Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo are making headlines again. The epicenter of the conflict between the Serb minority and the Albanian majority is the north of the Republic of Kosovo.
What’s the latest development?
On Monday, December 26, 2022, the Serbian army stationed howitzers for a short time in a place that is only two kilometers from the Kosovan border. After a photo shoot and dramatic reporting in pro-government media in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, the weapons disappeared back into the barracks.
To the The situation at the border deteriorated again after eyewitnesses and KFOR reported shots near a barricade that Kosovar Serbs had erected in the past few weeks. It is still unclear who fired and whether it was “only” warning shots or an exchange of fire.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti called on the NATO protection force KFOR to to remove Serbian road blockades. “If KFOR is not able to remove the barricades, or does not do it for reasons unknown to me, then we have to do it,” Kurti said in an interview with the Bosnian website istraga.ba on December 27, 2022.
Why is it called North Kosovo?
It is about the area north of the Ibar River in Kosovo. The four communes are almost exclusively inhabited by Serbs who do not accept Kosovo’s statehood. They maintain close ties to Serbia, but have ten guaranteed seats in the Kosovan parliament and two ministers in the government. The Kosovan government in Pristina has never had full control of the north of the country since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999.
This location makes the north, where around 60,000 people live, an almost lawless zone, an Eldorado for criminals and smugglers. Without exception, the leading Serbian politicians there are loyal allies of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
Kosovo’s Serbs harbor deep-rooted distrust of the government in Pristina. This is reinforced above all by the fact that special units of the Kosovar police are regularly sent to the north, often under the pretext of fighting crime.
What is the reason for the current barricades?
roadblocks and Barricades are a proven methodin the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia. Organized in chat groups, blockers are able to completely paralyze the north of the country within minutes by blocking roads and border crossings.
background of protests is the arrest of former Kosovo police officers of Serb nationality. The Kosovan public prosecutor accuses one of thema bomb attack on the premises of the Electoral Commission iin the Serbian-dominated north of the city of Mitrovica. In addition to the release of the police officers demand the protesters Serbsthat special units of the Kosovan police are withdrawing from the north of the country.
The Serbs wanted to prevent the local elections in northern Kosovo, which became necessary after all Serb officials left Kosovar institutions in early November. They withdrew from both Parliament and government. The four mayors in the north of the country also resigned. Several hundred Serbian police officers left the Kosovan police force, as did Serbian judges who no longer work in northern Kosovo.
The boycott of the Kosovar institutions was a reaction to Albin Kurti’s plan to ban the number plates issued by the Serbian authorities in Kosovo and to exchange them for Kosovar ones. For Kurti, this is a fundamental question of “reciprocity” because Serbia doesn’t accept Kosovar car license plates, for President Vucic and the Kosovo Serbs it’s preparation for “ethnic cleansing.”
In the meantime, the government in Pristina has postponed both projects – the local elections and the introduction of new license plates – probably under pressure from the EU and above all the USA. Now the West is also demanding that Serbia ease the tension. But it doesn’t look like that at the moment.
Can Serbia really send military?
That is considered unlikely. In the past few years, Vucic had put Serbian troops on “higher readiness” several times and ordered them close to the Kosovan border. middle of December In 2022, the government in Belgrade officially requested that KFOR station Serbian police officers and soldiers on Kosovar territory.
This possibility is envisaged in UN Resolution 1244 of 1999, which applies after Serbia’s de facto capitulation after the Kosovo war and NATO bombing. According to the resolution, Serbia can send “several hundred” security forces back to Kosovo – but only if the international military mission KFOR agrees.
Vucic also says openly that his proposal will probably be rejected. Analysts in Belgrade therefore interpret his demand as pure propaganda. According to his critics, the Serbian president wants to set himself apart as a champion of “Serbism.” But even if Belgrade were to seriously consider the military option, it would probably be hopeless because it would also result in a direct confrontation with the international police and military units stationed in Kosovo.
Is there a solution to the dispute in sight?
Not really, even if the West ultimately exerts more pressure. The positions of the sides are solid: In Belgrade they “never” want to negotiate about the recognition of the “separation contrary to international law”. In Pristina, people reply that the talks with the former “Serbian occupiers” only make sense if they end up being recognized.
To date, 117 countries recognize Kosovo as an independent state, including 22 of the 27 EU members. Without Serbian consent, Kosovo cannot become a UN member, since two Serbian partners, Russia and China, have veto powers in the Security Council.
Now a Franco-German initiative is supposed to get things moving. So far, the public has only seen excerpts of the plan leaked to the press. But even insiders confirm that the German-German basic treaty of 1972 (between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic) should serve as a basis: Serbia does not have to explicitly recognize Kosovo, but should accept the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the former southern province and its membership do not actively block in all international organizations.
An “EU perspective” should serve as a carrot for both countries. However, an EU expansion in the Western Balkans has so far been in the stars. Serbia is officially an EU candidate country, but negotiations are sluggish. Kosovo does not even have candidate status, but wants to apply for it in 2022.
How is the war in Ukraine affecting the opponents?
There have been fears since February that Russia could use its close ties with Serbia to open a “side front” in the Balkans. Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti is also playing this card: Similar to Russia, people in Serbia are dreaming of re-establishing a “Serbian world” in the region. Serbian President Vucic counters with the remark that Kurti is behaving like “little Zelenskyy”.
Vucic clearly has worse cards. To the annoyance of the EU, Serbia has not joined the sanctions against Russia. According to surveys, more than 80 percent of Serbs reject such sanctions against a “fraternal state.” Serbia is dependent not only on Russian gas, but also on Russian support on the Kosovo issue.
On the other hand, the Serbian economy is completely west-oriented. German companies alone secure around 75,000 jobs in Serbia.
Western politicians, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, appear determined to curb Russian influence in the Balkans. There are already rumors – and Kurti says it quite frankly: a “comprehensive normalization agreement” between Serbia and Kosovo is expected in the spring of 2023. As things stand at present, that sounds overly optimistic.
This post first appeared on December 14th, 2022 and was updated on December 27th, 2022 updated.