Tensions Between Kosovo And Serbia Intensify Again

On November 5, members of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority quit their jobs in opposition to the use of new licence plates demanded by Pristina. The Serbs in Kosovo refuse to switch their old licence plates to Kosovar ones. According to Balkan Insight, the Belgrade-backed party Srpska Lista announced that there are mayors, prosecutors, councillors, MPs, and police officers among those who resigned. The change of licence plates became official on November 1, however the enforcement would be gradual, according to Kosovo’s government. Ethnic Serbs will receive warnings until November 21 if they continue to use their old Serbian number plates. Two months of fines will follow, and after April 21 vehicles with Serbian licence plates will be confiscated. The ruling by Pristina has raised divisive concerns about Kosovo’s sovereignty, particularly among the Serb minority, which predominates in the north. Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, advised the minority to be cautious “not to fall prey [to] political manipulations and geo-political games,” encouraging the Serbs not to resign.

In addition, on November 2 Belgrade announced that several drones had entered Serbian territory from Kosovo over the past three days. Kosovo’s authorities refuted the accusation and insisted that these drones do not originate from their country. The Serbian forces were on “higher alert” and were prepared to destroy any drones that entered their airspace. Armend Mehaj, the Minister of Defence of Kosovo, argued that “such discourse is only a pretext for the increase in the number of Serbian troops around the border with the Republic of Kosovo, as a means of spreading a state of panic among the citizens of both states.”

After NATO bombed Kosovo in 1999 to end Belgrade’s ruthless repression of ethnic Albanian separatists, Belgrade lost control over the region. 2008 saw the independence of Kosovo. Although 100 UN member states recognized its sovereignty, Serbia never did. Most Serbs living in Kosovo do not want the country to be independent, and instead want it to remain part of Serbia. They do not acknowledge Pristina’s authority and power over them. The tensions between the two groups have been present ever since 2008. However, the situation escalated more this summer following the refusal of Serbia and Kosovo to accept each other’s identification documents and automobile license plates.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU and the US has stepped up efforts to mediate the tensions due to Belgrade’s close ties with Moscow. Foreign Policy reported that the situation aggravated as police actions from Kosovo’s special operations forces have intensified, as well as attacks on them – including automatic weapons and hand grenades. Additionally, the letter “Z” appears in graffiti in favour of Vladimir Putin’s military operation in Ukraine. The fact that the recent tensions were ignited over licence plates reveals how fragile the situation is. Nevertheless, these number plates carry meaning, especially in Kosovo, where identity significantly matters. For Kosovars, the licence plates serve as an example of the exercise of sovereignty, while Serbs see them as an oppressive assault on their identity. This case threatens the normalization of efforts between the two groups.

The resignations of the Serbs did not provide a solution but further deteriorated the dialogue between the two countries. This dispute is threatening the security environment in the Balkans. Hence, both groups must abstain from unilateral actions that would cause a return to violence. Kosovo’s decision for new licence plates has also weakened its relations with its main allies – Brussels and Washington, as they had asked for a postponement of the implementation. As a result, NATO’s peacekeeping forces have increased patrols to prevent incidents. The dispute demonstrates that normalization between the two sides is impossible in the near future.