Europe & Central Asia
Posted: 8 June 2023
Armenia-Azerbaijan: Fighting intensifies as peace talks fail and Artsakh blockade continues
The number of armed clashes along the Armenia-Artsakh1The disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. ACLED refers to the de facto state and its institutions in the ethnic Armenian majority areas of Nagorno-Karabakh as Artsakh — the name by which the de facto territory refers to itself. For more on methodology and coding decisions around de facto states, see this methodology primer.-Azerbaijan Line of Contact doubled in May compared to April. At least one Armenian and two Azerbaijani servicemen died in the area of Sotk, in the Gegharkunik region of Armenia, on 11 and 12 May. Separately, on 26 May, Azerbaijani border guards detained two Armenian servicemen near the country’s southern border with Armenia, in a probable response to the detention of two Azerbaijani servicemen who strayed from the Azerbaijani Nakhchivan exclave into western Armenia in April.2Ismi Aghayev, ‘Two Armenian soldiers detained after allegedly crossing into Azerbaijan,’ OC Media, 29 May 2023
The intensification of violence came amid peace talks brokered by the US, EU, and Russia. While talks progressed on the relaunch of a rail link between the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and the rest of Azerbaijan via southern Armenia,3Charles Michel, ‘Press remarks by President Charles Michel following the trilateral meeting with President Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Pashinyan of Armenia,’ European Council, 14 May 2023 they failed to produce substantive agreements despite Armenia’s President Nikol Pashinyan reiterating the acceptance of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Artsakh.4Tata Shoshiashvili and Anna Edgar, ‘No new agreements after Pashinyan and Aliyev argue in Moscow,’ OC Media, 26 May 2023 Furthermore, on 28 May, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev escalated rhetoric by offering amnesty for self-appointed Artsakh officials should they dissolve their institutions, and threatened further Azerbaijani military action should they not.5Eurasianet, ‘Azerbaijani president gives ultimatum to Karabakh authorities,’ 30 May 2023 This echoes his suggestion the previous month that ethnic Armenian residents of Artsakh either accept Azerbaijani citizenship or leave Artsakh.6JAMNews, ‘Ilham Aliyev: ‘Either they will live under the flag of Azerbaijan, or they will leave,’ 19 April 2023 The conflict over Artsakh has persisted since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and Artsakh winning a war against Azerbaijan in 1994, with the latter regaining parts of Artsakh and adjacent areas after another war in 2020.7International Crisis Group, ‘The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Visual Explainer,’ 30 May 2023
Kosovo: Violence erupts as ethnic Albanian mayors assume office in Serb-majority north
An attempt to install ethnic Albanian mayors in towns dominated by ethnic Serbs led to a flare-up of tensions in northern Kosovo in May. On 26 May, Kosovan police escorted the newly elected mayors to municipal buildings in Leposaviq, Zubin Potok, and Zvecan. Trying to prevent their entry in Leposaviq and Zubin Potok, ethnic Serbian demonstrators barricaded the entrance to municipal offices and pelted stones and firecrackers at riot police. In Zvecan, demonstrators clashed with the riot police, injuring five of them, and damaging four police vehicles. On the same day, Serbian President Vučić put the armed forces on high alert, ordering them to move closer to the border with Kosovo.8Zenel Zhinipotoku and Llazar Semini, ‘Serbian border troops on high alert after ethnic clashes inside Kosovo,’ Associated Press, 26 May 2023 Violence continued on 29 May despite the reinforcement of cordons around mayoral offices with peacekeepers, with Zvecan being the most affected. As a result of clashes, over 50 demonstrators and 30 peacekeepers were injured. There were also multiple reports of attacks against journalists covering clashes and their vehicles, some by masked individuals.9Jeta Xharra et al., ‘US Penalises Kosovo After Unrest in Serb-Majority North,’ Balkan Insight, 30 May 2023
