By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, during a visit to Albania, called for a solution to the crisis in northern Kosovo that has severely raised tensions between the Pristina government and the country’s Serb minority and with neighboring Serbia.
“There is a dispute going on in Kosovo that I wish had never happened. It is not in my hands, but in the hands of the Kosovars. I think the authorities made a mistake in holding elections for four new mayors [during a boycott],” Clinton said in a speech in Tirana on July 3, the first day of a two-day visit.
“They need to take advantage of the moment to stop this nonsense. What big political issue can be advanced by having these tensions? The people in those municipalities need decent government and citizens need to vote,” he said.
Ethnic Serbs in four northern Kosovo towns have protested against the election of ethnic-Albanian mayors in majority Serb towns following a Serb-called boycott.
The protests, which turned violent and led to injuries among NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers and demonstrators, took place after Western-backed Pristina ignored pleas to avoid escalation and instead tried to forcibly seat the ethnic Albanian mayors after the boycotted elections.
U.S. and EU diplomats told Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti that he needed to calm the situation in the north, hold new municipal elections, and return to dialogue with Serbia on normalizing relations. Diplomats have also long urged Belgrade to take steps to normalize relations with Kosovo, which it refuses to recognize.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has refused to meet directly with Kurti in efforts to simmer tensions, which also rose when three Kosovar police officers were detained by Serbian authorities last month.
The government of Kosovo claimed they were illegally arrested on its territory. Serbia denied the claim and said the police had entered “deep” into their territory. The officers were later released.
Kosovo, which has a largely ethnic Albanian population, declared its sovereignty in 2008, a move recognized by many Western states but not Serbia or its allies Russia and China.
Kosovo’s 1998-99 war of independence from Serbia left more than 10,000 people dead — most of them ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. The fighting ended after a 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbia.
Clinton remains popular in Kosovo and Albania for his efforts to stop the fighting. In 2019, Kosovar President Hashim Thaci awarded the visiting Clinton the Freedom Order in gratitude for his role in helping end the war.
In his July 3 remarks, Clinton — who has no role in the current administration of President Joe Biden, who like Clinton, is a Democrat — also said he is convinced the United States is “committed to Albania’s freedom, strength, and integrity.”
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama praised Clinton for his role in ending the war in Kosovo.
He called Clinton’s speech in March 1999, when announcing NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, “another pearl” and said it was “about the history of Kosovo and our region, a defining stone of the road to the future.”
He also thanked Clinton for assisting now NATO-member Albania as it emerged out of the former Communist regime.
Clinton served two terms as president from 1993 to 2001.