Serbia refuses to recognise its former province, Kosovo, as a sovereign nation which hinders both their access to the European Union.
This week, the European Union’s impeccable sense of timing was on display when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen decided to tour the Balkans just as the ongoing dispute between Kosovo and Serbia was heating up.
Von der Leyen stopped in Pristina on Wednesday to meet with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and visit an EU-funded kindergarten.
Less than two hours away from the location of their joint press conference, hundreds of Kosovo Serbs blocked the northern border crossings of Brnjak and Jarinje in protest over the Kosovo government’s decision to institute a rule on temporary license plates.
With Kosovo’s special police forces sent to guard the two crossings in the north — where most ethnic Serbs reside — the Serbian government placed its military on alert and reshuffled some of the troops closer to the border with Kosovo. Matters were on the brink of escalation over the weekend, with tanks and jets spotted close to the border.
However, von der Leyen was all smiles as she posed with children at the kindergarten and helped them assemble miniature colour blocks.
“We are here in this beautiful kindergarten to see what we have done together. This is a living symbol of the joint cooperation,” she said.
While von der Leyen insisted on striking a positive tone and talked about economic recovery, the press conference was marked by repeat questions about the standoff.
“I must say I am very concerned about the current crisis,” von der Leyen said, calling for its swift resolution. “The only way to do that [is through] the EU-facilitated dialogue. That is the only platform to resolve the current crisis.”
Meanwhile in Brussels, representatives of the two sides held a meeting with EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, Miroslav Lajčak. Serbia’s Petar Petković and Kosovo’s Besnik Bislimi lead the technical teams, and often spent hours debating the nitty-gritty of even the slightest change in policy between the two countries.
Dialogue to nowhere?
The dialogue is a continuation of EU-mediated negotiations between the two sides that began in 2011 after Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. It’s seen as a tool to iron out differences as the two move along the path of becoming full-fledged members of the bloc.
Yet since then, membership hopes for all six countries of the region have all but waned, while negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia overseen by Brussels have stalled.
On Wednesday evening, local Kosovo outlets reported that the meeting in Brussels resulted in a draft agreement. This was denied by the Serbian delegation, and the discussions went on late into the night and continued on Thursday.
In the meantime, von der Leyen traveled to Belgrade, meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Wednesday evening behind closed doors.
Von der Leyen and Vučić visited the outskirts of the southern city of Niš on Thursday morning to inaugurate the construction of a high-speed railroad, another EU-funded project.
The crisis was again the main subject, and Vučić expressed his commitment to negotiating a solution in front of von der Leyen.
“I cannot hide this from our citizens. We won’t be an EU member state until we resolve our issues with Pristina, and citizens of Serbia have to be aware of that. It’s a long path ahead, although I believe we have already accomplished some important things, we’ll continue fighting,” he said.
The current crisis began on September 20 when the Kurti-led Kosovo government decided to enforce a 2016 license plate agreement with Serbia. Any vehicle with Serbian plates or now-defunct UN-issued plates would have to be replaced with temporary ones issued by Kosovo. The temporary plates cost five euros and are valid for 60 days.
Serbia has been forcing drivers from Kosovo to purchase temporary plates when crossing over into the country for years.
Kurti has repeated that the decision to institute the rule was a matter of reciprocity for the Kosovo side and that it does not cause as many problems as the Serbian side claims.
“More than 11,000 cars that entered the Republic of Kosovo from Serbia had no issues with obtaining temporary plates. There wasn’t a single incident at any border crossing,” Kurti explained at the press conference on Wednesday.
Trucks and tree logs instead of temporary plates
Despite the Pristina government’s claims that the move simply represents previously agreed terms being put into practice, ethnic Serbs living in the north of Kosovo felt that the presence of heavily armed special units threatened their safety.
They immediately established barricades at the two nearby crossings, blocking the roads leading to the border with trucks and tree logs.
The Serbian government was furious, both because of special units being sent to the north but also by the requirement that now everyone entering Kosovo with Serbian license plates — be they Kosovo Serbs or residents from any part of Serbia — needed to acquire temporary, printed-out ones.
Serbia's Vučić, who fashions himself as the protector of Kosovo Serbs, has often used the minority in Kosovo to discredit Kosovo’s independence. He mobilised troops close to the southern border and pro-government outlets in Serbia spent days spouting anti-Kurti and anti-Albanian vitriol.
The protests by local residents at the border crossings continued on Saturday, while two vehicle registration centres in Kosovo tasked with issuing the plates — one in Zubin Potok and another in Zvečan/Zveçani — were set ablaze in alleged arson attacks.