As Vučić and his Kosovan counterpart Vjosa Osmani traded accusations of stirring violence10Fatos Bytyci, ‘NATO soldiers injured in Kosovo clashes with Serb protesters,’ Reuters, 30 May 2023, NATO announced the deployment of additional 700 peacekeepers to Kosovo.11NATO, ‘NATO Secretary General meets with Norwegian Prime Minister in Oslo,’ 30 May 2023 Kosovo’s ethnic Serbian leaders vowed to continue protests until ethnic Albanian mayors and police forces withdraw.12Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty Balkan Service, ‘EU Intensifies Effort To Calm Crisis In North Kosovo As Serb Protesters Rally,’ 31 May 2023 Meanwhile, Kosovan authorities appeared to accept the possibility of organizing new elections in restive towns amid US and European criticism of the initial decision to persevere with installing ethnic Albanian mayors.13Milica Stojanovic, ‘Kosovo Leaders Agree to New Elections in Restive North,’ Balkan Insight, 2 June 2023; U.S. Department of State, ‘Joint Statement on Kosovo,’ 18 May 2023; Anthony J. Blinken, ‘Condemning Violence Against KFOR and Escalatory Actions in Northern Kosovo,’ U.S. Department of State, 30 May 2023; Twitter @JosepBorrellF, 30 May 2023 Earlier in May, talks on the association of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo collapsed in Brussels, with Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti citing his wish to avoid a replication of the stalemate in Bosnia and Herzegovina.14Milica Stojanovic and Xhorxhina Bami, ‘Kosovo, Serbia Clash in Brussels Over Serb-Majority Municipality Body,’ Balkan Insight, 3 May 2023 The election of ethnic Albanian mayors in the region followed the mass resignation of ethnic Serbian officials in northern Kosovo in late 2022 during a dispute over vehicle license plates. Ethnic Serbs largely boycotted the ensuing snap mayoral elections in April 2023, resulting in a voter turnout of under 4%. The issue of granting self-governance to ethnic Serbian-majority areas in northern Kosovo has remained unresolved since the reaching of an agreement in principle in 2013/2015 and its renewal in early 2023 as part of an EU-brokered deal to normalize relations.15International Crisis Group, ‘Kosovo-Serbia: Finding a Way Forward’ in ‘EU Watch List 2023 – Spring Update,’ 12 May 2023 Ethnic Albanian-majority Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 2008 in the aftermath of the civil war occurring a decade earlier. Ethnic Serbs clustered in northern Kosovo have kept allegiance to Serbia.16Reuters, ‘Kosovo: Serbian unrest continues in north,’ 30 May 2023
Russia: War against Ukraine hits back home
The spillover of violence into Russia in May resulted in the highest recorded levels of political violence since the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine in late February 2022. The number of violent events recorded by ACLED increased by over three times in May, most of which limited to the border Belgorod region. Mortar and artillery fire accounted for 72% of events, leaving six civilians dead in the Belgorod region and one in the Kursk region. Furthermore, two armed formations, allegedly consisting of Russian nationals fighting on the Ukrainian side17Andrei Rykov, ‘Who are the far-right Russian groups fighting on Ukraine’s side?’ Open Democracy, 30 May 2023, conducted brief incursions into four border settlements and on Shebekino town in the Belgorod region on 22 May and on 31 May, prompting authorities to evacuate the local population.18Meduza, ‘Belgorod region starts evacuating children from Shebekinsky and Grayvoron districts,’ 31 May 2023 Russian forces repelled the first attack, with one civilian death reported in the crossfire. Fighting continued near Shebekino into the first week of June. Russian border areas have faced routine shelling and drone strikes since the Russian withdrawal from northern Ukraine in April 2022, with the Belgorod, Rostov, Bryansk, and Kursk regions among the most affected. The frequency of cross-border incidents further increased following the Russian expulsion from the Kharkiv region in September 2022, and stayed at relatively comparable levels between January and April 2023.
Aerial warfare also escalated over the course of the month. On 3 May, two armed drones were shot down over the Kremlin in Moscow, causing minor damage to the Kremlin Senate building. Russian authorities attributed the strike to Ukraine and claimed that it targeted Russian President Vladimir Putin.19Associated Press, ‘Russia says it foiled an alleged attack on Kremlin, Putin,’ 3 May 2023 On 30 May, Russian air defense systems shot down at least eight drones over Moscow city and region, including in affluent areas housing Russian political and business leadership.20Verstka, ‘Where Drones Landed in Moscow,’ 30 May 2023 Three high-rise apartment blocks on the outskirts of Moscow were slightly damaged. The probable use of Ukrainian-produced kamikaze drones could signal a direct response to Russia’s inundation of Ukraine’s aerial space with Iranian-made loitering munitions since October 2022.21Conflict Intelligence Team, ‘Sitrep for May 30–31 (as of 7:30 a.m.),’ 31 May 2023; Andrew Roth and Pjotr Sauer, ‘Large-scale drone attack hits Moscow for first time in Ukraine war,’ Guardian, 30 May 2023 Suspected Ukrainian drones also targeted oil facilities in the Krasnodar, Rostov, Tver, and Pskov regions, and hit a military training ground in the Voronezh region. In addition, on 13 May, two Russian military helicopters and two fighter jets were shot down in the Bryansk region. It was unclear whether the incidents occurred due to Ukrainian long-range strikes or friendly fire.
