Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, 9 years after Serb forces were driven out of the former Yugoslavia republics by a 78-day NATO bombing campaign. Serbia continues to refuse to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence and insists on defending its ethnic Serbs, who live Kosovo and make up about 5% of Kosovo’s 1.8 million population. It should be highlighted that Serbia is a European Union candidate, but it has maintained close ties with Moscow and has not joined Western sanctions against Russia, despite voting in favor of a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In the four municipalities of northern Kosovo, a sizable portion of the Serbian population continues to “pretend” to be a part of Serbia and refuses to acknowledge its government in Pristina. The wounds of the Yugoslav wars are not healed yet, the roots of antagonism between Kosovars and Serbs remain strong. The European Union assisted Kosovo in negotiating with Serbs living in the northern part of the country; since 2011, there have been several rounds of negotiations, and as a consequence, Serb-dominated municipalities have come under Pristina’s control; however, Belgrade continues to encourage local nationalist groups to oppose this integration process.
To put the past behind and concentrate on the present, the current tension was mainly caused because of the dispute over the license plates. Pristina made the decision that forces drivers with Serbian vehicle registration plates to cover the state emblem with a sticker before entering Kosovo. Drivers who want to enter Serbia with Kosovo plates must also apply a sticker to their license plates. The so-called sticker system was implemented in October 2021, following a 13-day blockade of the Jarinje and Brnjak/Bernjak border crossings by Serbs enraged by changes to license plate regulations. Even though there have been negotiations on the matter, tensions have increased this week. The problem is that many Serbs in Kosovo continue to use Serbian-issued license plates, which the government considers now illegal. According to the Kosovo government, as of Monday, all individuals with Serbian identification cards and passports must obtain an additional document in order to enter Kosovo, just as Kosovars must do in order to enter Serbia. Additionally, the government stated that ethnic Serbs who currently possess Serbian registration plates must switch to Kosovo license plates within two months. The licenses issued by Serbia are used by about 50,000 Serbs, who do not acknowledge Kosovo’s authorities’ power to promulgate new laws and regulations. This sparked protests, during which time demonstrators erected barricades and unidentified Serbs even opened fire on Kosovo police officers. The Kosovo police shut down two northern border crossings in response to the crisis.
“The following hours, days and weeks may be challenging and problematic,” Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti commented on the tensions, meanwhile Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stated at a press conference on Sunday: “We will pray for peace and seek peace, but there will be no surrender and Serbia will win… If they dare to persecute and mistreat and kill Serbs, Serbia will win,” he added later, “We’ve never been in a more difficult, complicated situation than today.”
Furthermore, the Kosovar government, according to the president of Serbia, who called a high-level meeting of security and military officials on Sunday night, is attempting to associate him with President Vladimir Putin by attributing the unrest to Serbia’s close ties with Russia. The president also accused the Kosovar government of attempting to use the Ukraine-Russia conflict to portray themselves as “the new Zelensky” and “ the savior” from the Serb domination, while portraying Serbian president as “little Putin”, which is being instructed by “big Putin” . Moreover, one of the most outrageous statements made by the member of the ruling party, Vladimir Djukanovic, he linked the border dispute between Kosovo and Serbia to the Ukrainian-Russian full-scale conflict by tweeting:”Seems to me that Serbia will be forced to begin the denazification of the Balkans.”
President of Kosovo Vjosa Osmani’s chief of staff, Blerim Vela, responded to these statements and referred to actions of Serbia as “a textbook repetition of Putin’s playbook” and accused the Serbian government of saturating the media with false claims and using more militaristic language.
During this precarious situation, NATO’s KFOR mission, which has a force of about 3700 soldiers, issued a statement that demonstrated that if Serbia attacks Kosovo, the KFOR will defend it. In the document NATO said that its force on the ground was “ready to intervene if stability is jeopardized.” Authorities from NATO and the EU also urged a lowering of tensions and a negotiation-based solution to the issues.
“Surprisingly”, Russian high officials made a myriad of statements that only served to exacerbate the situation while the West tried to prevent it. Obviously, for Russia, which is struggling to win in Ukraine, blowing up “the Balkan Powder Keg” can be advantageous in order to increase its influence in the region and cause more multifaceted challenges for the European Union and NATO, which is now fully focused on the Ukraine. The foreign minister of Russia, Lavrov, claimed that Kosovo closely collaborates with the European Union and the United States to discriminate against the Serb minority. The infamous Maria Zakharova, the Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, even further elaborated this Kremlin propagandist narrative by saying:
“The decision of the “authorities” in Pristina to start applying unreasonable discriminatory “rules” on the forced replacement of personal documents and numbers of local Serbs from August 1 is another step towards the expulsion of the Serbian population from Kosovo…Kosovar leaders know that the Serbs will not remain indifferent when it comes to a direct attack on their freedoms, and they deliberately escalate in order to launch a military scenario.”
She also added: “Of course, Belgrade is also at the forefront of the attack, which the West wants to additionally “neutralize” with Kosovo Albanian hands.”
It appears that this time, the West was more assertive and successfully thwarted Russia’s attempts to escalate the crisis. Following consultation with the Kosovo government and advice from the heads of the European Union, NATO, and the US embassy, the Kosovar government decided to act rationally and take the first step toward defusing tensions. Following the announcement by the government that a new order on vehicle license plates would be delayed, the barricades were taken down and the roads were reopened for people and goods. On the other hand, the president of Serbia expressed his optimism that these issues will be resolved peacefully through dialogue. Last but not least, it is important to emphasize that he expressed gratitude to everyone who helped Serbia. In particular, he thanked the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives, who, in his words, “reacted in a very correct way.”
Despite the fact that tensions have been somewhat subsided, further provocative statements from Russia and some problematic scenarios within Kosovo and from Serbia remain possible, and as a result, the situation remains turbulent and requires close monitoring.