Pristina backs down and postpones measures that sparked hostility from the Serb minority under pressure from Western partners

NATO reacts to ease Serbia-Kosovo border tensions

AFP/ARMEND NIMANI - A US NATO soldier serving in Kosovo patrols next to a roadblock erected by ethnic Serbs near the town of Zubin Potok on 1 August 2022

The sound of air raid alarms was heard again on Sunday, but this time it reverberated more than 1,100 kilometres away from Kiev. A new legal change pushed by the Kosovo government heated up the atmosphere in the enclave of Mitrovica, one of the ethnically divided Kosovar towns where a large Serb minority resides. Heavy clashes broke out there between protesters and police, and barricades were set up at border crossings. Tensions flared again in the Balkan hornet's nest and put the international community on notice, especially NATO, which said it was prepared to intervene. 

As of Monday, the Kosovo authorities had decided to issue identity cards valid for a period of 30 days to all Serbian citizens crossing the border. In return, they were to hand over their Serbian papers, including the 50,000 Serbs living in Kosovo who do not have local identity cards because they do not recognise Kosovo's sovereignty. They also planned to demand the replacement of Serbian number plates with those issued from Pristina. But these measures, taken in reciprocity with Belgrade, generated an angry response from the Serb population, forcing Kosovo to back down within hours. 

Under a bilateral agreement initialled between Pristina and Belgrade in 2011, the Kosovar government issued number plates with the initials 'RKS', referring to the Republic of Kosovo, and 'KS', in a clear concession to Serbia's demands, referring only to Kosovo, the name of its former province under Serbian sovereignty. The intentionality of this cession was in response to Pristina's attempts to encourage the use of Kosovar number plates among the Serb minority settled in Kosovo, a cession extended by Pristina in 2016 for the next five years. However, the agreement was never honoured until its final expiry in 2021.

Frontera Kosovo

This "road" dispute goes back a long way. In September, the Kosovar government of nationalist Albin Kurti opted not to renew a clearly ineffective measure and ordered the seizure of Serbian-issued number plates. In these 10 months without a binding legal framework, drivers crossing the border on both sides have covered national symbols with stickers. Igor Novakovic, research director of the International Security and Affairs Centre (ISAC), told Balkan Insight that "it's about recognising the symbols of Kosovo". "Serbia has accepted the interpretation that recognising [Kosovo's] plaques, i.e. tolerating them, is a step towards recognising Kosovo, while Pristina believes that as an independent state, from its perspective, it has every right to reciprocity [from Belgrade]," he concluded. 

This time, with the scene inflamed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and further inflamed by statements by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who denounced alleged persecution against the Serb minority in Kosovo, tensions in the region are more worrying than usual. Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani denounced Vučić's intention to destabilise Kosovo and called on Serbs residing in the country not to fall for Belgrade's propaganda because the decision "is not directed against anyone, but in favour of the citizens, regardless of their [ethnic] affiliation".


On Sunday night, dozens of protesters blocked the border crossings at Brnjak and Jarinje and Merdare in the northern province of Mitrovica with tankers and heavy machinery in retaliation against the measures announced by Prime Minister Albin Kurti. According to the authorities, no one was injured, although shots were fired at security forces and riots were reported until the early hours of the morning. European chancelleries and Western institutions then greased the wheels to de-escalate tensions. The US ambassador in Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, met with Kurti and Osmani to persuade them to extend the decision. 

Under diplomatic pressure from Washington and Brussels, alarmed by the events in Mitrovica, Kurti's government was forced to postpone the measures until 1 September and to give Serbian citizens 60 days to obtain Kosovar number plates. The decision, welcomed by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, was announced in a statement that also condemned the "aggressive acts", "the obstruction of roads in northern Kosovo and the shooting", which had been "instigated and planned by the authorities in Belgrade". 

The NATO mission in Kosovo, known as KFOR, which maintains a deployment of 3,770 troops in the area, warned that it was "ready to intervene if stability is at risk". Atlantic Alliance helicopters flew over the northern regions of Kosovo minutes earlier and Italian peacekeepers flew to Mitrovica, where the unrest took place. One of the transatlantic organisation's tasks is precisely to protect minorities, which is why it has a contingent concentrated in this enclave.

EEUU Kosovo

The KFOR senior commanders held a conversation with Vučić from the headquarters of the Serbian General Staff. At the end of the meeting, the Serbian president hoped that the situation will calm down tomorrow, and that we can reach a solution in the coming days," said Vucic, adding that the KFOR commander will hold talks on dismantling the barricades with the local authorities in Kosovska Mitrovica. 

90% of Kosovo's 1.8 million people are ethnic Albanians. In 2008, the region declared independence from Serbia almost nine years after NATO intervened to stop the Serbian offensive against Kosovar Albanians fighting for autonomy and lost 'de facto' control of the enclave. During this period, however, Belgrade maintained a parallel administration in Kosovo for the Serb minority in the north. Since 2011, the two sides have been negotiating at the behest of Brussels to normalise bilateral relations with the ultimate goal of EU membership. Their accession was made conditional on the resolution of the dispute, but little significant progress has been made. 

Senator Vladimir Dzhabarov, a member of United Russia, President Vladimir Putin's party, has verbalised that Russia would assist Serbia in the event of a conflict. Hours earlier, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Kosovo of forcing the escalation of tensions as part of a NATO strategy to attack Serbia. The Kremlin's narrative is similar to that used in Ukraine: a favourable minority being persecuted. In Ukraine, the Russian minority; in Kosovo, the Serb minority. Blame NATO.