Hotting Up a Frozen Conflict: Kosovo-Serbia’s Disputes continue arising

Although the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia is considered a frozen conflict, from time to time it heats up, which is dangerous. As of lately, the situation between Serbia and Kosovo has worsened due to Kosovo’s government deciding to apply the agreement achieved in Brussels regarding the license plates, making the obtention of a temporary license plate compulsory for those vehicles with Serbian plates entering Kosovo. Although the situation has been sorted out with the mediation of the EU, new tensions arise after a while due to a Kosovar police anti-smuggling operation in the North of Kosovo.

These situations certainly show that the relations between Serbia and Kosovo need to be resolved in the short and medium-term to avoid a more direct confrontation, respecting both countries what was they already agreed upon. However, it is still unsure if the EU can be of any help in the future to reach a final solution, as it has been unable to bring visible improvements in the relationship and reconciliation between both countries.

KOSOVO SEES RECIPROCITY, SERBIA SEES AN ATTACK

The last crisis between Kosovo and Serbia started on September 20th, when Kosovar Primer Minister Albin Kurti’s government announced the decision to enforce the 2016 license plate agreement with Serbia. This agreement implied that “any vehicle with Serbian plates or now-defunct UN-issued plates would have to be replaced with temporary ones issued by Kosovo”, which “cost five euros and are valid for 60 days” (Brezar, 2021). However, although this decision could have been seen just as an administrative one, Serbs from Kosovo did not consider it as such and they initiated protests against Prishtinas’s new mandate, blocking the border crossing at Jarinje and Brnjak in the north of Kosovo (Bami, 2021). This area is populated by Kosovar Serbs who reject the independence of the region from Serbia and thus the authority of the Albanian-led government in Prishtina (Assenova, 2021) and consider that they are still living in Serbian land.

However, the backlash against this decision did not stop there and some Serbs from Kosovo also attacked government offices on September 23rd, burning down one of the mobile registration centers in Zubin Potok and throwing two grenades into another registration vehicle in Zvecan, both without casualties since the grenades did not explode (Amstrong, 2021). After these incidents, the Kosovar Prime Minister blamed the Serbian government, for trying to “provoke a serious international conflict” (Aljazeera, 2021).

Meanwhile, the Serbian government reacted against this decision, although they have been forcing drivers from Kosovo to purchase temporary plates when crossing over into their country for years. Moreover, they were also enraged because of the special units sent to the north (Brezar, 2021). Against this backdrop, Serbia’s President Vučić, who promotes himself as “the protector of Kosovo Serbs” (Brezar, 2021) mobilized troops close to the border with its former province and military jets began flying close to this area (Assenova, 2021). Finally, to show the power and support of great power in this context, Serbian Defense Minister, Nebojša Stefanović, who assured that “the army is ready to defend its people” (B92, 2021), visited a Serbian army base 12 kilometers far from the Jarinje crossing accompanied by the Russian Ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Harchenko (Brezar, 2021).

This movement has been seen by some commentators as a clash between the Serbian President and the Minister, in a tug of war between being closer to the West or to Russia (Vuksanovic’s Twitter, 2021). On his side, the Serbian Minister for Internal Affairs attacked Kurti, accusing him of being a coward and blaming him and all those who support Kurti for being guilty of what is happening in Kosovo (Sputnik, 2021). He also said that Kurti knows that he could not expel Serbs by force or repeat the crimes (of the Kosovo Liberation Army) with impunity (Beta, 2021).

Not only was this movement a challenge against Kosovo’s government, but also against NATO. The Kumanovo Agreement defined a 5-kilometer land and 25-kilometer air safety zone to serve as a “no fire line” (Brezar, 2021), which means that Serbian police forces or military are restricted from entering into Kosovo land, being allowed to do it only with an invitation or after an agreement with NATO peacekeepers (KFOR). Nevertheless, on September 26th, Vučić assured NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, that Serbian forces would not enter Kosovo to avoid further escalation of the situation, even though the Serbian President warned that Serbia was going to wait 24 hours for NATO’s reaction in case of a “pogrom” against Serbs in Kosovo (Dimitrievska, 2021). On that same day, Stoltenberg and NATO responded to these statements with a tweet asking both parties to refrain from the escalation and seek a political solution.

