License Plate Dispute a Reminder of Kosovo-Serbia Tensions

A Monday-effective Kosovo government decision would have mandated that Serbs in Kosovo apply for license plates to replace their Serbians. But ahead of its implementation, protests and gunfire broke out on Sunday evening—pushing Kosovo authorities to delay the measure. The same rule has been in place for Kosovars since Serbia had it.

Since then, the ruckus has subsided with NATO peacekeepers clearing roadblocks that were set up by Serbian protesters. But it’s a reminder of longstanding tensions between the two countries. Kosovo and Serbia fought a bloody war between 1998-1999, which saw Serbian forces under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević commit war crimes against largely Muslim ethnic Albanians who form the majority of Kosovo’s population, drawing international condemnation. The U.S. supported NATO forces launched an air bombing campaign against Serbian targets military between March 1999 and June 1999.

NATO has been leading a Kosovo peacekeeping mission since June 1999. The country is home to approximately 3,700 troops today.

Although Kosovo’s Western-backed government declared its independence in February 2008 and was supported by the West, Serbia is preventing it from joining the U.N.

According to the latest dispute, a solution between these two countries may not be in reach. “We are more than 20 years past the end of the war but are still nowhere near a lasting settlement between Serbia and Kosovo,” says Jacques Rupnik, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris.

The latest flashpoint was triggered in part by a new, emboldened government in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. “Prime Minister Albin Kurti is adamant about restoring sovereignty—not just by declaration but also in fact. This license plate issue is about state sovereignty… he has no problem getting confrontational,” says Rupnik.

“The following hours, days and weeks may be challenging and problematic,” Kurti said in a video address on Sunday.

Kurti said it in an a press release on Sunday that the government promised to delay the implementation of decisions related to car plates and entry-exit documents at border crossing points with Serbia for 30 days as long as “all barricades are removed and complete freedom of movement is restored on all roads in the north of Kosovo.”

About 50,000 ethnic Serbs are located in the northern Kosovo, but they do not recognize Kosovo’s government.

Kurti said the obstruction of roads and gunfire “has everything to do with a tendency to destabilize Kosovo and to threaten the peace and security of our citizens and country,” blaming Belgrade authorities for “multiple aggressive acts.”

NATO’s U.N.’s-mandated peace-keeping force had described the security situation in the northern areas of Kosovo as “tense” in a press release issued on Sunday.

Sciences Po’s Rupnik says that the “summer flare up” is “unpleasant and reveals that the situation remains unsettled but nobody considers this a major risk.” He adds: “Things can get out of hand without either side having planned it but there’s no interest in either side on escalating the conflict.”

But even though neither Kosovo nor Serbia has an interest in a violent escalation, it’s not out of the question for developments to spiral out of control, says Danilo Mandić, associate senior lecturer in Harvard University’s sociology department.

“Both Belgrade and Pristina have engaged in a kind of ethno-nationalist baiting, which means they bait the other side to have these mini incidents, which fall short of full scale violence but are disruptive,” Mandić says. “The trouble is that they’re playing with fire; once you play with fire like this, things get out of hand… and people are on edge.”

“This is a normal continuation of a separatist standoff between the Republic of Serbia and the Kosovo administration,” Mandić adds.

A lasting solution for the Kosovo-Serbia tensions will likely require that it be done through the E.U. Experts say that the E.U. will be involved in a process where it is actively engaged. “In the process of Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, there has been a lack of political spine from transatlantic partners like the E.U. and the U.S.,” says Engjellushe Morina, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

E.U. The E.U. has stated previously that the West Balkans’ future is assured by them. Over the last 10 years, has mediated negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. “Somehow they dropped the ball and if you don’t remain engaged, you leave it to the local politicians who have their own agendas and the nationalist agenda can prevail,” Rupnik says.

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