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Clashes in Kosovo
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Clashes in Kosovo

The U.S. rebuffs a longtime ally as tensions run high in the Balkans.

Happy Monday! If for some reason you were trying to buy Rosco fluorescent paint a few years ago and one color always seemed to be sold out, we might finally know why.

“I wanted the pinks to be very bright, and everything to be almost too much,” Greta Gerwig told Architectural Digest of the set for her upcoming Barbie movie. The film’s production designer claims to have bought so much of the paint she caused a global run: “The world ran out of pink.”

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Bureau of Labor statistics reported Friday that U.S. employers added 339,000 jobs in May, well above expectations and the largest month-over-month gain since January. March and April’s reports were retroactively revised up by a combined 93,000 jobs as well. The unemployment rate ticked up from 3.4 to 3.7 percent, while the labor force participation rate held steady at 62.6 percent. Average hourly earnings—a measure the Federal Reserve is watching closely in its fight against inflation—rose 0.3 percent month-over-month in April, and 4.3 percent year-over-year.
  • President Joe Biden formally signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act into law on Saturday, enacting the bipartisan legislation that suspends the debt limit until January 2025, implements caps on discretionary spending in the coming years, claws back billions of dollars in new IRS funding and unspent COVID-19 funds, reforms work requirements for certain welfare programs, forces the Biden administration to end the student loan repayment pause, and expedites the permitting process for new energy projects.
  • A train wreck in India’s eastern Odisha state killed at least 288 people on Friday—and injured hundreds more—after a high-speed passenger train was diverted onto a loop line and hit an idled freight train. The resulting crash debris subsequently led another passenger train to derail. Officials are still investigating the cause of the initial crash, but suspect an electronic signaling system error.
  • Hong Kong police on Sunday detained at least 20 people—including four accused of seditious intent—who were commemorating the 34th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square killing of pro-democracy student protesters. Hong Kong officials reportedly deployed as many as 6,000 police officers to tighten security this weekend and scheduled events restricting access to Victoria Park, the site of pre-COVID Tiananmen anniversary vigils.
  • U.S. Indo-Pacific Command reported Saturday a Chinese warship came dangerously close to a U.S. Navy destroyer sailing through the Taiwan Strait with a Canadian frigate over the weekend. China’s defense minister labeled the U.S. ship’s presence a “provocation,” suggesting the best way to avoid such confrontations with the Chinese military would be to stop sailing in the international waterway.
  • The Financial Times reported Friday CIA Director Bill Burns made a previously undisclosed trip to China last month, meeting with his counterparts and emphasizing “the importance of maintaining open lines of communications in intelligence channels.” Anonymous Biden administration officials stressed Burns’ trip was not a diplomatic mission, but it comes as the White House is seeking to “thaw” relations with Beijing after a tense several months.
  • Saudi Arabia announced Sunday after an OPEC meeting it will unilaterally cut production by 1 million barrels per day in July, a bid to boost slumping crude prices. Brent crude futures, a global benchmark, jumped 2.4 percent on the news, but recent OPEC-wide cuts—more than 1 million barrels per day announced in April and 2 million a day in October—failed to buoy oil prices for long amid concerns that looming recessions will depress demand. OPEC and Russia-led allies had announced no additional cuts this year.
  • The Justice Department’s National Security Division has reportedly closed its investigation into Mike Pence over the classified documents discovered at his Indiana home earlier this year, informing the former vice president’s legal team he will not face criminal charges. The news comes just days before Pence is expected to announce his 2024 presidential campaign.
  • Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel announced Friday the party’s first presidential primary debate will be held in Milwaukee on August 23, 2023. In order to participate, candidates will need to be polling above at least 1 percent nationally, have at least 40,000 unique donors to their campaign, and sign a pledge agreeing to support the party’s eventual nominee.

Chaos in Kosovo

Kosovo riot police and KFOR military police secure the entrance to a municipal building in Zvecan, northern Kosovo on May 29, 2023, following clashes with Serb protesters. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Kosovo riot police and KFOR military police secure the entrance to a municipal building in Zvecan, northern Kosovo on May 29, 2023, following clashes with Serb protesters. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

The 1990s are back—and not just because low-rise jeans and cargo pants are regrettably in vogue once again. The Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan. There’s a civil war in East Africa. And as of last week, the Balkans are once again on a razor’s edge after violent clashes between NATO peacekeeping forces and Kosovo Serbs in northern Kosovo left dozens injured.