Despite negative prospects, on September 30th, Kosovo and Serbia reached a temporary agreement in Brussels with the mediation of the European Union. This agreement satisfied Serbian President Vučić while Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti said: “Now begins the era when Serbia is starting to get used to reciprocity” (RFE, 2021).

According to the agreement posted by the European Union Envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, there are three main points in the arrangement (Lajcak’s Twitter, 2021):

  • The special police units currently deployed at Jarinje and Brnjak CCPs will be removed simultaneously with the roadblocks starting on 2 October 2021 at 8h00 and finishing no later than 16h00. KFOR will deploy at Jarinje and Brnjak CCPs before the beginning of the simultaneous removal and will remain for approximately two weeks to maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement.
  • As of 4 October 2021 at 8h00, the sticker regime as agreed in the framework of the EU- facilitated Dialogue will be applied as a temporary measure until a permanent solution is agreed.
  • A Working Group consisting of the representatives of the EU, Belgrade and Pristina parties, and chaired by the EU will be established to find a permanent solution to the license plate issue based on EU standards and practices. The first meeting of the Working Group will be held on 21 October 2021 in Brussels. Within six months from its first meeting, the Working Group will present its findings on a permanent solution to the high-level format of the Dialogue.

These measures have been agreed upon by Kosovo and Serbia for the next six months until a permanent solution is found (Exit.al, 2021). Meanwhile, several international representatives, as European Commission President, Ursula Von der Leyen or the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Gabriel Escobar, applauded the agreement while they underline the necessity of moving forward with the agenda and continuing the dialogue to find a defensive solution to this and other disputes.

WHY DID KOSOVO TAKE THIS DECISION NOW?

It is important to consider the change in Kosovo’s government actions. Since regaining his position of Prime Minister in March 2021, Albin Kurti, of the Self-Determination Party (Vetëvendosje in Albanian), has shown a more belligerent face and has been willing to reassert his country’s independence. Despite this, at the same time, he has been willing to negotiate and reach agreements with Serbia, for example by lifting tariffs on Serbian products (Prishtina Insight, 2020), as he is aware that the support that Kosovo receives from the US and the EU is partially conditional on the progress of the negotiations between the two states that will lead to mutual recognition.

At the same time, the regional context is not entirely favorable for Kosovo. Its ally par excellence, Albania, plays a dual role due to the foreign policy of its Prime Minister, Edi Rama. On the one hand, Rama maintains a message of full support for Kosovo’s independence and the actions it takes to demonstrate its position and independence vis-à-vis Serbia. Thus, the Albanian PM supported the reciprocal measures although at the same time the Prime Minister asked “both countries to engage in a dialogue over the dispute, and called on the EU to broker the talks” (Euronews, 2021). However, at the same time, Rama has supported, together with Serbian President Vučić and the Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, the establishment of the Mini Schengen, now known as Open Balkan. This project, which copies the freedoms of the European Schengen project, has been rejected by Kosovo, which Kurti considers “visionless for the region” (Exit.al, 2021). Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not part of it either, because the former does not want to take part in any project that could be dominated by Serbia as they already have a problem dealing with its support to PM of Srpska Republic Dodik. Meanwhile, Montenegro does not want to seem to detour from its EU path (Đorđević, 2021). Rama has consistently rejected these insinuations and repeatedly invited Kosovo to join (Exit, 2021). Despite this, the tense relations between Kurti and Rama are unmistakable, especially due to the growing understanding between the Albanian PM and Vučić (TiranaPost, 2021)

