The trade war that has broken out between Kosovo and Serbia has brought to the surface the simmering political rift that deeply divides the two sides: over the question of Kosovo’s sovereignty.
Last week the Kosovan authorities imposed an embargo on Serbian imports in retaliation for Serbia’s ban on Kosovan products that has been in place since Kosovo’s independence was declared in 2008.
“We will not recognise customs stamps from Serbia and all imports from Serbia will be turned back,” said Lulzim Demolli, Kosovo’s customs chief in Podujeva.
At the heart of the dispute is Kosovo’s sovereignty. Belgrade, which thinks of the territory as its southern province, rejects all imports bearing the symbol of the Kosovo state, as well as travellers coming from Kosovo.
By retaliating in kind, Kosovo is sending out a political, as well as an economic message.
Kosovo’s imports total some 2 billion euros. Just over a tenth – 270 million euros worth – comes from its northern neighbour.
At Kosovo’s Chamber of Commerce there is anger not just at Serbia, but at the European Union for not backing them more strongly.
“The European Commission did nothing in the last 4-5 years when Serbia was blocking Kosovan goods and didn’t implement the CEFTA free trade agreement. They (the European Commission) should have been more active,” said Safet Gergjaliu, head of Kosovo’s Chamber of Commerce.
But Pristina also faces a challenge from within its boundaries. Serbs in Kosovo do not recognise its sovereignty in the northern part of the province.
Kosovan Serbs have protested with violence against the deployment of Kosovar-Albanian police on the front line at Jarinje.
Of Kosovo’s population of 1.7 million, 90 percent are of Albanian origin and only 60,000 are Serbs, grouped together in the north.
Pristina’s attempt to take control of the north for the first time since declaring independence three years ago has thrown down the gauntlet.
It has put Kosovan Serbs under pressure to reassert their own identity and allegiance, which lies north of the border in Belgrade.
In the Serbian capital the authorities are in no mood to cede more to Pristina.
“This is clearly part of a consistent plan aimed at placing the north and Serbs in the north under full control,” said Oliver Ivanovic. Serbia’s state secretary for Kosovo.“And what’s worse I don’t think the Albanians drew up the plan alone, this after all appears to be part of some agreement with the international community which supports Kosovo’s independence and sees the north as the main obstacle to fully implementing that independence.”
This week’s events make it easy to forget that relations between Kosovo and Serbia had been easing. Brussels has been overseeing dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, begun earlier this year.
Although some obstacles had been overcome, amid the renewed tension the latest session of talks has now been put back to September.