Europe closely monitors Kosovo, Serbia – POLITICO

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PRISTINA, Kosovo — The panic has subsided — for now, at least — after a border dispute last week sparked fears that Kosovo and Serbia are headed for another war on European soil.

Here on the ground, people have downplayed such possibilities, resisting wild speculation — and misinformation — scurrying around social media. For locals, these intermittent flare-ups are a regular occurrence and not necessarily a harbinger of a return to the fighting and bloodshed that dominated the Balkans in the 1990s.

But as Russia’s large-scale war in Ukraine rages eastwards, Europe is on edge.

The underlying tensions that sparked last week’s dispute are not going away. And leaders on both sides are still exchanging heated rhetoric. Meanwhile, the new rules that sparked protests last week have simply been delayed for a month, leaving the issue unresolved.

NATO and the EU are also both closely intertwined in local peacekeeping efforts, giving the institutions another potential flashpoint as they already struggle to maintain unity with Ukraine.

“There has been talk all over the world about the next war to break out in Kosovo,” said Donika Emini, an expert on Kosovo-Serb dynamics who heads a network of civil society groups. “This has never happened before – we had crises much worse than the last” [last week] and the global public paid little attention to it.”

“But,” she added, “because of the war in Ukraine, everyone is on high alert.”

POLITICO explains exactly what happened last weekend and what you can expect in the coming weeks.

What prompted the latest disagreement?

The feud, which has been going on since at least September last year, boils down to Kosovo’s desire to exert more influence over the ethnic Serb majority in the north of the country. Serbia, Kosovo’s neighbor, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and has opposed these steps.

Last weekend, Kosovo Serbs responded specifically to a new measure requiring them to use Kosovo-issued license plates and for people entering the country through Serbia to receive special entry documents.

Protesters blocked roads near the border. Barricades were erected. There was speculation about rioters firing shots at Kosovo’s police, but it was later confirmed that no one was injured.

Nearly a week later, on Saturday, shots were fired at a boat carrying Kosovar police officers as it attempted to launch a patrol formed at the border along what Serbs call Gazivode or Ujman Lake, according to Kosovar authorities. The lake is also part of an ongoing dispute between the two countries and was briefly renamed Trump Lake in 2020 when the former US president got involved.

The situation is already so tense that the local NATO-led peacekeeping mission known as the Kosovo Force, or KFOR, issued a statement saying it was “ready to intervene if stability is threatened”.

The lake is also part of an ongoing dispute between the two countries and was briefly renamed Trump Lake in 2020 when the former US president got involved | Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images

But on the ground, the protests didn’t necessarily feel so dire. Just an hour from the barricades, a grand open-air concert in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, went on.

After a evening meeting Last Sunday between the Kosovar President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister with the US Ambassador to the country, the Kosovar authorities postponed the implementation of the disputed measures for a month until September 1.

It is widely believed that the main cause of the incidents is the steady deterioration of the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, which was launched in 2011 to address unresolved technical issues such as registration plates or the mutual recognition of university degrees.

“Since September last year, the two sides have tried to work out the details of the license plate agreement within the Brussels dialogue, but this has not been successful,” said Emini.

What is the broader history?

Extensive fighting and bloodshed took place in the Western Balkans in the 1990s when Yugoslavia broke up, leading to successive wars between the former republics.

Nationalist politicians and inter-ethnic tensions still regularly cause flare-ups, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. But since 1999, nothing has reached the magnitude of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

In 2008 Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Over the past two decades, the country has seen more involvement from NATO, the United Nations and the EU than in any other European country to prevent potential bloodshed.

“There are incidents in northern Kosovo almost every six months and unfortunately this is not news for Kosovo,” Emini said. “This shows how much we have normalized incidents – which is very bad. You are playing with fire because one day these incidents may escalate more than we think they will.”

Who is now in charge in Kosovo and Serbia?

In Kosovo, Prime Minister Albin Kurti took office in 2021 and won the election with a historic majority as leader of the Vetëvendosje party, which is known for criticizing the undue influence international groups have over the country’s domestic affairs.

Since taking power, Kurti has taken a more confrontational approach than many of his predecessors from both the EU and Serbia.

“The current administration has campaigned against the idea that the dialogue was inherently asymmetrical, that more was constantly expected from Kosovo than from Serbia,” said Ramadan Ilazi, head of research at the Kosovo Center for Security Studies.

Kurti has also been more assertive towards the country’s ethnic Serb minority, which is concentrated in northern enclaves, where time has more or less stood still since 1999. The Serbian dinar is still widely used in these areas and Belgrade continues to maintain their health. and financing education systems . Many of the residents there have only Serbian citizenship, even if they live on Kosovo territory.

For years, Kosovo’s governments have chosen to treat these northern areas with caution, even though the country’s constitution technically grants the right to exercise sovereignty over the area. Kurti has gone in a different direction, regularly sending special police forces north to deal with issues ranging from illegal smuggling to protests.

On the Serbian side, President Aleksandar Vučić also did not shy away from confrontation, accusing Kosovo of provoking the expulsion of Kosovo Serbs with his recent measures. He warned: “If they dare to persecute Serbs,” then “there will be no surrender and Serbia will win.”

Many interpreted the comments to mean that Serbia will respond militarily.

What role do NATO and the EU play?

Should fighting actually break out, Kosovo and Serbia will be bound by an agreement in which NATO has the final say.

The pact gives Kosovo something akin to NATO’s Article 5 protection – which considers an attack on one military alliance member to be an attack on all members – even though Kosovo is not a NATO member. In addition to the NATO-led forces on the ground, NATO can immediately send an over-the-horizon or backup force to the country if necessary.

The EU also plays a role in crisis management. While Kosovo’s police are the first aid in every incident in the country – just like last Sunday – the EU’s local mission is next in line. An international EU-funded police force has been given special capabilities, particularly in the north, to assist with “operational crowd and riot control”.

NATO is the last option, a fail-safe if the situation degenerates into serious violence.

“They can take full control of the situation if they think developments endanger or harm security,” Ilazi said.

What happens now?

The barricades have been removed for the time being. But the measures that caused them to go up have only been postponed until September 1 in the hope that a solution can be found.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell confirmed that the two sides will meet in Brussels on August 18.

Still, the chance that the problem will be solved within a month seems small.

On Tuesday, Vučić, the Serbian president, said he was willing to go to Brussels to meet Kurti in search of a deal. But, he added, he “don’t expect anything from the meeting.”

“Anyone who thinks it is possible to keep peace with Albin Kurti is wrong,” Vučić told Serbian public broadcaster RTS.

Russia is also involved in the conflict because of its close relationship with Serbia, leading people to accuse the Kremlin’s propaganda of fueling tensions. Kurti even urged citizens not to “fall prey to Moscow’s propaganda” after Sunday’s events.

But the Kosovar leader has to walk a fine line between warning of the Kremlin’s misleading rapprochement and not letting Kosovar Serbs feel alienated.

“The North was portrayed as the bogeyman, so they inherently don’t trust that the Kosovo government really cares about their well-being,” Ilazi said.

According to Ilazi, the best way for Kosovo to move forward is to promote EU-led dialogue and make it more attractive for local Serbs to shift their allegiances, at least formally, from Belgrade to Pristina.

“The two possible outcomes of the recent incidents are either another push to finally resolve the outstanding issues, or a backlash in the situation and completely nullify the progress made so far,” Ilazi said.

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