SERBIA FEELS STRONG, SO REACTS STRONG

On the Serbian side, its international position due to COVID-19 has been strengthened. Serbia and its President Vučić have sought to keep its diplomatic options open. While continuing its EU integration process and working, albeit slowly, Serbia has continued to cultivate and maintain its good relations with Russia, despite the EU’s reluctance. Russia is seen as an international protector of Serbia, especially on the issue of Kosovo’s independence, from which it receives constant international support. However, as in the case of Kosovo, equidistance played against EU interests, asking Vučić to “those who talk every day about appeals to both sides: ‘What has Serbia done unilaterally, how have we attacked them, how have we threatened them, what is it that we have done against them?” (Tintor & Trkanjec, 2021). Moreover, he considered the license-plate decision as “criminal” while Top Kosovo Serb official Goran Rakic defined it as a “direct threat against Serbs living in Kosovo” (AP, 2021).

Serbia has continued to build good relations with China, which also does not recognize Kosovo. Despite this, China has no interest in being harmed by regional wheeling and dealing in this regard (Vuksanovic, 2021). Therefore, despite not recognizing Kosovo, it continues to do business with the country and does not make any statements on the issue beyond recalling UN Resolution 1244. In this case, Serbia does not find in China a friend in the Kosovo question but a business partner that sees the country as a spearhead to introduce its products and business in the region and in the medium term even in the EU (Vuksanovic, 2021).

With the arrival of COVID, Serbia has even donated vaccines looking for new countries to withdraw their Kosovo’s recognition (Vuksanovik, 2021). Besides, it made agreements with the UAE to produce Chinese vaccines (Xinhua, 2021) to keep working in this policy. In addition, on October 10th, Serbia hosted the 60th Anniversary Meeting of the Non-Aligned Countries. In the current international context, including the defeat of NATO in Afghanistan and the similarities that some people in Serbia have been trying to draw with the role of KFOR in Kosovo (Malagurski’s Twitter, 2021), Serbia and its President feel strong enough to play a little harder against Kosovo, although without crossing certain lines. However, the danger of walking on the edge is that if a misunderstanding arises or something goes wrong, the consequences can be dire.

WITHOUT MUTUAL RECOGNITION, PROBLEMS KEEP ARISING

However, only 10 days after reaching this temporary agreement, tensions between the two countries increased again due to measures taken by Kosovo. In this case, police clashed with Kosovar Serbs during an anti-smuggling operation carried out in the divided city of Mitrovica, in the north of the country. Kosovo Serbs threw explosives and attacked the police, leaving six policemen wounded. To disperse them, the Kosovar police used tear gas (Isufi, Stojanovic and Bami, 2021).

However, the situation could have been worse, as one protester was injured when shot by a policeman. The injured was taken to a hospital in the city. Meanwhile, police announced that the operation had been carried out in several Kosovo cities, including Prishtina, Peja/Pec, and South and North Mitrovica. Among the detainees are 6 Kosovars of Albanian origin, one of Bosnian origin, and one Serb.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti stated that “We will fight and prevent smuggling… Today’s operation is over. I call on citizens of Mitrovica North to not fall prey to some Serbian media, which defend crime, corruption, and smuggling and want to politicize and ethnicize it” (Isufi, Stojanovic and Bami, 2021).

For his part, Serbia’s Kosovo Office head Petar Petkovic confirmed that a Kosovo Serb had been wounded. Petkovic went on to say that “Now, the first drop of Serbian blood has fallen in Kosovo and Metohija, and we warned that this must not happen,” and accusing the Kosovo government of creating tensions to generate a new reality (Isufi, Stojanovic and Bami, 2021). Meanwhile, Serbia President Vučić met with Kosovo Serb representatives in southern Serbia. The Serbia Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, also wanted to condemn the situation, stating that a clear reaction to Prishtina’s crazy policies was necessary (Isufi, Stojanovic and Bami, 2021).

