Increasing tension between Pristina and Belgrade due to licence plate and identity rules of the Government of Kosovo, brought fragility of Balkan geopolitics to light again. This also caused concerns on the possibility of a new war in the Balkans. Nevertheless, the postponement of the decision by the Government of Kosovo for a month, and declaration of upcoming meeting between the leaders of the two countries in Brussels decreased the tension to some extent. However, there are serious concerns over the course of the process. In that sense, Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the views of Bledar Feta, International Relations Expert of Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).
What do you think about the crisis between Kosovo-Serbia? Can you evaluate the reasons for the emergence of the crisis?
The root of the recent trouble is a dispute between the two countries over reciprocal measures announced by Kosovar authorities regarding license plates and identity cards, moves that Belgrade and ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo regard as a provocation as they don’t recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.
This latest bureaucratic dispute which flared up tensions between Belgrade and Pristina is only the tip of the iceberg. Much deeper disputes, mainly related to the conflict over the status of Kosovo are simmering beneath. The key issue is the volatile situation in the Serb-dominated north.
This area functions as an extension of Serbian territory with local population partaking fully in Serbian institutional structures, a reality which undermines Kosovo’s authorities as an independent state.
In fact, the Pristina government has no effective control in this territory and every effort by the government of Kosovo to assert full institutional control over the ethnic Serb-majority areas of northern Kosovo results in tensions and civil disobedience. Northern Serbs are strongly resisting the extension of Pristina’s authority to a territory they have controlled since 1999. In this context, the new measures announced by the government of Kosovo which requires vehicles crossing from Serbia to purchase temporary registration plates issued by the Kosovar authorities is incorporating a bureaucratic or technical procedure into two different narratives strongly related to the different stance that both sides have in relation to the status of Kosovo.
Serbs view Kosovo as an inalienable part of their country and consequently deem it unquestionable that the use of documents issued by Kosovar authorities should be rejected, otherwise accepting, or tolerating them could be seen as one step closer to the recognition of Kosovo. On the other hand, the Pristina government, having unilaterally declared independence in February of 2008, considers that the tolerance of the Kosovar authorities over the dual track system followed so far cannot be continued, insisting on the introduction of reciprocity measures like the one Serbia implements towards Kosovo citizens.
These contradictory views are reflected on the ground by parallel structures, while tensions are escalating periodically with Pristina trying to establish and strengthen statehood, and Belgrade constantly trying to undermine it. Not only the latest crisis but also the previous tensions stem from this setting which has created a peculiar status of dual sovereignty with all the problems it entails.
- How far do you think the crisis could go? Can KFOR intervene?
Even though this current crisis is not different from the conflict-ridden routine that regularly hits Kosovo, the fact that it happened during a geopolitical uncertainty in Europe it raised speculation about a Russian-Ukrainian spillover in the Balkans with many seeing the Kosovo-Serbian dispute as Russia’s new confrontation front with the West.
From a realistic perspective, Serbian military intervention in Kosovo like Russia’s in Ukraine is highly unlikely to happen. At this stage, there is not solution on the dispute but only a postponement in the implementation of the new rules on license plates and mandatory entry/exit permits by Kosovar authorities until the beginning of September. Under these circumstances, the possibility to see new tensions in the near future is considerably high.
Given the historical background and existing political predicaments, the issue of license plates will not be the last conflict between Kosovo and Serbia, as long as the status issue is not addressed. The vicious circle of repeated tensions in Kosovo is not going to break soon since neither Belgrade and Pristina nor the European Union as a mediator seem close to finding long-term solutions for the deep-seated issues. The longer this dispute lasts, the bigger the potential for tensions and conflict.
Now, how far these tensions could go is a matter of different variables at the time that each crisis will happen. The fact that the overall security situation in the Northern municipalities of Kosovo is tense is a worrisome issue and requires closer attention by the international community.
The NATO-led KFOR mission is there to monitor the security situation. Through an official statement, the mission declared its readiness to intervene in case of escalation. If internationals want to make real progress in Kosovo, they should first recognize that the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue is deadlocked and secondly seek alternatives that will improve the volatile security situation.
There are short- and medium-term policy options available. For example, KFOR could be deployed in full in northern Kosovo, while Brussels could map out a clear path towards membership for both Serbia and Kosovo, making at the same time efforts to convince the 5 non-recognizers to recognize Kosovo or at least refrain from obstructing EU membership for the country.
- What can you say about the reflections of the crisis on the regional countries? Does this crisis have any connection to the Russo-Ukrainian War?
The stability of Kosovo is a key factor in ensuring the stability of the Balkans. In light of recent developments, no one should underestimate the effects that a severe crisis in Kosovo could have on other countries in the region.
The Balkans currently lingers between political instability in Bosnia and Bulgaria, dubious democratic governmental tactics in Serbia and Albania, minority tensions in Kosovo, and anti-Western rhetoric in North Macedonia after the adoption of the French proposal for a compromise with Bulgaria. In addition, in the absence of any meaningful socio-economic improvement for their citizens, all region’s actors are using inflammatory, nationalistic, divisive rhetoric that could further destabilize the region.
Under this extremely explosive combination in the Balkans, any crisis like the one in Kosovo not only could unleash new turmoil but at the same time creates room and vulnerabilities that can be exploited by third players such as Russia to increase their influence in the region.
So far, there is no proof of a Russian hand in the protests in northern Kosovo, even though Moscow tried to exploit the situation through the adoption of a hard-line position, accusing the government of Kosovo and its western allies of violating the rights of ethnic Serbs and of trying to provoke violence.
The tensions between Serbia and Kosovo or any other conflict in the Balkans serve Russian interests in the region because it delays the integration of the region’s countries into western organizations such as the EU and NATO.
For now, the Kosovo-Serbian dispute has been emerged as a privileged field for Moscow’s influence in the Balkans. The fact that Serbia relies on Russia to achieve more satisfactory resolution of the Kosovo dispute creates a state of permanent dependency between Belgrade and Moscow, giving Russia a valuable trump card in the Balkans. The main question now is how Serbia which is highly integrated into the Russian zone of influence can affect the well-funded western security architecture in the Western Balkans.
Serbia remains a key country for the maintenance of stability in the region due to its size, influence on several neighboring states and central location in the region. Belgrade has the potential to influence the situation in BiH, Kosovo and Montenegro by generating crisis and instability/stability in the Balkans. This potential of Serbia is the main reason for its specific importance in the region. By solving the issue that concerns Serbia and its European path, at least another two significant issues in the region would be solved – the status of Kosovo and the constitutional changes in BiH.
Whether Serbia will become a stabilizing or a destabilizing factor in the Balkans will depend on Brussels’ policy and strategy in the region and above all on how the EU will deal with Vucic’s regime. The EU must work in putting an end to policymakers’ ambivalence towards the region closing the “vacuum” created by the stagnation in the region’s EU accession process. This is the first necessary step in challenging the influence of Russia in the region.
The second step for the EU is to formulate and use a more effective enlargement strategy with concrete milestones. The delays to the EU accession process and the lack of a realistic road map for convergence between the region and the EU has created room for Russia to operate. The region’s western orientation should not be taken for granted. Enough people in the region while still proclaiming loyalty to a pro-Western strategic orientation have proved to be rather easily swayed away from western values to support anti-democratic forces. Therefore, at the third step, the EU need to re-engage with the region on a new basis taking into consideration the new realities the Russian and the Chinese presence have created.