Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia over license plates: What to know as NATO monitors dispute

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Kosovo and Serbia – two Balkan countries that fought a bloody war in the 1990s and have lived in an uneasy coexistence ever since – are at odds again, this time over Kosovo’s moves to force ethnic Serbs alive in its northern regions to obtain license plates issued by the Kosovar authorities.

This seemingly trivial decision is anything but trivial, as the status of ethnic Serbs living near the Serbia-Kosovo border is at the heart of a protracted dispute between the two governments. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, but Serbia still considers Kosovo its province.

“The overall security situation in the municipalities of northern Kosovo is tense”, NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo said in a statement on Sunday. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said“We have never been in a more difficult situation.”

What are the tensions in Kosovo?

The latest flare-up of tension relates to new rules on license plates and cross-border travel documents.

Under new regulations due to come into force on August 1, ethnic Serbs living in villages in northern Kosovo would have had to apply for license plates issued by Kosovo authorities for their vehicles. Since the 1998-99 war, some members of this population had used Serbian license plates with a different status. Kosovo authorities have tolerated the two-track system to preserve peace, but said last year that they don’t do it anymore.

Another rule would have required Serbian nationals visiting Kosovo to obtain an additional entry and exit document from Kosovo authorities at the border. Previously, they could enter without it. Serbia imposes a similar rule on Kosovars seeking to cross its borders.

tensions between Kosovo and Serbia erupt; NATO peacekeepers track border protests

The government in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, has tried for years to exert full institutional control over the ethnically Serb-majority areas of northern Kosovo, but has met with fierce resistance from residents who still see their communities as part of Serbia.

On Sunday, ethnic Serbs blocked roads in northern Kosovo to protest the new rules, forcing Kosovo authorities to close two border crossing points, Jarinje and Brnjak. Kosovo police said shots were fired in their direction during the protests, although no one was injured, Reuters reported.

Belgrade argues that the new rules violate a 2011 free movement agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.

Kosovo’s allies, including the United States and the European Union, have called for calm and urged Pristina to delay the implementation new rules. Late Sunday, Kosovo agreed to a 30-day deadline if all roadblocks were removed. Albin Kurti, Prime Minister of Kosovo, accused the protesters of trying to “destabilize” Kosovo and accused Serbia of orchestrating “acts of aggression” during the demonstrations.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, welcomed Kosovo’s decision to postpone the new measures until September 1 and said he expects “all roadblocks to be removed immediately”.

What is the link with the Serbia-Kosovo conflict?

The roots of the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo date back to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 2000s, which itself followed a long period of ethnic conflict between the Yugoslav republics in the 1990s. Serbia and Kosovo fought a brutal war between 1998 and 1999 that ended with NATO involvement in a US-backed bombing campaign against Serbian territory.

Serbia is a predominantly Orthodox Christian nation, but Kosovo – formerly a province of Yugoslavia – is dominated by ethnic Albanians, who are largely Muslim, in addition to a minority of ethnic Serbs. Tensions erupted between the groups, particularly over steps taken in 1989 by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, a Serbian nationalist, to abrogate Kosovo’s autonomy enshrined in the Yugoslav constitution.

In response, Kosovar militants formed the Kosovo Liberation Army and staged attacks on Serbia in the following years as they pushed for the creation of a new state encompassing the region’s ethnic Albanian minorities. Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army have also been accused of committing war crimes against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and those they considered collaborators.

The authorities in Belgrade violently repressed the Kosovo Albanian population, viewing them as sympathetic to the KLA and its separatist attacks. More than a million Kosovo Albanians have been driven from their homes.

Western countries and NATO became involved, bringing the parties together in France in February 1999 to negotiate a truce. While the Kosovo side agreed to a truce, Yugoslavia – which then included only Serbia and Montenegro – did not. Atrocities committed against Kosovo Albanians continued in what the US State Department at the time called a “systematic campaign” by “Serb forces and paramilitaries” to “ethnically cleanse Kosovo”.

In response, NATO launched a devastating 11-week bombing campaign against Yugoslavia that ended in June 1999, when the country signed a agreement with NATO to allow a Kosovo peacekeeping force.

Why is NATO in Kosovo and what is its mandate?

NATO has had a peacekeeping force in Kosovo — the Kosovo Force, or KFOR — since June 1999. The creation of the force was approved by a UN Security Council resolution.

KFOR’s initial objective was to prevent the resumption of conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians after NATO and Yugoslavia signed a peace agreement allowing the return of ethnic Albanians displaced by the war. .

Since then the force has been gradually reduced, dropping from around 50,000 men to less than 4,000 today. In his own words, it works for maintain security and stability in the region, supporting humanitarian groups and civil society, training and supporting the Kosovo Security Force and “supporting the development of a stable, democratic, multi-ethnic and peaceful Kosovo”.

In his statement on the protests in Kosovo On Sunday, KFOR said it was “monitoring” the situation and was “ready to intervene if stability was threatened”.

What is the link with the Russian-Ukrainian war?

The Balkans have not escaped the reverberations of the war in Ukraine.

Kosovo has supported Ukraine since the invasion of Russia, which Kurti, the prime minister, called “an attack on all of us”. Ukraine has not recognized Kosovo’s independence.

Russia – a longtime ally of Serbia – also does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state and has echoed the Serbian president in blaming the government in Pristina for the renewed tensions in northern Kosovo.

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, on Sunday accused Kosovo of using new laws on licensing and identity documents to discriminate against the Serbian population.

“We call on Pristina and the United States and the European Union that support it to stop provocations and respect the rights of Serbs in Kosovo,” she said, according to the Russian official. Cup Press Agency.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited Kosovo as justification for his recognition of two breakaway provinces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. “Very many western states have recognized [Kosovo] as an independent state, Putin told UN chief António Guterres when the two met in April. “We did the same with regard to the Donbass republics.”

Rachel Pannett and Ishaan Tharoor contributed to this report.

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