However, the most painful and polemic statements for Kosovo came from the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, who said on Twitter that “The violent incidents in the north of Kosovo need to stop immediately. Unilateral and uncoordinated actions that endanger stability are unacceptable. All open issues must be addressed through the EU-facilitated Dialogue” (RFE 2021). This statement made by Borrell was criticized by the Government of Kosovo. Luan Dalipi, Chief of Staff in the Office of Prime Minister of Kosovo, said through Twitter that “No one, and especially no high-level EU official, should try to make this a political or ethnic problem, and bilateral coordination is not relevant in this case, because stopping crime and illegal trading is a typical competency of a sovereign country,” Dalipi wrote on Twitter” (Gazeta Express, 2021)

Within hours, the High Representative’s opinion seemed to change in what has been taken as a wake-up call from the US. In a joint statement by the two international powers, signed by Borrel and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the American view on the Kosovo police operation prevailed, indicating their support for the fight against corruption and organized crime in Kosovo as well as their condemnation of violence against civilians, journalists, police or other authorities (Gazeta Express, 2021)

Again, the EU’s voice and actions for Kosovo and the region appear erratic and equidistant. Despite being involved in the Kosovar independence process and the situation in the Balkans since the 1990s (RFE, 2021), the EU’s political capabilities in the matter remain in question. The process of international recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, supported by most of the EU countries —except for 5 states— remains stagnant as well, even with certain steps taken backwards such as the withdrawal of recognition of the country by small but voting states in the UN or the failed membership of Kosovo in Interpol, among others. Moreover, not even the European countries that recognize Kosovo are convinced to move forward with the integration of the small country into the European structures. Visa liberalization, a long-standing European promise to the Kosovars, is still on hold, being the only country in the region without such an agreement. Therefore, in this situation of frozen processes, a great risk of disaffection on part of the Kosovar population towards the EU exists, viewing just the US as a real ally and supporter, as it seems to have happened on this occasion.

Besides, according to Vjosa Musliu, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Vrije Universiteit Brussels, the EU has not understood the new dynamics between both countries, after the election of Kurti as PM in Kosovo and his lack of understanding with Vučić. For Musliu, the negotiations between both countries with the mediation of the EU are technical meetings with little possibility of improving the lives of ordinary citizens (Brezar, 2021). Therefore, real negotiations pursuing reconciliation and normalization have not taken place due to the lack of interest of the three parties, which is the only way to put an end to the emergence of dangerous situations that in most cases occur in the absence of normalized relations between the two countries.

CONCLUSIONS

In short, what happened between Kosovo and Serbia with the license plates and the police raided in Northern Kosovo is just another sign that the situation between the two countries needs to be resolved. Thousands of situations and decisions can lead to new clashes, putting into danger also the Albanian populations in Serbia and Serbs in Kosovo. However, it is not clear that Kosovo has the strength to force progress in the negotiations nor that Serbian politicians want to cope with the possible signing of a definitive recognition agreement on Kosovo’s independence. At the same time, the EU has lost hope and interest in the conflict and perhaps even in the region, at times showing that they do not fully understand what is going on there.

Unfortunately, situations like this one will repeat and it is not possible to foresee the outcome. Serbia feels strong with the Russian support at the international level as well as with the strengthening of relations with China. At the same time, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti is willing to negotiate but always maintains Kosovo as an independent country that deserves to be respected, both politically and diplomatically, through the signed agreements and their observance.

Kosovo recently announced anti-dumping measures on Serbian products in what they have considered a “right of Kosovo as a sovereign country” (Dimitrievska, 2021). Depending on how the situation progresses, we will be able to see how the situation between the two countries and the EU’s role in it all develops.

Bibliography 

Photo from Kosovo Police, retrieved from https://balkaninsight.com/2021/10/04/kosovo-serbia-license-plates-sticker-regime-comes-into-force/

Al Jazeera. (2021). “Kosovo gov’t offices targeted as tensions soar with Serbia.” Aljazeera.com, accessed on October 14, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/25/govt-offices-in-kosovo-targeted-as-tensions-soar-with-serbia.

Amstrong, Mark. (2021). “Kosovo government offices attacked over license plates row with Serbia.” Euronews, accessed on October 13, 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/09/26/kosovo-government-offices-set-on-fire-over-license-plates-row-with-serbia.