Did he really say that?
On Saturday morning, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić gave a statement to public broadcaster RTS after her meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York, claiming that he opened the meeting by saying that “Kosovo is not a country.”
Guterres’s head spokesperson Stephane Dujarric responded to Euronews’ requests for clarification by stating that “our position on Kosovo is based on Security Council resolution 1244 of 1999,” without commenting on Guterres’ alleged statement to Brnabić directly.
Kosovo declared independence nearly a decade after the 1998-1999 conflict. As a province of Serbia at the time, Kosovo felt the brunt of Slobodan Milošević’s crackdown on civil rights, which ended up triggering a NATO intervention.
During the NATO airstrikes, the Serbian police and military lashed out on the local population. In some areas of Kosovo, a full-fledged campaign of ethnic cleansing took place and around one million ethnic Albanians fled the country in the wake of a series of war crimes.
The international campaign resulted in the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement in 1999, which stipulated a withdrawal of Serbian military and police from Kosovo.
UN Security Council resolution 1244 then authorised the UN to establish a civilian mission with NATO providing security, making Kosovo the only UN protectorate in Europe.
Guterres’ statement on Kosovo’s status as not being a state, if true, would have gone against the UN’s nominally neutral stance on Kosovo — which is not a full-fledged member of the international body — and endangered its monitoring and assistance missions in the country.
'Lazar' and 'Miloš'
However, the potential diplomatic scandal was overshadowed by Vucic’s decision to increase the military buildup along the border.
Videos appeared on social media showing Serbian troop movement along the highway and roads towards the south of the country, including T-84 tanks on transporters. Meanwhile, Serbian defense minister Nebojša Stefanović visited a Serbian army training base in the town of Raška accompanied by the Russian ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Harchenko, some 12 kilometres from the Jarinje crossing,
At the same time, two Yugoslav-built Orao-type subsonic jets made at least two flyovers in the proximity of the border.
This is the first time Serbian military jets were seen this close to the Kosovo border since the withdrawal of the country’s forces after the 1999 NATO intervention.
The Kumanovo Agreement defined a 5-kilometre land and 25-kilometre air safety zone to serve as a “no fire line,” restricting Serbian military or police forces from entering or firing any kind of weapons into the territory of Kosovo.
Although NATO has relaxed the implementation of safety zones twice — in 2001 and 2015 — the Serbian military can only approach the border past the safety zones in agreement with or by invitation from NATO peacekeepers in the area, referred to as KFOR, such as for joint patrols.
These patrols have taken place as recently as April when KFOR’s US soldiers and Serbian military conducted a joint survey of the border.
On Sunday evening, the possibility of military conflict was further touted as Vučić appeared on one of the most-watched talk shows in Serbia, TV Pink’s “Hit Tvit.”
While he clarified that the Serbian military did not enter Kosovo’s territory and insisted that Serbia would respect the Kumanovo Agreement, he further stoked flames by saying that, in case of any provocations in the north, “we’ll wait 24 hours for NATO to respond,” and then “react to prevent what took place in 2004.”
In 2004, riots erupted across Kosovo after a young ethnic Serb man was killed in a drive-by shooting and the drowning of three ethnic Albanian boys, which also coincided with arrests of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leaders for war crimes. Violent mobs attacked Serb-majority areas in the country, and dozens of Serbian Orthodox Churches were looted and burned.
The government in Belgrade pegged these events as a “pogrom” — a phrase Vučić used on “Hit Tvit” in relation to the current events at the northern border crossings.
Some saw Vučić’s words on Sunday as an ultimatum hinting that the Serbian military might cross the border after all by Monday evening.
Prior to Vučić’s statement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Twitter that he spoke to both Vučić and Kurti “about the need to de-escalate” and that “it’s vital both Belgrade and Pristina show restraint and return to dialogue.”
NATO HQ refused several requests from Euronews to further comment on Belgrade’s ultimatum.
By Monday afternoon however, local media reported that there were only four Serbian military vehicles near the Jarinje crossing— two “Lazar” armored personnel carriers and two “Miloš” MRAPs, with a small group of soldiers present.
At the same time, KFOR deployed its own patrols. Polish, US, and Canadian units walked the perimeter on both of the crossings, and will continue to do so.
On Thursday, EU Special Representative Lajčak announced on Twitter that a deal was reached. KFOR patrols will replace the Kosovo special police at the border crossings altogether until a permanent solution to the licence plate issue is found in a bid to deescalate the crisis and bring the roadblocks to an end.
