Serbia-Kosovo Relations: From a License Plate Dispute to an Open Conflict?

A dispute over national license plate recognition between Serbia and Kosovo has escalated into a troubling situation involving border protests and military presence. Kosovo-Serbia tensions are not unprecedented. Both nations diverge in their views on Kosovo’s status as a country. This disagreement fulminated in the Kosovo War of the late 1990s and Kosovo’s independence in 2008. The sudden elevation of this recent dispute prompts the question of whether this will turn into a regional conflict or if there will be room for dialogue in the coming weeks.

On September 9, Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi explained that Kosovo would “not renew a decade-old agreement with Serbia about car license plates starting from September 15,” Balkan Insight reports. According to the document, “vehicles with KS [Kosovo] number plates may freely enter Serbia while those with RKS plates have to change them at the border and receive a provisional paper issued by the Serbian side. Vehicles with Serbian number plates enter Kosovo freely, without extra procedures.” This meant that Kosovo had to accept two types of license plates, “one for its own needs and one according to the preferences of the Serbian side”, as explained by Bislimi. Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have strongly disagreed with these decisions, and they have frequently protested along the border since mid-September. These protests have included the blocking of “two crossings in the north of Kosovo, at Jarinje and Brnjak, as well as roads leading to them,” RFE/RL reports.

Furthermore, not only do Serbian authorities “[insist] on the removal of Kosovar license plates that cross their mutual border,” but they have also “raised the combat readiness of its troops on the border with Kosovo.” This situation prompted the presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Kosovo to issue an official statement on September 24 expressing “concern about the latest developments in the region and also their common goal of maintaining stability as a precondition for the European perspective of all Western Balkan countries,” the statement read.

One noteworthy aspect of the recent dispute is the rapid nature of its escalation. Infrequent and relatively small border protests have evolved into daily demonstrations, military jet activity, and loud vocalization of blame on both sides. Local tensions and fierce nationalism make fertile soil for misinformation and false narratives. For instance, according to Balkan Insight, there is “Serbian-language media in Kosovo [reporting] that three Serb men were beaten by [Kosovo] police in Bernjak/Brnjak.” But, Kosovo police explained that “a report published by Serbian-language website Kosovo Online, was “tendentious and untrue”, and that it was intended “to misinform the public, to present a situation of insecurity for citizens as well as to fulfill various political ambitions oriented from outside [Kosovo].” Misinformation may increase the likelihood of aggression from either side. It may also encourage other actors, state-affiliated or not, to promote more misinformation on social media platforms that would only elevate current chaos. Serbia and Kosovo must refrain from promoting misinformation, given the potential of its rapid proliferation and abuse.

This dispute also comes about one year after the US facilitated the signing of an economic agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. It appeared that things would be going well. However, the recent incidents demonstrate the delicate nature of Serbia-Kosovo relations. To promote collaboration, dialogue, and mutual respect, it is important to continue having discussions on economic cooperation. But, there must also be discussions addressing issues such as the license plate dispute. Instead of each country presenting a zero-sum game, they should be open to dialogue to figure out short-term and long-term solutions that would continue the process of normalizing relations. Despite the difficulty posed by recent events, the first step is for both nations to discourage their populations from violent demonstrations and behaviors along the border.

As a preventative measure, a NATO-backed KFOR peacekeeping force has been deployed to monitor the situation. On the same day, the European Commission spokesperson Dana Spinant urged both sides to “sit down together and to put an end to the verbal escalation in the region.” The current license plate dispute is unlikely to become a regional war akin to those of the 1990s. However, it is still necessary to maintain dialogue, modes of communication, and mediation before the dispute escalates to unresolvable levels.