Kosovo-Serbia tensions over license plates: What to know as NATO monitors dispute

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

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

“The overall security situation in the Northern municipalities of Kosovo is tense,” NATO’s peacekeeping force in Kosovo said Sunday in a statement. 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 in tensions is tied to new rules over license plates and cross-border travel documents.

Under new regulations that were meant to take effect on Aug. 1, ethnic Serbs living in villages in northern Kosovo would have had to apply for license plates issued by Kosovar authorities for their vehicles. Since the 1998-99 war, some in that population had used Serbian license plates with a different status. Authorities in Kosovo tolerated the dual-track system to preserve 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 Kosovar authorities at the border. Previously, they could enter without it. Serbia imposes a similar rule on Kosovars seeking to cross its borders.

Kosovo-Serbia tensions flare; NATO peacekeepers track border protests

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

On Sunday, ethnic Serbs blockaded roads in northern Kosovo to protest the new rules, forcing Kosovar authorities to shut down two border crossings, Jarinje and Brnjak. Kosovar police said shots were fired in their direction during the protests, although no one was hurt, Reuters reported.

Belgrade argues that the new rules violate a 2011 agreement on freedom of movement between Kosovo and Serbia.

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

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

How is this related to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict?

The roots of the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo go back to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 2000s, which itself followed a drawn-out period of ethnic conflicts between the Yugoslav republics in the 1990s. Serbia and Kosovo fought a brutal war between 1998 and 1999 that ended with the involvement of NATO in a US-backed bombing campaign against Serbian territory.

Serbia is a majority Orthodox Christian nation, but Kosovo — previously a province of Yugoslavia — is dominated by ethnic Albanians, who are largely Muslim, in addition to a minority of ethnic Serbs. Tensions flared between the groups, particularly over moves in 1989 by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, a nationalist Serb, to abrogate the autonomy of Kosovo enshrined in the Yugoslav constitution.

In response, Kosovar militants formed the Kosovo Liberation Army and staged attacks against Serbia in the following years as they pushed for the creation of a new state encompassing 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 viewed as collaborators.

Authorities in Belgrade violently cracked down on the Albanian population of Kosovo, viewing them as supportive of the KLA and its separatist attacks. More than 1 million Kosovar Albanians were driven from their homes.

Western countries and NATO became involved, bringing the parties together in France in February 1999 to negotiate a truce. While the Kosovar side agreed to a truce, Yugoslavia — which by then encompassed only Serbia and Montenegro — did not. Atrocities committed against Kosovar Albanians continued in what the US State Department at the time called a “systematic campaign” by “Serbian forces and paramilitaries” to “ethnically cleanse Kosovo.”

In response, NATO launched a devastating 11-week bombing campaign against Yugoslavia that 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 creation of the force was approved by a UN Security Council resolution.

KFOR’s initial goal was to prevent conflict from restarting between ethnic Serbs and Albanians after NATO and Yugoslavia signed a peace agreement allowing for the return of ethnic Albanians displaced by the war.

Since then, the force has gradually been reduced, from roughly 50,000 troops to fewer 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 about the protests in Kosovo on Sunday, KFOR said it was “monitoring” the situation and was “prepared to intervene if stability is jeopardized.”

How is this related to the Russia-Ukraine war?

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

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

Russia — a long-standing ally of Serbia — does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state, either, and has echoed Serbia’s president in blaming the government in Pristina for the 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 ID documents to discriminate against the Serbian population.

“We call on Pristina and the United States and the European Union backing it to stop provocation and observe the Serbs’ rights in Kosovo,” she said, according to Russia’s official Tass news agency.

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

Rachel Pannett and Ishaan Tharoor contributed to this report.

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