Kosovo’s differing realities
While the crisis seems to be petering out, the ten-day standoff has rehashed questions on the competing — and conflicting — narratives on what Kosovo is and how it should be treated internationally, says Vjosa Musliu, assistant professor of political science at Vrije Universiteit Brussels.
“From 1999 onward for the Albanians it has been a done deal, Kosovo is an Albanian-run state which will eventually become independent. There’s no question about that,” she explained.
“The Serbian narrative is that what has happened since 1999 is some sort of a temporary setup with the idea that if Serbia would never return to Kosovo to administer it and have it as part of its jurisdiction, at least Kosovo would not become a fully independent state but rather some sort of a perennial protectorate.”
Until 2008, this meant that in practice, those who chose so could pick and choose which country they inhabited. With the UN administration in force, they could get neutral UN passports and UN license plates.
“It gave a lot of leeway for the Kosovo Serbs to challenge Kosovo as a sovereign state in their everyday acts. You could choose whether you lived in Serbia or Kosovo, even if you were living in Kosovo,” she said.
“So you could choose which mobile operator you used,” Musliu said. “You could choose whether you sent your kids to a Serbian-run school or a Kosovo-run one in Gračanica/Graçanicë, or have kidney surgery in a Serbian-run hospital or a Kosovo-run one in Gnjilane/Gjilan.”
“You could really live in different realities," she added.
But the role that the international community has played since the 1999 intervention created an additional, third narrative that adds to the noise felt by the average person.
“In the international narrative, Kosovo has also been some sort of a venue or pretext where we can predict or anticipate or project our own fantasies about a multiethnic, democratic society in a by-the-book post-modernist structure,” Musliu said.
A lot of money, time and resources were spent on turning Kosovo into an ideal multi-ethnic state, which would ensure full political rights and protections for the Serbian minority — in an attempt to warm them to the idea of accepting Kosovo as their own country.
“All of these narratives have existed and continue to coexist problematically in Kosovo, and what Kurti did with his latest decision was go back to some static notion of sovereignty, classical notion of independence, and that challenges the other two narratives, of Serbia and the EU," Musliu went on.
Kurti has only been in office for seven months at this point. After former president Hashim Thaçi resigned in November 2020, elections held in February saw Kurti and his party Vetëvendosje score an unprecedented victory, with 50,28 percent of the vote. It was the largest margin of support for any party in all elections held in Kosovo since 1999.
Kurti first came to prominence as one of the leaders of student-led protests against Milošević’s government in the run-up to the NATO intervention. He had previously served as Kosovo’s prime minister for a brief stint between February and June 2020, when he was voted out of office by Thaçi’s PDK in the state parliament following a row over coronavirus measures.
Now that Thaçi is gone, Kurti is having his first proper shot at power. Unlike his predecessor, Kurti has proven to be less amenable to having the kind of dialogue Vučić has come to expect.
Kurti claims to be genuinely interested in the well-being of the Kosovo Serbs, but prefers “directly speaking to the community” instead of having the relationship overseen by the international mediators. Also, he has often said he does not want the majority Albanian population to be held hostage by a minority that can not decide whether it likes Kosovo to start with.
This change in dynamics is hardly understood in Brussels, which is too busy having to justify its own presence in the region within the union, Musliu said.
“I see the EU as disenchanted, disinterested, and also oblivious toward the region. It has been like that since at least 2016, when DG Enlargement was replaced with DG NEAR,” she said.
“It became very clear that they’re not interested or they’re not at their best selves right now because of so many moral and financial crises at the time.”
“The message was ‘we cannot keep up with this discussion anymore, and also you guys are not ready.’ So the way that they ended the prospect for engaging meaningfully with the region was closing it without explicitly saying so,” Musliu added.
“At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, the EU has to continue to save face as an actor that is involved in all of these peacemaking processes, something that is quintessential to the way they want to be perceived by the world, but also their own taxpayers.”
While the EU has placed all of its chips in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, the negotiations are in fact just a series of technical meetings that have little to show for when it comes to improving the lives of ordinary citizens, including the ethnic Serbs in the north.
“The thing with the dialogue is that it has not been in the interest of anyone,” Musliu explained.
“I’ve been studying the dialogue for the better part of the past five years, and the subject that is the most detached from the dialogue are the people in Kosovo, be them Albanians or Serbs — especially the Serbs.”
The lack of concrete solutions also leaves ample room for further flare-ups in the future.
“Everyone has been playing their own game within the dialogue since 2011, and all three parties have not been genuinely interested in a dialogue that would end up in reconciliation or normalisation, however that looks or whatever that means,” Musliu concluded.