(Bloomberg) -- Kosovo’s prime minister said his police will stay in the northern parts of the country where their presence has sparked violent protests, snubbing a demand from the US to defuse the situation.

Premier Albin Kurti risks angering an ally that has backstopped his country since its creation after Secretary of State Antony Blinken blamed his government for the worst outbreak of violence in a decade.

Allies said that Kurti ignored calls to scrap local elections that triggered protests from the ethnic-Serb majority in the north of the country. When Serbs boycotted the votes, Kurti again brushed off the concerns of his backers to install ethnic-Albanian mayors in a string of Serb dominated towns.

Thirty NATO peace-keeping troops and dozens of Serb protesters were hurt in the resulting clashes.

“As long as there is this violent mob outside who is ready to attack” then we “must have our special units in the municipal buildings,” Kurti said at the GLOBSEC security conference in Bratislava, Slovakia on Wednesday.

That puts the premier in a precarious position. Kosovo depends on the US and allies for security, economic support and further progress of its international recognition. He fell out of US favor during former President Donald Trump’s administration and was ousted from power in 2020.

While Kurti has taken part in US-backed, EU-mediated talks to normalize ties with Serbia, he rejected Blinken’s rebuke. Calling it “unfair, wrong, hurtful and naïve” in a social media post, he underscored his maverick attitude toward allies not used to being spurned by a fledgling nation they have tried to support since it declared independence in 2008.

Meanwhile the leader on the other side of the dispute, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, received backing from traditional allies — Russia and China. But, long cajoled by the US and EU for harboring close ties with Moscow and eroding democratic rights in Serbia, he also got a boost from the US admonishment of his rival. 

“It seems that the Biden administration has more continuation from the Trump administration in Balkan policy than previously thought,” said Florian Bieber, director of Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. “There is this illusionary hope that by treating Vucic well, he is going to turn to the West. He’s successfully feeding this hope.”

Balkan Outsider

Kurti is one of Kosovo’s most popular politicians, lauded for his drive to uproot rampant corruption. 

Unlike Kosovo’s previous top leaders, he was a political dissident, not a guerrilla fighter. Serving a 15-year terrorism conviction from a Serbian court, he was beaten and forced to be a human shield during the NATO bombing campaign that pushed Serb forces out of Kosovo in 1999. 

Freed upon Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s ouster in 2001, he organized anti-graft protests against the international administrators who oversaw Kosovo’s transition to a fledgling democracy. In 2007, two activists from his ethnic-Albanian party died and dozens were injured in a clash with United Nations police. He himself was arrested and held for nine months.

Initially an outsider to a peace process that has lasted decades, he has crossed important allies. In 2020, he blamed the collapse of his government on Richard Grenell, a special envoy in Serbia-Kosovo talks under Trump who’d been given a mandate to bring the former foes to a deal normalizing ties.

Vucic, meanwhile, is an old hand at Balkan politics. An information minister for Milosevic during the wars of the 1990s, he backed Kosovo Serbs’ boycott of the local elections that resulted in the contested mayors’ mandates and put his army on combat alert when violence flared last week. 

His government refuses to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence and has worked to block its inclusion in international bodies. Still, he appears to have dodged direct blame and has won endorsements from longstanding allies and supporters.  

“China and Serbia are iron-clad friends,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters on Wednesday. “Currently it is important to prevent further escalation.”

The world’s No. 3 tennis star Novak Djokovic even sparked controversy at the French Open tournament, when he wrote an anti-Kosovo message on a camera lens.

“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia,” Djokovic wrote, echoing a Serbian nationalist narrative that denies Kosovo’s sovereignty. “Stop violence.”

Vanishing Support

Aside from the unusually harsh rebuke from Blinken, the US also excluded Kosovo from the NATO-led Defender Europe military exercises planned in Romania for this year. 

While the US steps against Kosovo are symbolic, they are “a clear signal to Kurti that he is going too far” in imposing his central government’s influence over the ethnic-Serb areas of Kosovo, Bieber said.

They indicate headwinds for Kurti’s efforts to push Kosovo further down the road to EU entry. For that to happen, he must overcome the main stumbling block of Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo. But this month’s clashes have effectively derailed the EU-mediated talks that were seeking a solution. 

“Very clearly, there’s a responsibility of the Kosovo authorities in what’s happening,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters in Bratislava. “We clearly told the Kosovo authorities that proceeding with these elections was a mistake.”

--With assistance from Jan Bratanic, Lucille Liu, Jasmina Kuzmanovic and Peter Laca.

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