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1 August 2022

A flurry of alarm over Kosovo reveals underlying tensions

A dispute over car number plates between Serbia and Kosovo has been defused but not resolved.

By Alix Kroeger

All the hallmarks of a crisis were there on Sunday night: roadblocks on the routes linking Kosovo and Serbia; reports of gunfire; a national televised address by a grave-faced Serbian president. But by midnight, the crisis had subsided: not resolved, but temporarily averted. 

The immediate cause was a dispute over car number plates. Minority Serbs in Kosovo – there are about 50,000 of them – are concentrated in the north and use number plates issued by the government in Belgrade. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia unilaterally in 2008 – Serbia has never recognised the new state. Nor has its ally Russia

On Sunday new rules were due to come into force, requiring motorists to replace their Serbian number plates and documents with ones issued by the Kosovo government in Pristina. Serb protesters in northern Kosovo blocked two border crossings, at Jarinje and Bernjak with trucks and tankers. Air raid sirens sounded for several hours in Mitrovica, the northern town divided between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs. Kosovo police reported gunfire at several locations. 

The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, placed the blame on the Kosovo authorities, saying they were imposing measures without any right to do so. “There will be no surrender and Serbia will win.  If they dare to persecute Serbs, kill Serbs, Serbia will win,” he said in a televised speech on Sunday night. 

International reaction soon followed. The Nato-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeeping mission issued a statement, saying the overall security situation in the northern municipalities of Kosovo was tense and it was “prepared to intervene if stability [was] jeopardised”. 

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And then came the de-escalation, or at least the delay. At the urging of the US ambassador to Kosovo, the government in Pristina agreed to postpone implementation of the new rules for a month, until 1 September, as long as the barricades at the border crossings came down. 

This is not the first time tensions have flared over number plates: there was a similar dispute a year ago. What has changed is the context beyond the Balkans: specifically, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belgrade is one of Moscow’s staunchest supporters: Serbia has refused to mirror the EU’s sanctions on Russia. Instead, it signed a new three-year gas deal with Russia in May. In early March, thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators poured onto the streets of the Serbian capital.

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And this relationship works both ways: Russia strongly supported Serbia against Nato and the West in the 1999 Kosovo war. After the war ended, Russian forces did take part in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo until 2003. However, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly invoked Kosovo to justify the war in Ukraine: the separatist republics in the Donbas had the same right to break away, he argued. This disregards the circumstances which led to the war in Kosovo: the violent crackdown on Kosovo Albanians by the Milošević government in the late 1990s, the retaliation by Kosovo Albanian guerrillas, and the outflows of refugees which followed, threatening to destabilise the Balkans and beyond. In Ukraine, it is Russia’s intervention which has sown conflict and put millions of people to flight. 

For now, in Kosovo, there is room to breathe, at least for a month. Russian forces are tied down in Ukraine; there’s limited capacity for them to entangle themselves in Kosovo. KFOR is on high alert, with a mandate to intervene if necessary. Despite the gunfire at the barricades, there were no reports of injuries. But it is not difficult to imagine a situation where one of those bullets meets the wrong target, with potentially serious consequences. Pristina, after all, is not so very far from Sarajevo. The guns of August are quiet, for now, but there is nothing to rule out their reappearance later in the year.

[See also: How Vladimir Putin views the world]

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