Serbia: Anti-government protests over mass shootings
Anti-government protests engulfed Serbia in response to two mass shooting incidents on 3 and 4 May in Belgrade and its southern suburbs, in which 18 people were killed, including nine children. Opposition parties, civil society representatives, teachers, and citizens took to the streets in a series of marches labeled ‘Serbia against violence,’ demanding the resignations of President Aleksandar Vučić and his security establishment. Demonstrators also criticized public discourse and media content for fostering a culture of violence in Serbia. The largest rallies occurred in Belgrade on 8, 12, and 27 May, gathering tens of thousands participants each.22Aleksandar Vasovic, ‘Tens of thousands in Serbia protest mass shootings, government policies,’ Reuters, 27 May 2023 In response to recurring protests across the country, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) staged a ‘Serbia of Hope’ rally in Belgrade on 26 May, busing in about 50,000 supporters from across Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Kosovo.23Dusan Stojanovic, ‘Pro-government rally held in Serbia amid growing discontent after mass shootings,’ Associated Press, 26 May 2023 At the end of the rally, President Vučić announced his resignation from the SNS helm with the stated goal of being “the president of all Serbian citizens”.24Bojana Zimonjić Jelisavac, ‘Vučić resigns as head of party as anti-government, anti-violence protests continue,’ Euractiv, 29 May 2023 The government also announced an arms amnesty in a bid to ensure stricter gun control,25Cora Engelbrecht and Joe Orovic, ‘Serbia Offers Amnesty for Illegal Firearms, and Thousands Are Collected,’ New York Times, 12 May 2023 and arrested dozens of citizens for allegedly advocating violence on social media.26Sasa Dragojlo, ‘Serbia Imposes Tough Restrictions After Mass Shootings,’ Balkan Insight, 10 May 2023
Ukraine: Russian capture of Bakhmut amid incessant bombing of Kyiv
Wagner and Russian forces completed the capture of the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on 21 May, despite successful Ukrainian counterattacks on its western outskirts precluding the Russian encirclement of remaining Ukrainian units. The drawn-out battle for the now obliterated town lasted for almost a year and was marked by a social media campaign waged by Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin against Russian military leadership.27Kateryna Stepanenko, ‘The Kremlin’s Pyrrhic Victory in Bakhmut: A Retrospective on the Battle for Bakhmut,’ Institute for the Study of War, 24 May 2023 Despite an overall decrease in the number of battle events recorded in May compared to the month prior, fighting increased in the area of Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region. Significant fighting also continued in the areas of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region and on the Kreminna-Svatove line in the Luhansk region.
Near daily air, missile, and drone strikes targeted areas further away from the frontline throughout the month. Kyiv city fended off barrages of Russian projectiles, including Iranian–made kamikaze drones and missiles that it claimed were hypersonic.28Gleb Garanich and Sergiy Karazy, ‘Kyiv says it shoots down volley of Russian hypersonic missiles,’ Reuters, 17 May 2023 Strikes intensified towards the end of the month. On 28 May, Kyiv city faced the largest attack since the start of the war as well as three distinct salvos of missiles and drones the following day. These strikes contributed to a more than doubling of air and drone strike events in May compared to the month prior. In frontline areas, over 100 civilians were killed in shelling and artillery strikes, with the Donetsk and Kherson regions among the most affected, including 21 reportedly killed and 48 wounded in Russian strikes in the latter region on 3 May. Meanwhile, Russian-installed authorities in the occupied part of the Zaporizhia region started forcibly displacing civilians from frontline settlements in anticipation of Ukrainian counter-offensive.29Novosti Donbasu, ‘Urgent Evacuation from 18 towns and villages in the Zaporizhia Region: Russians Will Move Out 70 Thousand Ukrainians,’ 5 May 2023
For more information, see ACLED’s Ukraine Conflict Monitor