Political confrontation continues between Serbs and Kosovars

Kosovo and Serbia continue the conflict

PHOTO/Caique Cesar das Dores - Children with the Kosovar flag during the celebration of Independence Day (17 February 2021)

Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have returned to the forefront of Balkan news. Less than two weeks before the EU summit with the Western Balkans, the main conflict in the region has reached its highest point in years. Kosovo has decided not to renew the border registration agreement and has thus begun forcing cars with Serbian number plates to change them in order to enter the territory. This is what Serbia has been doing for more than ten years.

MNE, ALB, RKS, SB... you read it everywhere on Albania's land border with Kosovo, as on this one, on those around the Balkans. They are the acronyms marking the country where the car in question was registered. MNE, Montenegro; ALB, Albania; RKS, Republic of Kosovo; SB, Serbia... and so on. Indicating the country and even the province where the vehicle comes from. Crossing from one country to another is easy, depending on for whom, and in this region it is normal for its inhabitants to circulate between its borders on a daily basis. However, despite the fact that many have to cross them daily, not all the Balkans have a good relationship. Between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, for example, buses rarely cross. The poor diplomatic relations between the two countries affect these border crossings and their passers-by first hand.

But Bulgaria and Macedonia seem like child's play compared to the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. It is not a secret, but rather one of the major conflicts within Europe. Since the self-proclamation of Kosovo's independence, Serbia has been closed to any kind of recognition of its neighbour, which it still considers part of its territory. However, Pristina and Belgrade have been talking, intermittently, about how to normalise relations since 2006.


In this context, the two sides have been meeting in recent years in order to respond to each other's interests, although certain issues still keep them at loggerheads; independence is the most important, but not the only one. Serbia's influence over Kosovo Serb communities is another contentious issue. Thus, Serb-majority areas of the country remain only partially integrated and are a potential source of violence. Serbs elected to the Kosovo parliament and appointed to government posts openly follow Belgrade's orders. This is why, more than ten years after the conflict, NATO troops are still deployed at various points around the country, even though clashes between the two communities are becoming increasingly rare. When you meet one of the NATO soldiers, the boredom is obvious. With a funny face, they try to draw you into conversation with the carabinieri, Italian troops on official NATO duty, stationed on the Mitrovica bridge that separates the Serb and Albanian communities.

Mitrovica is the northernmost town in the country and one of many Kosovar municipalities where inter-communal tension is a daily occurrence. Here, a bridge separates the Albanian and Serb populations. The division is visible the moment you cross the bridge; when you cross to the northern side, the red flag with the black Albanian eagle disappears, and the Serbian flag appears in its place.


Dinars instead of euros, even though Kosovo's official currency is the latter. No Albanian is spoken and, when asked, the answer is the same on both sides: "We don't usually cross the bridge", "No, we don't have Albanian/Serbian friends". Mitrovica is a reflection of the division between the two sides of the conflict, but it is not the only place where communities live separately, or where Kosovo's independence is not validated.

Gracanica, just 9 kilometres from Pristina, is known as Kosovo's Serb municipality. The Serbian flag crowns its town hall, 67.7% of its population is Serb. Like this one, Leposavic, Ranilug, Partesh, Zubin Potok or Zveçan. All of them are Serb-majority. According to the Minority Rights Group, around 146,128 Serbs live in Kosovo, which represents 7.8% of the total population, making it the largest minority in the country.

This is why tensions between the two sides are not only limited to the political arena. The separation between the two countries is the everyday life of the population; the language, the recognition or non-recognition of the genocide, the passport they hold and even the acronyms on the number plates of their cars mark their daily lives. And it is these acronyms that have reignited tensions between Serbia and Kosovo this week. After months of meetings in Brussels, Belgrade and Pristina have been at each other's throats again following Kosovo's non-renewal of the registration agreement for the transit of vehicles between the two countries.

This agreement, which has been in force for more than ten years, limited entry into Serbia to vehicles from Kosovo with KS number plates, i.e. those registered under the territory's UN administration, i.e. before the self-proclamation of independence. On the other hand, those with RKS plates, which stands for the Republic of Kosovo, must change their plates at the border and receive a provisional document issued by the Serbian side, as well as pay a fee for it. On the other hand, vehicles with Serbian number plates could enter Kosovo freely, without any additional formalities. Until now.

As of 15 September, the younger country decided not to renew the agreement. Kosovo said that the agreement was supposed to be temporary and meant that it had to accept two types of number plates, "one for its own needs and one according to the preferences of the Serbian side", explained Besnik Bislimi, the country's deputy prime minister, in a parliamentary session.


