Increased NATO Patrols Near Kosovo-Serbia Border

The NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) increased its patrols on the Kosovo-Serbia border this past Monday as tensions escalated over a dispute about license plates. Though a de-escalation deal between the disputing parties was reached on Thursday, the quarrel represents the latest flare-up in the long-simmering tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.

In a short statement, KFOR said that they were “closely monitoring the situation” and that they “have increased the number and time length of the routine patrolling all around Kosovo.” The U.S. embassy in Serbia expressed support for the NATO-backed force, tweeting that American and Canadian officials had visited the border and that they were “glad to note that KFOR was on site as a stabilizing factor.”

At the heart of the dispute is a question of Kosovo’s sovereignty. In 1998, Kosovo, then controlled by Yugoslavia, broke into war when Kosovar separatists attacked Yugoslav authorities. The resulting retribution campaign by Serb forces only ended when NATO airstrikes forced Yugoslavia to withdraw Serb and Yugoslav forces from Kosovo. Kosovo was placed under transitional UN administration until 2008 when Kosovo formally declared independence.

Kosovo’s independence was met with intense international controversy. While the U.S., U.K., and others recognized the declaration as legal, Serbia backed their ally, Russia, and accused Kosovo’s leaders of “high treason” before the International Court of Justice. However, the Court determined that Kosovo had not violated international. Meanwhile, Serbia, along with 50% of U.N member states, still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Because Serbia views Kosovo as an illegitimate state, they have not recognized Kosovar license plates. Kosovo’s visitors were required to purchase temporary plates  for their cars when they crossed the Serbian border. Two weeks ago, Kosovo decided to implement its version of this policy, also requiring Serbs to replace their plates with temporary ones. Minority Serbs in Kosovo were outraged and began blocking the border with trucks and military vehicles. Serbia warned that they would intervene in Kosovo if the Kosovo Serbs came under threat.

A deal was successfully brokered by EU envoy, Miroslav Lajčák, when both countries agreed to place special stickers on license plates, covering up national symbols and allowing free movement of citizens. KFOR will maintain a temporary presence on the border to ensure implementation of this agreement.

This de-escalation deal represents the immense influence that the E.U. holds over affairs between Serbia and Kosovo. This is primarily due to Serbia’s decade-long goal of joining the European Union. Serbia first applied for E.U. membership in 2009, and since then, the E.U has successfully assisted Serbia in improving its educational, legal, and economic systems. In 2013, Serbia ceded to E.U. pressure and entered the Brussels Agreement, which normalized relations with Kosovo. When push comes to shove, Serbia has demonstrated willingness to acknowledge Kosovo in exchange for greater acceptance within the E.U. For this reason, the E.U. must hold firm in its requirement that Serbia formally recognizes an autonomous Kosovo before admission into the European Union.