Looming ethnic tensions in Kosovo: Is a showdown inevitable?

8 min read
20 September, 2022
Analysis: Pristina is pushing ahead with obliging ethnic Serbs to use government-issued car licence plates, leading to fears of a new wave of ethnic tensions as an October deadline nears.

Ethnic tensions flared in northern Kosovo in late July after a decision by authorities to replace Serbian licence plates with Kosovan ones and replace IDs with provisional identity cards in majority ethnic Serb areas.

Serbs angrily responded by setting up border roadblocks and firing shots at police, triggering a war of words between Serbian and Kosovan Albanian officials. Pristina accused Belgrade of instigating the riots, while Serbian officials said Kosovo was planning a "pogrom" of its Serb minority.

Ethnically motivated incidents in Kosovo have regularly occurred for more than three decades.

Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo as a state after it declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The decision is still a source of disagreement between Serbia and Western powers, which openly supported Kosovo’s secession.

Kosovo is recognised by about 100 states, including the United States and most EU countries, while Serbia and its powerful allies China and Russia refuse to acknowledge its independence.

"Ethnic tensions flared in northern Kosovo in late July after a decision by authorities to replace Serbian licence plates with Kosovan ones and replace IDs with provisional identity cards in majority ethnic Serb areas"

Kosovo’s secession from Serbia came as a result of ethnic tensions between the Albanian majority in Kosovo and Serbian authorities, which ruled the autonomous region with an iron fist.

Tensions led to an insurgency in 1998-99 as ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbian rule, prompting a brutal crackdown and ethnic cleansing. In 1999, NATO launched military action to force Serbian forces to withdraw.

During the war, nearly one million Albanians were forced to leave the province, and after the arrival of NATO troops, more than 280,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians also fled.

More than 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, were killed during the conflict. Today, around 5% of Kosovo's 1.8 million people are ethnic Serbs.

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Fears of a new conflict

The issuing of new IDs was settled in late August after an EU-facilitated dialogue. Serbia agreed to abolish entry/exit documents for Kosovo ID holders and Kosovo agreed to not introduce them for Serbian ID holders.

However, it is still uncertain how the disputed decision on license plates will be implemented and whether it will lead to an escalation in tensions. Under apparent international pressure, Kosovo’s government agreed to give Kosovo Serbs time until 31 October to exchange their current licence plates for Kosovo-issued plates, marked RKS (Republic of Kosovo).

The situation is likely to worsen especially “if the Kosovo government, with the help of a robust police force, try to nationalise thousands of cars with Serbian plates from the Kosovo Serbs,” Maja Bjeloš, a Senior Researcher from Belgrade’s Center for Security Policy, told The New Arab.

She also does not expect NATO troops to intervene to prevent Kosovo’s special police forces from carrying out the government’s orders, although NATO has signalled that it is ready to intervene if tensions escalate.

The recent tensions “have been orchestrated by Serbia, in order to shore up domestic support and to position Serbia’s President Vucic towards Western partners,” Florian Bieber, Professor of Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz, told The New Arab.

Members of Kosovo Force (KFOR) take measures at a checkpoint in Mitrovica, Kosovo on 1 August. [Getty]

“If tensions emerge at the end of October, it is very much because Vucic has an interest in raising the tensions, and that depends on a domestic agenda and how he sees relations with NATO and the EU at that time”.

Nevertheless, the likelihood that Serbia would actually intervene in order to prevent a Serb 'pogrom' - a term frequently used by Vucic - is extremely small, as it would cause a conflict with NATO, according to Dr Marina Vulović, a post-doctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki.

Despite strong anti-NATO sentiments among the vast majority of Serbs, Serbia relies on NATO to safeguard Serbs in Kosovo and has good political and military cooperation with the KFOR (the Kosovo Force under NATO command).

"Vucic’s statements are only designed for a domestic audience and serve to save face and present the deal on license plates as a 'diplomatic victory for Belgrade', stating that 'for the first time, America sided with Serbia' and 'restrained Kurti' (headlines of Serbian tabloids)," said Bjeloš.

On the other hand, Vucic is also very much aware of the limited options at his disposal due to a heavy NATO presence in Kosovo.  “What he can do is to create obstruction in the north and de facto reduce the effectiveness of Kosovo’s government in that area,” Bieber told The New Arab.  

"If tensions emerge at the end of October, it is very much because [Serbia's president] Vucic has an interest in raising them"

It is also in his interest not to let the situation escalate too far as he also has other interests with Western partners which he may not want to jeopardise.

