The former Serbian province of Kosovo has long been a source of tension in European diplomacy. When it unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, it did so in violation of Serbian constitutional law, but several other nations, including the United States, have acknowledged the decision.
In response to the Kosovo government’s decision to change car license plates issued in Serbia, representatives of the approximately 50,000 ethnic Serbs living in the north of Kosovo resigned from state institutions including the police and judiciary roles, igniting the most recent round of unrest.
Serbia has raised its military’ state of alert due to the continued conflict. Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, has said that he took these actions to “defend our people (in Kosovo) and preserve Serbia.”
He asserted that Pristina was getting ready to launch an assault on Kosovo Serbs and remove the barriers forcibly. Pristina has requested assistance from KFOR, NATO’s operation in Kosovo, implying that it may remove the barriers on its own if NATO does not take action.
“It is paramount that all involved avoid any rhetoric or actions that can cause tensions and escalate the situation,” Major General Angelo Michele Ristuccia said in a statement.
“Solutions should be sought through dialogue,” he added.
Any military intervention by Serbia in Kosovo would likely result in a clash with NATO forces and massively escalate tensions in the Balkans. The European region has yet to fully recover from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, which ended with NATO bombing Serbia and Montenegro in 1999.
As of this morning, following months of tension between Belgrade and its former western Balkan province threatened to explode into violence, Kosovo shuttered its major border crossing with Serbia on Wednesday.
Serbia threatened to intervene to defend ethnic Serbs if international peacekeepers were unable to defuse the tensions, which are the result of a disagreement over the issuance of car license plates by Pristina, and put the military forces it has sent to the border with Kosovo on the highest state of combat alert.
Aleksandar Vui, the president of Serbia, claimed on Tuesday that Kosovo was getting ready to assault ethnic Serbs in the country’s north and threatened to “defend our people [in Kosovo] and safeguard Serbia.” Ethnic Serbs have been demonstrating against Pristina’s rule for weeks now, participating in walkouts from government buildings and setting up roadblocks in cities and along the border.
Having unilaterally seceded from Serbia in 2008, Belgrade has declared that it will never recognize its former province as an independent state. The international community’s ability to influence the situation has reportedly weakened in recent months, and both sides appear serious about the potential use of force, according to analysts.
In a joint statement released on Wednesday, the EU and the US urged “maximum restraint” and steps to defuse the “continued tense situation in the north of Kosovo.”
Both the EU and US were working with Vucic and Kurti “to find a political solution in order to defuse the tensions and agree on the way forward in the interest…of all communities”, said spokespersons for the EU’s foreign policy arm and the US state department.
Brussels and Washington also welcomed assurances from Kosovo that “no lists of Kosovo Serb citizens to be arrested or prosecuted for peaceful protests/barricades exist”.
Moscow is one of Belgrade’s most important allies, thus the west felt pressure to resolve the Kosovo issue quickly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the Ukraine war rages on, a new conflict would seriously undermine the chances of the nations entering the EU and NATO and endanger European unification.
The spokesperson for President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, stated that while Moscow “supports what Belgrade is doing,” it does not have a “destructive influence” in the region, and is not involved in any way.
“Serbia is defending the rights of Serbs who live nearby in difficult conditions. Of course, they react severely when these rights are violated” Peskov said on Wednesday, according to Interfax.
Over the past three weeks, Serbs in northern Kosovo have set up more than 10 roadblocks in and around the city of Mitrovica partly in response to the arrest of a former Serb policeman, Dejan Pantic, who was accused of assaulting serving police officers.
As of this morning, he has been released from jail and placed under house arrest, his lawyer Ljubomir Pantovic told AP. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti has criticized the court decision allowing Pantic to leave prison.
While it remains to be seen if the roadblocks will continue to stay up, or if they will be removed, it doesn’t seem like tensions will be lowered without international efforts.
Vucic on Tuesday said Serbia would “continue to fight for peace and seek compromise solutions”.