Untieable Knot: Rising Tensions in Serbia-Kosovo Conflict

Untieable Knot: Rising Tensions in Serbia-Kosovo Conflict

One step forward and two steps back is the best way to describe the ongoing tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. In June, their delegations were praised for their efforts in creating the roadmap for implementing an energy agreement facilitated by the EU. However, these energy agreements made in 2013 and 2015 have witnessed many roadblocks in the implementation phase. Many things had been left unresolved, and many of its points have stayed mere words on paper. This fate is also apparent in the Brussels agreement, which was the first agreement between Kosovo and Serbia on normalization and stabilization. The disputed sides have reached the agreement mentioned above after six months and ten rounds of negotiations. However, through this tiring and lengthy process, dozens of points agreed upon have fallen short of realization. As a result, Serbia and Kosovo have pulled the breaks on the completion of prior agreed terms.

The 1999 Kosovo war was ended by NATO intervention, which paved the way for the 2008 unilateral secession of Kosovo from Serbia. After Kosovo declared its independence, Serbia stopped its communication with Kosovo's institutions. This communication was made possible only through the EU mediators. This form of communication continued until the Brussels agreement, which was signed on 19th April 2013in 2013. In 2010 the EU took the facilitator role, urging both parties to come to an agreement on specific points deemed crucial. These efforts bore fruit, and the Freedom of movement agreement was signed in 2011.

This Sunday marked the spike in tensions in Kosovo/Serbia relations. The situation that escalated on the afternoon of 31st July can be interpreted as a sequel to the events of 20th September 2021, when local Serbian residents barricaded the border protesting for the same reasons. These events of 2021 have been marked as the 2021 North Kosovo crisis. As we can see, the issue has remained persistent and unresolved.

This particular dispute can be directly traced to the agreement of 2011 on freedom of movement. Accordingly, both parties call for implementing and acknowledging this agreement from 2011, which was revisited in 2016 and again in 2021.

This agreement addressed the freedom of movement of citizens residing on both territories, aiming to rest the issue of the license plates and ID cards from Kosovo that Serbia did not recognize from 2008 up to that point.

According to this document, Serbian license plates with the designations of cities in Kosovo, such as PR (Priština), GL (Gnjilane) KM (Kosovska Mitrovica), were abolished, i.e., these vehicles had to be re-registered at the RKS (Republic of Kosovo) or the status neutral - KS (Kosovo). Serbia accepted a temporary measure to allow the free movement of cars with KS plates considered status neutral.

It was agreed in this document that all car owners residing in Kosovo should have license plates RKS or KS, but this was not implemented fully. Kosovo agreed to extend the validity of KS plates for five more years. In 2016, the agreement was not possible regarding the abolishment of KS license plates which were seen as neutral because Serbia did not recognize RKS plates and did not allow cars with them to travel through its territory. The parties have come to an agreement that RKS plates will be replaced with temporary "trial" plates at the border crossing with Serbia.

On 14th September 2016, an attempt was made to solve the problem of using RKS license plates by agreeing that users of "RKS" plates would be able to travel to Serbia without "trial" plates. However, the RKS mark and the "Republic of Kosovo" coat of arms would be covered with a white sticker. The same would apply to those entering Kosovo with "SRB" license plates. In 2021 the principle of reciprocity will be applied.

Furthermore, this agreement addressed the ID cards and necessary documents when crossing the border. The core issue lies in the 3rd point of this Freedom of movement agreement, which has the following text:

3. Each party may apply a system whereby ID cards will be accompanied by written 'entry/exit' documents for persons from the other party who wish to transit to a third country.

With this agreement, citizens of Kosovo were allowed to travel to or through Serbia with identity cards issued by the Government of Kosovo, which was not the case before. Serbia did not recognize documents issued by the institutions of Kosovo up to that point.

This agreement was set to facilitate freedom of movement by giving Kosovars an appropriate travel permit that will allow them to stay in Serbia (or travel through Serbia) for 90 days. The agreement also confirmed that travelers with documents issued by the Government of Serbia could continue to use ID cards when entering Kosovo.

