mood hardens against Serbs in Pristina, with grumblings of Russian involvement

  • Russia remains silent

  • France and Germany have urged the Kosovo authorities to hold new elections for North Kosovo municipal officials, that include Serb voters


We are provisionally drawing these updates to a close but we hope they have been useful to our readership. We remain on hand to provide further advice and analysis upon the situation in North Kosovo whenever so requested, consistently with our other duties and obligations.


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