AP. (2021). “Tensions as Kosovo begins removing Serbian licence plates at border.” Euronews, accessed on October 20, 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/09/20/tensions-as-kosovo-begins-removing-serbian-licence-plates-at-border

Assenova, Margarita. (2021). “Is Serbia Preparing to Annex Kosovo’s North?” Jamestown, accessed on October 11, 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/is-serbia-preparing-to-annex-kosovos-north/.

b92. (2021). “Serbian Defense Minister: The army is ready.” B92,  accessed on October 21, 2021, https://www.b92.net/eng/news/politics.php?yyyy=2021&mm=09&dd=28&nav_id=111833

Bami, Xhorxhina. (2021). “Kosovo-Serbia License Plates ‘Sticker Regime’ Comes Into Force.” Balkan Insight, accessed on October 12, 2021, https://balkaninsight.com/2021/10/04/kosovo-serbia-license-plates-sticker-regime-comes-into-force/.

Beta. (2021). “Vulin: Dok Srbiju vodi Vučić, Kosovo neće biti država.” N1, accessed on October 20, 2021, from https://rs.n1info.com/vesti/vulin-dok-srbiju-vodi-vucic-kosovo-nece-biti-drzava/

Brezar, Aleksandar. (2021). “Kosovo-Serbia: Can the EU really broker a peace deal?” Euronews, accessed on October 9, 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/09/30/kosovo-serbia-can-the-eu-really-broker-a-peace-deal.

Dimitrievska, Valentina. (2021). “Nato troops step up presence on Kosovo-Serbian border.” Intellinews.com, accessed on October 10, 2021, https://www.intellinews.com/nato-troops-steps-up-presence-on-kosovo-serbian-border-221905/.

Đorđević, Nikola. (2021). “Can the Open Balkans project succeed without half of the region?” Emerging Europe, accessed on October 20, 2021, https://emerging-europe.com/news/can-the-open-balkans-project-succeed-without-half-of-the-region/

Euronews Albania. (2021). “PM Rama speaks on Kosovo’s row with Serbia over license plates.” Euronews Albania, accessed on October 11, 2021, https://euronews.al/en/albania/2021/09/21/pm-rama-speaks-on-kosovos-row-with-serbia-over-license-plates/.

Euronews. (2021). “NATO-led mission at Kosovo-Serbia border after deal to ease tensions.” Euronews, accessed on October 8, 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/03/nato-led-mission-at-kosovo-serbia-border-after-deal-to-ease-tensions.

Exit.al. (2021). “Kosovo Dismisses ‘Visionless Mini Schengen’, Urges for Trade Deal with the EU.” Exit – Explaining Albania, accessed on October 7, 2021, https://exit.al/en/2021/07/29/kosovo-dismisses-visionless-mini-schengen-urges-for-trade-deal-with-the-eu/.

Exit.al. (2021). “NATO’s Stoltenberg Calls for De-Escalation in Kosovo-Serbia Border.” Exit – Explaining Albania, accessed on October 8, 2021, https://exit.al/en/2021/09/26/natos-stoltenberg-calls-for-de-escalation-in-kosovo-serbia-border/.

Exit.al. (2021). “Rama Links Kosovo’s Membership in ‘Open Balkan’ to Its ‘Dedication to Peace’. Exit – Explaining Albania, accessed on October 9, 2021, https://exit.al/en/2021/09/18/rama-links-kosovos-membership-in-open-balkan-to-its-dedication-to-peace/.