The latest flare-up in the region—over the outcome of April municipal elections in northern Kosovo—risks undoing the minimal progress Kosovo and Serbia have made toward normalizing relations in recent years. Although Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized by the United States and dozens of other countries, Belgrade still views the majority ethnic Albanian, Muslim country as a breakaway territory. 

Tensions are generally pretty high between the two countries, but northern Kosovo—given its shared border with Serbia—is a particularly volatile tinderbox. Its four municipalities have ethnic Serbs in the majority—rare in Kosovo—and many there still consider Belgrade, not Pristina, to be their capital. Late last year, a spat over license plates—the Kosovar government insisted all the cars in the region sport Kosovar tags and set a date for the policy’s enforcement—saw Kosovar Serbs in local government resign en masse. “Essentially, it [was] about Pristina re-asserting control over the north,” Dimitar Bechev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, told TMD.

The months-old squabble set the stage for renewed violence last week. After trying to drop the hammer with the license plates, Kosovo struck a verbal agreement with Serbian officials in March to create an “association” of the northern Serb municipalities, giving the region greater autonomy—though not total independence—from the government in Pristina. The deal, however, is fairly toothless—and no real progress has been made on the semi-autonomous regional associations. 

So when the mass resignation in late 2022 forced municipal elections in North Kosovo to be delayed from December to April, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and the leading Kosovar Serb political party, Serbian List, called on Serbs to stay home from the polls to demand an association. For some Serbs, the decision to boycott was emotional as well as strategic. “I hate all those who participate in these elections because they recognize [Kosovo], the Albanian state,” a Serb from northern Mitrovica in Kosovo told Euronews.

The ploy had its intended effect. Serbian List presented no candidates and Serbs boycotted so successfully that ethnic Albanian mayors were elected on less than 4 percent turnout. 

All they had to do now was take office—but that was easier said than done.

On May 26, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti moved armed security forces into the area to secure the municipal buildings for the mayors to begin their terms, a move U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned as having “sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions.” 

Tensions were certainly running high last Monday as Serb protesters tried to take over a municipal building in the northern town of Zvecan, getting into a violent confrontation with the Kosovar police who tried to rebuff them. NATO peacekeepers—part of the 4,000-strong Kosovo Force, or KFOR, stationed in the region for just such a time as this—first moved to separate police and protesters before trying to disperse the protestors with batons and shields. The rioters then turned their sights on the peacekeepers, launching Molotov cocktails, rocks, and bottles their way. Thirty members of the NATO force—mostly from Italy and Hungary—were injured, along with nearly 50 protesters. 

NATO and its member countries condemned the violence against police and the NATO forces, the worst in Kosovo in decades, but also came down hard on Pristina. The U.S. booted Kosovo from ongoing NATO military exercises, and its ambassador to Kosovo, Jeffrey Hovenier, said the U.S. currently “has no enthusiasm” for efforts to help the Balkan country gain wider recognition or entry into NATO and the European Union. “All international bodies did recognize the elections that we had,” Kurti said Wednesday, defending his actions. “Once you recognize the process of elections, and its results, then mayors have to go to the municipalities. Who else should be in these municipality buildings if not the mayors?”

The U.S., typically a strong Kosovo ally, has “invested a lot in the dialogue” between the two countries, Bechev told TMD. “They are unhappy Pristina is undermining it,” he said. “On previous occasions, they cautiously supported Kurti’s unilateral moves—on license plates and IDs. But this time, it seems they are exasperated with him.” 

Raising the temperature further, Vučić sent troops to the Kosovar border after the clashes last Monday, citing “terror against the Serb community.” For its part, NATO said it was transferring an additional 700 troops to northern Kosovo to try to quell any additional violence.   

