Latest tensions between Kosovo and Serbia reveal EU’s diplomatic limits – Carnegie Europe

It has been a hot summer in the Balkans, as tensions over the sovereignty dispute between Serbia and Kosovo have intensified. Outbreaks involving Serbs in northern Kosovo occur periodically, but the war in Ukraine casts a shadow over the situation, and many see a connection. However, the current crisis is largely the result of local factors, with leadership choices and strategies at the root of the unrest. It also testifies to the limitations of the EU in advancing diplomatic efforts.

Dimitar Bechev

Dimitar Bechev is a Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe, where he focuses on Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

More >

License plates are the catalyst for the current crisis. Since 2011, authorities in Prishtina have admitted that Kosovo Serbs can use plates with “KS” for Kosovo, rather than “RKS” for the Republic of Kosovo, since Serbia considers Kosovo part of its territory. Issued by the UN, KS plates have been deemed “status neutral”. But the agreement expired in 2021 and Kosovo authorities decided to require cars with KS plates to switch to RKS plates. In addition, the government introduced a requirement that anyone entering Kosovo with a Serbian identity card must complete a form to be used as identification for ninety days – a decision justified as a reciprocal response to policies applied by Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo. identity cards.

Angered by this decision, in late July, Serbs living in northern Kosovo set up border roadblocks and fired on police. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti accused Serbia of plotting an invasion in the region, which Belgrade considers a breakaway province, while Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić warned the Prishtina government against harassing Local Serbs under the pretext of fighting “alleged criminal structures”.

Throughout this crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been cited as driving tension in Kosovo. Like Russia, Serbian society harbors historical grudges dating back to Western interventions in the Yugoslav wars, and Kosovo Albanians also have painful memories of the 1990s. Belgrade’s cordial ties with Moscow are also at stake. supported statements by the UN General Assembly condemning the Russian assault on Ukraine, Serbia has so far resisted pressure to side with Western sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Experts have speculated that Russia is pulling the strings in northern Kosovo and is planning to open a second front against the West in the “soft underbelly” of the EU. In response to the tensions, NATO issued a statement stating that its 3,700-strong peacekeeping contingent was “ready to intervene if stability [was] in danger. »

But the impasse is local, not manufactured by the Kremlin. Local players are in charge. Kurti, the left-wing leader of the Vetëvendosje (self-determination) movement who was a political prisoner under the regime of Slobodan Milošević, is determined to assert Kosovo’s sovereignty in the north, regardless of Serbia’s reaction. Kosovo has long been short of goodwill, especially as Serbia tries to persuade other countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Kurti worked hard to bring Serb-populated northern districts under tighter control, and he criticized his political opponents for negotiating with Serbia. Last April, his government banned the opening of polling stations for Serbia’s presidential and parliamentary elections in defiance of the so-called Quint, the main Western states that support Kosovo.

Vučić, who launched his career in the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party and rose to the post of information minister when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, is not in compromise mode either. The unrest offers him a golden opportunity to stand out as a leader defending the interests and well-being of Serbia. And since Kurti was the one to upset the status quo, Vučić is all too happy to play the adult. Unlike Belgrade’s jingoist media and his warmongering cronies, the Serbian president has eagerly engaged with the EU to defuse the crisis. But Vučić’s message to the West comes with strings attached: If you want peace in the Balkans, you work with me and invest in me. In other words, reduce the pressure on Serbia to come into line with the sanctions against Russia.

The crisis also testifies to the limits of the EU, which is moderately good at putting out fires but lacks a plan for a lasting settlement of the dispute. Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, helped diffuse the fall 2021 standoff. Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, did his best to contain the situation current. The EU is also acting in step with the United States. US Ambassador Christopher Hill urged Kosovo to delay implementing the license plate change until September, and Borrell reignited meetings between Kosovo and Serbia. Gabriel Escobar, the State Department’s special envoy for the Western Balkans, and Miroslav Lajčák, his counterpart in the European External Action Service, met Kurti in Pristina on Wednesday before traveling to Belgrade on Thursday in a bid to find an agreement on the license plate crisis.

In contrast, the last summit in Brussels, where Kurti and Vučić met alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, yielded no results except an agreement to continue talking. And the so-called normalization process – which provides for the step-by-step establishment of a functional relationship between Belgrade and Prishtina culminating in a legally binding agreement or even conditional recognition of Kosovo – is in the doldrums. The license plate debacle is a symptom of a much larger problem.

Belgrade sees no incentive to work to improve relations with Prishtina, as EU membership – the cornerstone of the 2013 Brussels agreement, the most important of the 20 or so agreements adopted so far – remains more elusive than ever. Ditto for the Serb municipalities described by the agreement, which would give the Serbs of Kosovo a certain autonomy. Kosovo Albanians perceive it as a potential Trojan horse, aware of the case of Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

Kosovo Albanian politicians also have good reason to distrust the EU. Five EU member states (including Borrell’s native Spain) continue to deny recognition of Prishtina, and the bloc remains reluctant to lift visa requirements for Kosovar citizens entering the area without a Schengen passport, a freedom enjoyed by all the other Western Balkan countries. As Ukraine and Moldova have become official EU candidates, and as their citizens have long traveled without visas in the EU, Kosovars feel excluded and isolated. Kurti’s hardline stance resonates with those sentiments.

In 2020, US President Donald Trump’s administration-led mediation between Belgrade and Prishtina toyed with the idea of ​​territorial swaps, an idea opposed by European countries. But the United States has at least injected some momentum into the search for a settlement. No such momentum is currently visible on the EU side. European policy is reactive and Kosovo is not a priority until the security situation deteriorates. The EU may have all the tools to defuse the crisis, but it has long since lost its sense of direction for a solution, and the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo are happy to play along. Time is running out: tensions are sure to resurface if Kosovo implements the license plate decision next week.