On 31st July, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic held a press conference in which he asked Albanians and Kosovo Serbs for peace. The reason for the tense situation was the decision of the Government of Kosovo that as of 1st August, all KS plates must be re-registered and replaced with RKS plates. As a result, Kosovo Serbs built barricades and practically blocked the connection of the northern part of Kosovo, populated mainly by Serbs, with the rest of Kosovo. Furthermore, president Vucic criticized the Government of Kosovo for referring to point 3 of the 2011 agreement to back the new measures Albin Kurti announced in June.

Vucic argued that this argument has no grounds since Kosovo Serbs are not the "other party" to Kosovo and that it is impossible to do this on an ethnic basis. Vucic said that he considered the only culprit for this situation to be Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and his irresponsible policy. When asked by a journalist if he would recommend to the political representatives of the Serbs in Kosovo to withdraw from the Government of Kosovo and other institutions, he said that it is not necessary and that it would only be disastrous for the Serbs in Kosovo. He called on the international community and representatives who are guardians of Kosovo's independence to act and calm the situation. He said that he had spoken with representatives of the international community, especially with Miroslav Lajcak, the special high representative of the European Union for dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. He concluded this press conference reiterating that Serbia only wants peace. However, he assured in case the Kosovo government and police forces started persecuting Serbs like in 2004, Serbia would win this time.

On the same day, Prime Minister Kurti reacted by accusing President Vucic and Petar Petrovic, the director of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija under the Government of Serbia, of inciting hatred and instability. He warned that the coming hours, days, and weeks would be challenging and problematic, but he promised the citizens that his Government will be on duty and preserve the peace. Furthermore, he noted that Kosovo had learned to deal with the national-chauvinism of illegal Serbian structures in the north of Kosovo and called on citizens to follow the Government's information in the coming period.

After the sirens went off in Kosovska Mitrovica on the afternoon of 31st July, which was previously used as a call for the formation of barricades, numerous false and unverified news began to circulate. Some Albanian media outlets wrote that the Serbian Army crossed the border and clashed with the Kosovo police, which the Serbian Army denied. This was verified not to be accurate. According to unofficial information spread by the media from Serbia, the Serbian Army has been put on the first level of combat readiness near the administrative line, where members of the 63rd Parachute Brigade are currently located. Also, the Kosovo police did not lag, and according to the information presented by President Vucic, 21 tons of fuel for police vehicles were delivered to the north of Kosovo. They were put on full alert with the task of preventing people from entering Kosovo with only Serbian identity documents from midnight. There was also information about shootings in the north of Kosovo. Media outlets from Kosovo reported that gunfire was opened on Kosovo police but that no officers were wounded. Serbian outlets reported later that evening that a Serbian resident of Kosovo was shot.

The news was flooded with partial information from unverifiable sources, and the public grew unrestful. As midnight was approaching, the tensions rose, and the possibility of a conflict further escalating was real. Both Vucic and Kurti had been calling for peace but promising readiness for action and the protection of its citizens. However, unlike the protests of 2021, which lasted 12 days, this crisis was quickly resolved. A few minutes after midnight local time, the government of Kosovo announced that the decision was postponed for one month if the barricades were removed. The night was without any incidents, and the freedom of movement on the border was restored Monday afternoon.

Relations between Kosovo and Serbia have been burdening the Balkan region for more than two decades. These ongoing tensions are one of the main destabilizing factors in the region. As we can see, the dispute is far from being resolved. The upcoming period will be marked by intensified rhetoric but also by dialogue between two parties under the auspices of the EU and the USA. It is pretty unlikely that Serbia will be able to come to an agreement with Kosovo for abolishing the KS license plates. It is also improbable that Serbian residents, the majority in the north of Kosovo, will be forced to replace the Serbian ID card with the Kosovo one when crossing the border to their own country.