Gazeta Express. (2021). “EU’s Borrell agrees with the US position on recent Kosovo Police action in the north.” Gazeta Express, accessed on October 21, 2021, https://www.gazetaexpress.com/eus-borrell-agrees-with-the-us-position-on-recent-kosovo-police-action-in-the-north/

Isufi, Perparim, Stojanovic, Milica, & Bami, Xhorxhina. (2021). “Kosovo Police Clash With Serbs in Anti-Smuggling Crackdown”. Balkan Insight, accessed on October 20, 2021, https://balkaninsight.com/2021/10/13/kosovo-police-clash-with-serbs-in-anti-smuggling-crackdown/

Lajčák, Miroslav [@MiroslavLajcak] (2021, September, 30) We have a deal! After two days of intense negotiations, an agreement on de-escalation and the way forward has just been reached. I thank Besnik Bislimi and Petar Petkovic for their readiness to negotiate and agree for the good of the people. Twitter, https://twitter.com/MiroslavLajcak/status/1443522359462354947?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1443522359462354947%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.evropaelire.org%2Fa%2Fkosova-dhe-serbia-arrijne-marreveshje-ne-bruksel%2F31485729.html

Malagurski, Boris. [@malagurski]. (2021, August 21). Is #Kosovo next? Twitter. https://mobile.twitter.com/malagurski/status/1426876915898531844

Photo from Kosovo Police, retrieved from https://balkaninsight.com/2021/10/04/kosovo-serbia-license-plates-sticker-regime-comes-into-force/

Prishtina Insight. (2020). “Kosovo govt to remove part of customs tariff with Serbia”. Prishtina Insight, accessed on October 16, 2021, https://prishtinainsight.com/kosovo-govt-to-remove-part-of-customs-tariff-with-serbia/.

RFE. (2021). “Kosovar Serbs Clash With Police Amid Crackdown On Smuggling” Radio Free Europe, accessed on October 20, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-serbia-smuggling-raids/31507280.html

Sputnik. (2021). “El ministro del Interior serbio culpa al primer ministro Kurti de los disturbios en Kosovo.” Sputnik Mundo, accessed on October 21, 2021, https://mundo.sputniknews.com/20211014/el-ministro-del-interior-serbio-culpa-al-primer-ministro-kurti-de-los-disturbios-en-kosovo-1117109404.html

The Economist. (2021) “Serbia is outpacing nearly every country in the EU at vaccination.” The Economist, accessed on October 18, 2021, https://www.economist.com/europe/2021/04/03/serbia-is-outpacing-nearly-every-country-in-the-eu-at-vaccination

Tintor, Vladimir, & Trkanjec, Zeliko. (2021). “Vučić urges EU to confirm whether Brussels Agreement with Pristina still stands.” Euractiv, accessed on October 20, 2021, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/vucic-urges-eu-to-confirm-whether-brussels-agreement-with-pristina-still-stands/

Tirana Post. (2021). “Is Edi Rama trying to calm down the relationship with Albin Kurti ?! It is not very clear.” Tiranapost.al, accessed on October 9, 2021, https://tiranapost.al/english/rajoni/a-po-perpiqet-edi-rama-ta-qetesoje-raportin-me-albin-kurtin-nuk-eshte-shu-i502781.

Vuksanovic, Vuk. (2021). “Kosovo: the goal of Serbia’s global ‘vaccine diplomacy’.” EUobserver, accessed on October 11 2021, https://euobserver.com/opinion/152849.

Vuksanovic, Vuk. [@v_vuksanovic]. (2021, September, 26) This is also a power struggle between the Serbian President and the Serbian Defence Minister. The latter makes his own contacts with 🇷🇺 and the West to embarrass the former. Too close to the West = embarrassed domestically, too close to 🇷🇺 = embarrassed with the West. Twitter, https://twitter.com/v_vuksanovic/status/1442207438636265472

Vuksanovik, Vuk. (2021). “The Dragon Lands in Belgrade: The Drivers of Sino-Serbian Partnership.” Medium LSE Ideas, accessed on October 12, 2021, https://lseideas.medium.com/the-dragon-lands-in-belgrade-the-drivers-of-sino-serbian-partnership-1fe94503f94.

Xinhua (2021) “First Chinese COVID-19 vaccine plant in Europe starts construction.” English.scio.gov.cn, accessed on October 13, 2021, http://english.scio.gov.cn/internationalexchanges/2021-09/10/content_77744721.htm.

Written by Óscar Méndez Pérez

158