Sitting behind a bare black desk, in a small whitewashed room in northern Kosovo, village mayor, Izmir Zeqiri, is still getting used to the glare of international attention. “It wasn’t my intention to be a celebrity,” he says as his mobile phone rings on repeat. “We thought more people would run, and we didn’t imagine we could win.”
This isn’t false modesty. Zeqiri is one of a few hundred ethnic Albanians in the Serb-majority municipality of Zubin Potok, and his candidacy in April’s elections was a symbolic gesture. But when Serb List, the Belgrade-backed party that controls much of public life in the Serb-majority northern municipalities, decided to boycott the poll and ordered Serb voters to follow suit, Zeqiri was propelled into the eye of a storm.
He won 197 votes, on a turnout of 6%, 17 more than his only opponent, so last week he was sworn into office. Albanian mayors also took the oath in the three other northern municipalities after even lower turnouts.
The boycotting Serbs, furious at the prospect of being ruled by ethnic Albanians, took to the streets after the prime minister Albin Kurti ordered the new mayors to take up their posts. Tensions were so high officials had to be escorted into their offices by police special units.
On Monday, Nato peacekeepers, concerned that clashes could escalate, sent troops to the town halls. They were met by demonstrators who included masked men with guns and explosives. The Z symbol now synonymous with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was also daubed across vehicles. Thirty Nato troops were injured.
The violence alarmed the US, Kosovo’s most important international ally. Washington rebuked Kurti for ordering mayors into their offices, and called for de-escalation. To underline the message US ambassador Jeff Hovenier announced that Kosovo had been axed from a joint military training exercise and that bilateral relations had been damaged.
But analysts are surprised at this reaction. “It was not Kosovo police or the government who injured dozens of Nato peacekeepers. It was armed Serb groups,” said Toby Vogel, a regional policy analyst.
The US and its allies are singling out Kosovo when they had previously said elections were in line with the country’s laws, he added. “Once that had taken place, I think Kurti really didn’t have much of a choice but to enforce these mayors being seated in their city halls.”
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s ethnic cleansing campaign against its majority Albanian population. That culminated in the 1998-99 war, which was ultimately ended by a Nato bombing campaign.
Most western countries, including the UK and US, recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty but Serbia and its allies Russia and China do not. Serbs continue to make up Kosovo’s largest minority, at about 5% of its population, and they are a majority in the four northern municipalities.
Zeqiri, a grassroots political activist who has run for mayor once before, sidestepped the worst of the unrest by ignoring the order from Kurti – who leads a different political party – to take up office in the Zubin Potok town hall. He instead based himself in Çabër, an Albanian village where there were no protests.
Like many in Kosovo, he believes some protesters are linked to organised crime. “It was quite a stressful week,” he said, with understatement.
“We are still in the phase of creating our new cabinet, so it was bad to see the revolt that was caused by these criminal gangs … their actions go against our constitutional order.”
Journalists on the ground reported many attacks, threats and intimidation, which suggested more than a spontaneous grassroots uprising.
In Çabër, 62-year-old Eshref Ferizi broadly welcomed the fresh approach, despite the violence. He hoped it would make life easier in the north of Kosovo, which has existed in a state of limbo since the war, under the de facto control of Belgrade.
“We live with huge insecurity, in a constant state of stress about what is going to happen,” Ferizi said, as he walked his grandson to school. “In these last 20 years or so, we have never felt free like the rest of Kosovo.”
The latest unrest can be traced back to a dispute about car number plates, which was really a dispute about sovereignty. Last November, Serbs in Kosovo’s public institutions joined a walkout to protest against new rules requiring all vehicles to have Kosovo-issued plates. For many, using plates issued in Pristina is tantamount to recognising Kosovo’s independence.
Kurti, who took power on an anti-corruption ticket in 2021 with a record-breaking 50% of the vote, enforced the number plate rules. A key part of his reform agenda included a stance of “reciprocity” towards Serbia, after more than a decade of stop-start efforts to normalise relations under EU auspices.
Vogel also believes that while there were genuine expressions of anger from local Serbs at the prospect of being governed by Albanian mayors for whom they didn’t vote, it is clear that at least some of last week’s violence was organised and directed elsewhere.
“Nothing really happens in the Serb-majority municipalities without Belgrade’s approval or direction,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean that every single thing that happened during the demonstrations … was directly ordered by Belgrade. But no genuine local political force will be allowed to emerge unless it is fully aligned.”
After further pressure from European and US leaders, Kurti has indicated that he is open to holding new local elections in the affected municipalities, but he insists there must be “an immediate end to violence by Belgrade-sponsored mobs”.
For now, the blue and yellow of Kosovo’s flag flutters for the first time above Zubin Potok’s main municipal building. But it would be easy to miss amid the Serbian red, white and blue that adorns almost every other lamp-post and balcony around the town’s central square.
Directly opposite, the three-storey public health centre has a Serbian flag draped from rooftop to street. Below, dozens of protesters shelter from the sun in makeshift camps, blasting out music that asserts Kosovo’s central role in Serbian folklore.
One protester, who declined to be named, said she wanted the Kosovo police to leave. “Why are they here? This isn’t their place,” she said. “What’s that Kosovo flag doing there? We don’t want it. We have our own.”