Until the Kosovo dispute is fully resolved, Bjeloš thinks that “Belgrade officials will continue to limit or sacrifice some constitutional rights and freedoms at home to hide defeat or withdrawal from Kosovo”.

But the issue of license plates is just the tip of the iceberg. It is evident that the current approach/dialogue facilitated by the EU, mostly through the Brussels Agreements of 2013, has delivered very limited results, and has not been able to ease tensions.

Moreover, the agreements, including the most significant deal adopted so far that could lead to the creation of an association of Serbian municipalities that would give Kosovar Serbs greater autonomy, seem as elusive as ever.

Neither of the parties involved has been interested in full compliance with the agreements, apart from declaratory statements. Kosovo Albanians, on the other hand, perceive any such solution as a potential ‘Trojan horse’, mindful of the case of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

According to Vulović, the Association/Community of Serb Municipalities will likely be addressed last in the dialogue (and probably as part of the final agreement), as otherwise Serbia would have little incentive to engage further and this is Kosovo’s main leverage.

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Will Serbia ever recognise Kosovo?

Following the latest events, a disclaimer on the administrative border between Kosovo and Serbia stresses that the recognition of Kosovo IDs in no way implies recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Repeated tensions suggest that any so-called normalisation process advocated by the EU and the US which aims to establish a functional relationship between Belgrade and Pristina leading to mutual recognition between the two states is simply a bridge too far under the current circumstances.

Mutual recognition would be the desirable outcome for the West, as such an arrangement would ensure that Serbia does not block Kosovo’s EU accession if it joins the EU before Kosovo does, and vice versa.

Vulović says that there are also creative solutions floating around, like the so-called model of two Germanys, where Serbia would recognise everything short of formal recognition (which would also appease the five EU member states who have not recognised Kosovo). But how this would look in practice is an entirely different question.

According to Bieber, it is very clear that the current process of so-called normalisation/dialogue is not delivering any results, partly because the incremental approach was useful in the early phases of the negotiations to establish the first form of communication between the two parties, but later become completely redundant.

Kosovo Serbs walk next to a mural reading 'Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia' in the Serb majority north of Mitrovica, on 26 August 2022. [Getty]

He thinks that the final outcome will require an acceptance of Kosovo’s independence through a deal, rather than a gradualist approach. However, this is not realistic as President Vucic and Serbia have ruled out any possibility of recognising the independence of Kosovo and there are very limited incentives that can be offered to either side to make it work.

According to Bjeloš, mutual recognition is just a euphemism, as the “only recognition that is expected is that Serbia recognises Kosovo’s independence - but this is like waiting for Godot”.

She further explained that there is “no normalisation nor functional relationship between Belgrade and Pristina,” as the so-called normalisation process stopped when Vucic and former Kosovo President Hashim Tachi (who resigned in 2020 to face a war crimes tribunal) decided to reset the dialogue and return to status quo issues by discussing redrawing borders along ethnic lines.

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s main focus is Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo's independence, lobbying for membership in international organisations, and recognition by the five EU countries that have so far failed to recognise Kosovo (Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and Slovakia). On the other hand, Vucic is more interested in controlled instability in Kosovo.

"In the end, it is a waiting game for Belgrade, which cannot offer anything to change political dynamics beyond holding on to the illusion that Kosovo is part of Serbia"

The repeated tensions have led many analysts to highlight the limitations of the EU and the West, which seem to have long lost their sense of direction for a solution, offering no incentives or tangible promises to any of the Western Balkan states, especially when it comes to exact dates and full membership of the EU.

“The EU has never made Western Balkan stability, security, and rights of self-determination for its component peoples a high priority,” Richard Falk, a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, told The New Arab.

He added: “The Kosovo Exception was motivated by other political considerations than the wellbeing and wishes of the Kosovars, and these include establishing the viability of NATO after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the liberal sense of guilt associated with the failure to react effectively to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 thereby betraying the European ‘never again’ pledge made subsequent to the Holocaust, and general hostility to Serbia and its former leader (Slobodan Milošević).”

Despite Serbia investing in a derecognition campaign, and claiming that seven unnamed countries have withdrawn their recognition of Kosovo's independence, it is unlikely to impact key Western partners of Kosovo, a de facto fully functioning state.

Furthermore, Serbia has never offered any suggestions on how the reintegration of Kosovo would work, with anything beyond the current status quo unrealistic.

In the end, it is a waiting game for Belgrade, which cannot offer anything to change political dynamics beyond holding on to the illusion that Kosovo is part of Serbia.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence.