With the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), because of political and economic developments in the Western Balkans, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), which was the dominant actor in the region, was destroyed because of the disintegration process that lasted for about twenty years. As the last stage of the process, with the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo on 17 February 2008, the youngest country in Europe took its place in the international arena.
The problems that emerged with the dissolution of the SFRY gained momentum with the uncertainty created by the ongoing Ukraine Crisis. Between Serbia, the successor of the SFRY in the region, and Kosovo, whose population consists of Albanians, there are ethnic and sovereignty problems which are becoming more and more effective day by day.
The “identity and license plate crisis” between the two countries on July 31, 2022, once again escalated the tension in the region. The tension in question has flared up once again with the decision of the Kosovo Central Government to hold early elections on December 18, 2022, in the northern part of the country, where Serbs are concentrated.
General Situation of Kosovo Serbs
Albanians and Serbs, who lived together for many years under the roof of the SFRY, became parties to two separate ethnic problems with the independence of Kosovo. The separation in question resulted in a situation where, on the one hand, the Albanian minority within the borders of Serbia and on the other hand the Serbian minority within the territory of Kosovo. As of 2014, there is a Serb population of approximately 100,000 people, a significant part of which resides in the north of the country in Kosovo. In this context, Serbs living in Kosovo constitute the second largest ethnic group in the country after Albanians and represent approximately 5% of the country’s population.
Local governments in Kosovo were established according to the resolution of the United Nations (UN) Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) dated 27 July 2000. With this decision, thirty local governments were established in the country. In ten of the established local governments, the Serbian population is numerically in the majority. These are the municipalities of; Northern Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Leposavić, Klokot, Gračanica, Parteš, Zvečan, Ranilug, Trpce and Novo Brdo and the functioning of these municipalities is regulated by the European Union (EU) Local Self-Government Charter. On April 19, 2013, a new agreement was signed between the two countries under the leadership of the EU, and some privileges were given to the Serb-dominated municipalities. However, discussions on the status of municipalities in the region continue.
License Plate and Identity Crisis
The Government of Kosovo announced a decision on August 1, 2022, which obliges persons entering the country to carry temporary documents instead of their Serbian identity cards during their stay in the country. After this decision, the problem of reciprocity between the two countries on license plates and identities, which caused the crisis, paved the way for regional and global actors to be included in the region once again. The issue has caused tensions in places in the north of Kosovo, especially in the Northern Mitrovica Region, where Serbs live intensely.
On 21 November 2022, the issue came to light once again, when the Pristina administration began to fine the Serbs who did not have a Republic of Kosovo license plate on their vehicles. In response to this decision of the Government of Kosovo, EU High Representative for Foreign Relations and Security Policy Josep Borrell called for a solution and dialogue to the parties after he meets with the Foreign Ministers of the member states in Brussels. Also, United States (US) State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement that the US was disappointed because of the disagreements between Kosovo and Serbia over the license plates used by the ethnic Serb minority in Kosovo.
On the other hand, Borrell announced that the representatives of Kosovo and Serbia, who met in Brussels, reached an agreement. Borrell stated that as per the agreement, Serbia will stop issuing license plates with city names in Kosovo, while Kosovo will end the controversial license plate application. This development is very important in terms of revealing the influence of the EU on the party countries.
The Issue of the Union of Serbian Municipalities and the Upcoming Elections
Mayors of Northern Mitrovica, Zveçan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic, where Serbs constitute a significant part of the population; resigned on 5 November 2022 as a sign of opposition to Kosovo’s decision to initiate the process of re-registration of vehicles with illegal Serbian license plates. Despite the resolution of the plate crisis under the leadership of the EU, no conclusion was reached for the disputed municipalities within the borders of Kosovo.
Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani’s declaration that early elections will be held on 18 December 2022 for the municipalities in the north of the country has led to tension between Serbia and Kosovo again. While Serbia is trying to establish a “Union of Serbian Municipalities” consisting of ten Serb-held municipalities in Kosovo; Kosovo opposes this, fearing that it may lead to partition in the future.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, on the other hand, claimed that such demands for autonomy for the Serb-majority regions in Northern Kosovo did not come from the local people, and stated that it was only requested by Belgrade to compensate for the losses suffered in the war under Milosevic, but this was not possible.