Vučić and Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani traded barbs at a summit of European leaders in Moldova last week, though they refused to acknowledge each other even standing mere feet apart at the red carpet welcome to the event. “President Vučić needs to stop supporting criminal gangs if he truly wants peace,” Osmani said Thursday. Vučić demanded the withdrawal of the “alleged mayors” from the northern municipalities. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron—always eager to play the peacemaker—stepped in on the sidelines of the meeting to try to mediate informal talks between Vučić and Osmani. The two Western European leaders emerged from the tête-à-tête calling for new elections in Kosovo—a proposal that Belgrade and Pristina promised to discuss further sometime this week. 

If the two sides can agree to fresh elections, it might be the off-ramp the conflict needs, but only “if Srpska Lista [Serbian List] doesn’t boycott the vote,” Bechev told TMD. “However, Vučić will first demand a firm commitment on the association,” he predicted, which could make such an agreement dead on arrival.

Worth Your Time

  • This weekend marked the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Chinese officials blocked access to the Beijing square and arrested pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong—while online Chinese Communist Party defenders questioned whether the massacre ever happened at all. It did, of course, and the Wall Street Journal republished this eyewitness account of the 1989 protests by author and journalist Claudia Rosett, who died last month after a battle with cancer. “From behind a burning bus barricade Saturday night [June 3] comes the gunfire of soldiers advancing toward Tiananmen Square,” Rosett wrote. “The shots are answered by the angry yells of thousands of citizens defending Chang An Road about two miles west of the square. People snatch up bricks and bottles, their only weapons against the guns of their country’s own army. Then, faces grim, they start to fall back. The soldiers overrun the flaming roadblock, and under the midnight sky can be seen as a dark line of helmets moving fast toward the crowd. Panicked, people turn and run back a few hundred yards to rally by the next bus barricade. Bullets ricochet off the stone walls that line the road. A young man, blood running from his forehead, stumbles toward the sidewalk.”
  • Do you have strong opinions about the impact of government regulation on the game of pinball? Would you like to? For Law and Liberty, Shoshana Weissmann reviews a flawed film about pinball player and activist Roger Sharpe, exploring the regulatory history of the game. “Pinball was banned for decades in New York City, starting with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia who claimed pinball was gambling and run by the mob,” Weissmann writes. “Furthermore, the authorities treated it as an opportunity for public relations wins: ‘Major raids throughout the city, squads of police swarming into bowling alleys, bars, anywhere they could find them,’ Sharpe recounts. The government even used the legs of the machines to make new police clubs. And other cities from Atlanta to Chicago banned the game, too. But what the movie left out is that, even if La Guardia’s actions were far too excessive, the mob did actually use pinball as a source of gambling revenue.”

Presented Without Comment

National Review: Trump Congratulates Kim Jong-un for North Korea’s Admission to WHO Executive Board

Also Presented Without Comment

The Hill: [Rep. Marjorie Taylor] Greene Flips on Public Release of Jan. 6 Tapes, Claims It Could ‘Put the Security of the Capitol at Risk’

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Fox News: White House Refuses to Answer Question on Hunter Biden’s Second Amendment Defense Plan

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Haley reports on (🔒) the GOP intraparty fallout of the debt ceiling deal, Jonah argues material abundance erodes class and amplifies social status, Chris wonders if (🔒) Biden’s incumbency advantage can overcome voters’ economic fears, Nick notices (🔒) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has lost ground among college-educated Republicans, and the Dispatch Politics team introduces DeSantis’ most important Iowa ally—Gov. Kim Reynolds.
  • On the podcasts: GOP operative Mike Murphy joins Mike to make the case for non-Trump, non-DeSantis Republican presidential candidates on The Dispatch Podcast, and Jonah’s latest Ruminant examines the nature of language and how it shapes public thought.
  • On the site over the weekend: Harvest explains why and how Chinese citizens are arriving at the southern border, Gary Schmitt reflects on the legacy of Secretariat, and Ross Anderson reviews When the Heavens Went on Sale.
  • On the site today: Drucker reports from Iowa on the early days of the DeSantis campaign and Price walks through the energy provisions baked into the debt ceiling deal. Plus, Chris—looking at the 1968 presidential race—reflects on all that can happen over the course of an election cycle.

Let Us Know

More than 34 years ago, the Chinese Communist Party showed its true colors in Tiananmen Square. Do you remember the demonstrations and bloody crackdown?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.