Following the non-renewal of the agreement, the Kosovo government has decided to seek equivalent treatment for cars with RKS plates, i.e. cars with Serbian plates that wish to enter Kosovo must exchange them for temporary Kosovo plates, as Kosovar drivers have had to do for the past two decades. Kosovo's President Vjosa Osmani said on her official Facebook account: "The decision ensures equal treatment and free movement for citizens of both countries.

Currently, only 2,147 vehicles in Kosovo have number plates beginning with KS, which is only 1% of the total number of cars in the country, said the deputy prime minister, who also called the issue "artificial", claiming that only 74 of the 2,147 cars belong to ethnic Serbs; the rest belong to ethnic Albanians who, for personal reasons, travel very often to Serbia.

The two sides agreed in EU-mediated talks in 2016 to allow free traffic between the two sides. Until now, only Kosovo had complied with this agreement. Now that the agreement has expired, and according to Kosovar officials, only the appropriate Kosovo symbols are valid in the territory, i.e. number plates with the initials RKS. A decision with which Belgrade disagrees, and for which it intends to sanction what it still considers its own province whose border is seen as an "administrative" and temporary border.

This decision has once again divided populations, "we are happy with this, it means that we are really going to have freedom of movement", explains Genta Limani, a young Kosovar Albanian living in Pristina, "we are fed up with all this nonsense (referring to the fact that we have to change our number plates every time we cross into Serbia)". What the young woman says is what is heard around the country, on TV and social media, Kosovar Albanians see these measures as "fair". The same is not true for Kosovo Serbs.


Over the past few days, it is not so much cars as protesters that have been piling up on the northern borders of the youngest country, blocking the access roads to these borders. The Serb majority in the north of the country has been camping out for days at the Jarinje and Brnjak borders, protesting against these new measures, claiming that they discriminate against the Serb population in Kosovo. This has forced the Kosovo government to send emergency troops to the border to control the situation.

At the Jarinje border itself, Goran Rakic, leader of the Belgrade-backed Kosvo Srpska Lista, the Serbian political party in Kosovo, said that he had "informed the [European Union's Kosovo] special envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, and we have asked the EU for help. And I ask President Vucic to react".

And he has, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called an emergency session of his National Security Council to address the issue, claiming that Kosovo Serbs "have suffered one of the worst days" after what he called "a brutal attack" by the Kosovo Police, referring to the tear gas attacks police forces used against protesters at border crossings reported by some Serbian media, and called on NATO troops to protect Serbs. "They think our patience is infinite," the president told a press conference in Belgrade, "we will know how to protect our country, there is no doubt about that".


For his part, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti insists that the new measures "are not directed against the Serb community", and that these changes respond to "an agreement that both Serbia and the European Union have agreed", he assured the parliamentary session on Monday in Pristina.

This new escalation of tensions in the conflict between the two countries has reached Brussels, where European Commission spokesman Peter Stano urged both Kosovo and Serbia to "immediately, and without delay, act with restraint and refrain from unilateral actions". "Freedom of movement is one of the cornerstones of the European Union and, as such, we expect both Kosovo and Serbia to promote freedom of movement in the region," he said in Brussels.

The border protests have been dragging on for more than a week, and tensions between the two sides have forced action. Serbia decided at the weekend to send troops and planes to the border with Kosovo, saying it would not border with Kosovo, saying it would not allow "humiliation of Serbia and its citizens".

Vucic also met with the ambassadors of the United States, Britain, France, Italy and Germany, as well as with the head of the Germany, as well as the head of the European Union delegation, to discuss the crisis.
Kosovo, for its part, has sent special forces to these borders to work in conjunction with NATO's official forces which have been on extended exercises and rotations this weekend. In addition, the youngest country has the support of its neighbour, Albania. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama showed his support for Kosovo during his visit to Pristina on Monday, where he described the actions of Serbian troops at the border as "theatre” and stressed the "legitimate right of the state of Kosovo" to ask people to exchange their Serbian plates for Kosovo plates when crossing the border. Rama concluded the matter by asserting that "Albania's position, which is clear, fair and unchanged, is that Kosovo is right. Full stop".


This new chapter in the conflict, the most tense since 2011, has forced the EU's high representative, Josep Borrell, to tell the leaders of the two sides in a telephone conversation that both "are fully responsible for any risk to the security and well-being of local communities". "Serbia and Kosovo must unconditionally de-escalate the situation on the ground by immediately withdrawing special police units and dismantling roadblocks," Borrell concluded in a statement.

There have already been several days of protests on the northern borders of the country, special troops sent in because of possible tensions, and cross declarations between the two sides. These new measures implemented by the Osmani government have rekindled the different perspectives that exist on the reality of the young Balkan country, as Genta explains, "for the rest of the world this kind of thing may seem small, but for us it's a lot. It's not that we are doing anything against Serbia, we are doing something to stop it, to show that we are not going to jump through hoops anymore".