While the tension between the two countries continues; the biggest party of the Serb community living in Kosovo, the Serb List, has announced that it will not participate in the early elections to be held in the north of Kosovo. Ten deputies of the Serbian List also submitted their resignations to the Kosovo Parliament. In the 2021 local elections, 28,517 of the 31,533 voters who participated in the four northern municipalities voted for the Serb List.
Possible Regional Impacts
The rise of tension on the Serbia-Kosovo line is considered the first foreign policy test of the new cabinet that took office in Serbia on October 26, 2022. The new cabinet is formed in the same direction as Serbia’s long-standing policy of balance. The cabinet includes pro-EU ministers and pro-Russian names together.
The most striking figure in the newly formed government is the pro-Russian Ivica Dacic, the current leader of the Socialist Party, which was led by Slobodan Milosevic in the past. Dacic, appointed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is an important indicator of the future of Serbian foreign policy.
The elections in Kosovo are expected to affect the regional dynamics in the Western Balkans, especially the domestic politics of Serbia. The cabinet formed in Serbia may take a more hawkish stance on this issue as the elections in Kosovo approach. The first signs of this situation are the signing of employment contracts with all Serbs who left public institutions in the north of Kosovo. It is stated that many Serbian citizens, among whom are in positions such as judges, police, and customs officers, will start working in Serbian institutions from the first days of 2023.
Another reflection of the elections in Kosovo on Serbian domestic politics is the status of the Albanian community living in the country. Representatives of Albanians from southern Serbia demand the same status in the country as Serbs in northern Kosovo. In this context, it states that the issue of the status of Serbs in four municipalities in Kosovo and Albanians in three municipalities in southern Serbia is inseparable.
Any change in the situation of the Serb population in Kosovo has the potential to affect other countries in the region, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia. Likely, a Union of Serbian Municipalities to be established in the country will take the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina as an example.
Similarly, the situation of the Albanian minority in North Macedonia, although strong in the central government, can be debated. In addition, by using their specific gravity in the central government, steps can be taken to harden the policies of North Macedonia towards Serbia. At the last point, possible disagreements between the countries of the region; The Open Balkan Initiative, in which Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia are among them, and Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have observer status, may create some problems in the future.
Although the license plate and identity crisis between Kosovo and Serbia seems to have been resolved, the tension has the potential to continue in the coming days over the status of Serbian municipalities within the borders of Kosovo.
Various concessions to be granted to the mentioned municipalities pose significant risks against the unitary structure of Kosovo. The Union of Serbian Municipalities to be established in the region will create a second unstable region in the middle of the Balkans, just like the Serbian Autonomous Region within the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The failure of the Serb List to participate in the elections expected to be held on 18 December 2022 may bring a serious legitimacy crisis in the region. Because the Belgrade administration’s employment of Serbs who resigned from Kosovo institutions and a possible legitimacy crisis that may occur in regions where Serbs are concentrated may strengthen the hand of the Vucic administration in domestic politics. As a result, discourses of nationalism may gain more weight.
It is also possible that any ethnic tension in the region will open the door to other ethnic crises in the Balkan geography. Just like Serbia, other Western Balkan states, especially Albania, will be affected by the planned elections in Kosovo. This will also affect the future of the Open Balkan Initiative, which is the most important cooperation in the region.
In this context, the disagreements between Serbia and Kosovo may come to the fore in the Open Balkan Initiative in the coming period. In such a case, it can be argued that a pause period may be entered for the initiative in question.
Looking at the current government established in Serbia, Moscow can become one of Serbia’s traditional allies in a possible problem. Russia’s being one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, especially in the legitimacy problem that will arise in the Serbian region in Kosovo, will bring the two countries closer. Therefore, it is not easy for Serbia to support the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after the Ukraine Crisis.
In the current conjuncture, the Brussels and Washington administrations, which put their weight on the Ukraine Crisis, do not want new instability in the region. However, the Pristina administration seems to be alone in the international arena regarding the establishment of the Union of Serbian Municipalities within the borders of Kosovo. It is a question of how long Pristina can maintain this stance.
On the other hand, the EU and the US are also concerned about the possibility of Moscow getting involved in the problem in the future. For this reason, it is seen that they are trying to prevent the escalation of the problem.
As a result, after the elections planned to be held on December 18, 2022, municipalities with a Serbian majority in Kosovo will continue to exist as a problem waiting to be resolved between both countries and regional and global actors.
 Fred Cocozelli, “The Serbs of Kosovo”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014.
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