Kosovo-Serbia tensions over license plates: what to know if NATO guards the dispute?

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Kosovo and Serbia — two Balkan countries that fought a bloody war in the 1990s and have lived in uneasy coexistence ever since — are once again at odds, this time over steps by Kosovo to force ethnic Serbs living in the northern regions to license plates. available issued by the Kosovar authorities.

The seemingly mundane move is anything but, as the status of ethnic Serbs living near the Serbia-Kosovo border is at the heart of a long-standing conflict between the two governments. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, but Serbia still regards Kosovo as its province.

“The general security situation in the northern municipalities of 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 about?

The latest flare-up of tensions is related to new rules on license plates and cross-border travel documents.

Under new regulations to come into effect on August 1, ethnic Serbs living in villages in northern Kosovo would have to apply for license plates issued by the Kosovar authorities for their vehicles. Since the 1998-99 war, some in that population had used Serbian number plates with a different status. The authorities in Kosovo tolerated the two-track system to keep the peace, but said last year they would no longer do so.

Another rule would have forced Serbian nationals visiting Kosovo to obtain an additional entry-exit document from Kosovo authorities at the border. Before, they could do without. Serbia imposes a similar rule on Kosovars who want to cross its borders.

Tensions flare up between Kosovo and Serbia; NATO peacekeepers follow border protests

The government in Kosovo’s capital Pristina has been trying for years to gain full institutional control over the ethnic Serb-majority areas of northern Kosovo, but has faced strong resistance from residents who still consider their communities part of of Serbia.

On Sunday, ethnic Serbs blocked roads in northern Kosovo to protest the new rules, forcing Kosovar authorities to close two border crossings, 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 agreement on free movement between Kosovo and Serbia.

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

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

How does this relate to the Serbian-Kosovo conflict?

The roots of the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo go back to the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 2000s, which itself followed a prolonged 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’s involvement in a US-backed bombing campaign on Serbian territory.

Serbia is a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, but Kosovo – formerly a province of Yugoslavia – is dominated by ethnic Albanians, who are largely Muslim, alongside a minority of ethnic Serbs. Tensions flared between the groups, especially over moves in 1989 by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, a nationalist Serb, to abolish Kosovo’s autonomy enshrined in the Yugoslav constitution.

In response, Kosovar militants formed the Kosovo Liberation Army and, in the following years, launched attacks on Serbia while pushing for the creation of a new state comprising the region’s ethnic Albanian minorities. Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were also accused of committing war crimes against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and those they considered to be collaborators.

The authorities in Belgrade have acted violently against the Albanian population of Kosovo, viewing them as supporters of the KLA and its separatist attacks. More than 1 million Kosovar Albanians were displaced from their homes.

Western countries and NATO became involved, bringing the parties together in France in February 1999 to negotiate a ceasefire. While the Kosovar side agreed to a ceasefire, 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, which ended in June 1999, when the country signed an agreement with NATO to allow a peacekeeping force into Kosovo.

Why is NATO in Kosovo and what is its mandate?

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

KFOR’s original goal was to prevent the conflict between ethnic Serbs and Albanians from starting again after NATO and Yugoslavia signed a peace agreement that would allow the return of ethnic Albanians displaced by the war.

Since then, the force has been gradually reduced, from about 50,000 troops to less than 4,000 today. In its own words, it works to maintain security and stability in the region, support humanitarian groups and civil society, train and support the Kosovo Security Force and “support the development of a stable, democratic, multi-ethnic and peaceful Kosovo”.

In its statement on the protests in Kosovo on Sunday, KFOR said it was “monitoring” the situation and “willing to intervene if stability is compromised”.

How does this relate to the war between Russia and Ukraine?

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

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

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

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, accused Kosovo on Sunday of using the new licensing laws and identity documents to discriminate against the Serb population.

“We call on Pristina and the United States and the European Union to stop the provocation and respect the rights of the Serbs in Kosovo,” she said, according to the official Russian news agency Tass.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited Kosovo to justify its recognition of two separatist provinces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. “Many states of the West recognized [Kosovo] as an independent state,” Putin told UN chief António Guterres when the two met in April. “We have done the same with regard to the republics of Donbas.”

Rachel Pannett and Ishaan Tharoor contributed to this report.

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