5 min read
Kosovo: A Powder Keg Waiting to Explode Again?

Domagoj Fuk

Over the course of December, Kosovo became a hotspot of conflict in Europe, as local Serbs put up barricades in majority Serb towns, in a protest against several policies of the Kosovo government. The local Kosovan government is viewed by Serbians as illegitimate, and Serbia has maintained de-facto control of North Kosovo and is trying to protect the Serbs living there. To achieve this aim the Serbian government has put pressure on the Kosovo government and European Union (EU) in order to resolve the tensions and was even prepared to go to war in order to protect the Serbs in Kosovo. This brings up the questions: how did this crisis erupt and why did it almost lead to conflict? 

The roots of the current crisis in Kosovo run far deeper than the recent tensions. The current crisis between the two countries should be viewed within the historical context of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which have tended to be quite tense. Serbia and Kosovo were previously part of the same country - Yugoslavia. Serbia was a separate republic in Yugoslavia, while Kosovo was an autonomous region inside Serbia. Kosovo has strong symbolism for Serbs because the famous Battle of Kosovo occurred there. The battle was fought between the mediaeval Kingdom of Serbia and the Ottoman Empire in 1389. While the Serbs were defeated and this led to the Ottoman expansion in Europe, the battle proved costly for the Ottomans. The battle in Kosovo became a folk myth used by Serbs to revive the glory of their kingdom in the future and return to Kosovo. Kosovo was later re-integrated in Serbia, but over time its population became majority Albanian leading to ethnic tensions. This prompted the communist Yugoslavia to grant the region a status of an autonomous province in order to put a stop to the unrest. 

The status of Kosovo changed with the rise of Slobodan Milosević who became the president of Serbia in 1989. An ardent nationalist responsible for the breakup of Yugoslavia , he also replaced the leadership in the autonomous region of Kosovo and removed its autonomous status. He justified this move by claiming Kosovo should be a part of Serbia because of its historical symbolism. This policy angered the local Albanian population, which was the largest ethnic group in Kosovo. In 1999, this escalated into what is now called the Kosovo War. The large-scale violence in Kosovo was soon followed by the ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population. This prompted a decisive NATO intervention that conducted a bombing campaign in Serbia, which, alongside diplomatic pressure, forced Serbia to cede and allowed NATO troops to enter Kosovo to stop the ongoing ethnic cleansing. The situation was resolved a few months later by the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 on the situation relating Kosovo"). The resolution enabled a foreign military presence in Kosovo and left the political question of Kosovo to be resolved later through a political process. An international peacekeeping force under the supervision of the UN was put in place, which had the task of maintaining order in Kosovo and shortly after Kosovo gained autonomy. Over the following years, despite some violent ethnic clashes occuring, the international presence kept the peace in Kosovo. 

The status quo kept by international presence under the UN continued until 2008, when Kosovo declared unilateral independence, a move that was supported by the EU and US. Serbia continues to view this act as illegitimate, up to the present day. Serbia did not even recognize documents issued by Kosovo’s government until this past year, when an agreement was reached in late August. However, Serbia still considers this change as a simple bureaucratic measure that does not bestow formal recognition. In its constitution, Serbia considers Kosovo to be an integral part of Serbia, part of the province of Kosovo and Metohija. Kosovo’s independence is also disputed by many UN members, including Russia, China and five members of the EU, which is why Kosovo is not a UN member state. 

In 2013 an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, mediated by the EU, laid the foundations for the resolution of unsettled problems. However the implementation of the settlements have been progressing at a snail's pace since 2013. One reason for this, is the current government in Serbia; which is led by Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s president since 2017. Vucic rules over the country in an authoritarian manner that undermines democratic and liberal principles. He uses Serbian animosity towards Kosovo as a tool to maintain his political support and to stoke nationalist sentiments in Serbia. 

The first warning signs during the recent crisis could be observed when Kosovo’s government began to force cars with Serbian licence plates, with names of towns situated in Kosovo, to put up stickers with Kosovo symbols. This policy targeted Serbs living in Kosovo, who refused to change their plates to new Kosovo plates. It was also an act of retaliation against Serbia which forced people with Kosovo plates to replace them with Serbian-issued plates. This escalation was temporarily halted through a compromise sticker solution. However, the decision to implement the compromise sticker solution was delayed from August and pushed off until late November. Kosovo’s government, unsatisfied with the implementation of this measure, responded by forcing the Serbs to switch their plates to Kosovo-issued ones. The local Serbs staged protests and put up blockades in several areas where they formed a majority. When the time came to implement the policy, tensions flared again. This forced the EU to once again intervene and resolve the problem. Another agreement was reached in November 2022, in which Serbia agreed to stop issuing licence plates with Kosovo’s towns and Kosovo would not fine people who use those licence plates. 

At the same time, Kosovo’s government has become increasingly confrontational with Serbia in recent years, in an effort to protect its independence from Serbia and force it to accept Kosovo’s existence. Kosovo's current Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, has taken a tougher stance towards Serbia than his predecessors and has demanded there be more reciprocity in policies between the two nations, including administrative matters, such as the problematic licence plates mentioned earlier. Kurti's ultimate goal is for Serbia and the international community to give formal recognition of Kosovo's independence and statehood. Kosovo moved a step closer to this, when it officially submitted their application to join the EU on December 15th, 2022. Kosovo’s move angered Serbia, which sees any formal recognition of Kosovo’s independence as a threat. The Serbian government responded by submitting a request to NATO forces present in Kosovo to deploy a contingent of Serbian troops in Kosovo in accordance with the UNSC resolution 1224, although this request was ignored. 

For now it seems that further escalation between the two sides has stopped, but the future for Kosovo still seems uncertain. The potential sparks for future conflicts remain, as long as the local Serb population in Kosovo and the Serbian government remain stubbornly opposed to recognizing Kosovo independence. A possible new crisis could erupt during 2023, although the potential for war is unlikely because of the NATO presence. For both sides to achieve a durable and sustainable peace, many changes must occur in the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia; which appear unlikely to happen for the foreseeable future, with the current leadership in both countries. For now, the EU will likely continue to play an important role in mediating between both sides and determining the speed and implementation of any agreements leading to the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

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