Europe keeps a wary eye on Kosovo, Serbia

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PRISTINA, Kosovo — Panic has subsided — for now, at least — after a border dispute last week fueled fears that Kosovo and Serbia might be careening toward another war on European soil. 

On the ground here, people have been downplaying such possibilities, pushing back against wild speculation — and disinformation — racing around social media. For locals, these intermittent flare-ups are a regular occurrence and not necessarily a precursor of a return to the fighting and bloodshed that dominated the Balkans in the 1990s. 

Yet with Russia’s full-scale war raging to the east in Ukraine, Europe is on edge. 

The underlying tensions that sparked last week’s dispute are not going away. And leaders on both sides are still swapping heated rhetoric. Meanwhile, the new rules that prompted protesting last week have simply been delayed a month, leaving the issue unresolved. 

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NATO and the EU are also both deeply entwined in local peacekeeping efforts, giving the institutions another potential flash point when they’re already struggling to retain unity toward Ukraine.

“There’s been chatter all over the world about the next war breaking out in Kosovo,” said Donika Emini, an expert on the Kosovo-Serbia dynamic who heads a network of civil society groups. “This never happened before — we had crises much worse than the one [last week] and the global audience barely paid attention to them.”

“But,” she added, “because of the war in Ukraine, everyone is on high alert.”

POLITICO breaks down what, exactly, happened last weekend, and what to expect in the coming weeks. 

What prompted the latest disagreement?

The row, which has been ongoing since at least September of last year, boils down to Kosovo wanting to exert increased influence on the ethnic Serb majority concentrated in the north of the country. Serbia, Kosovo’s neighbor, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and has opposed these steps.

Last weekend, Kosovo Serbs were specifically reacting to a new measure that would require them to use Kosovo-issued car license plates and for people entering the country via Serbia to receive special entry documents.

Protesters blocked roads near the border. Barricades were erected. Speculation spread about rioters firing shots at the Kosovo police — but it was later confirmed there were no injuries. 

Almost a week later, on Saturday, shots were fired in the direction of a boat carrying Kosovo police officers as it attempted to launch a patrol of the border formed along what Serbs refer to as Gazivode or Ujman Lake, according to Kosovo authorities. The lake is also part of an ongoing dispute between the two countries, and was briefly renamed Trump Lake in 2020 when the former U.S. president got involved.

The situation has been tense enough that the local NATO-led peacekeeping mission, known as the Kosovo Force, or KFOR, issued a statement saying it was “prepared to intervene if stability is jeopardized.” 

The lake is also part of an ongoing dispute between the two countries, and was briefly renamed Trump Lake in 2020 when the former U.S. president got involved | Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images

Yet on the ground, the protests did not necessarily feel so dire. Only an hour away from the barricades, a massive open-air concert in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, carried on as usual. 

After a late-night meeting last Sunday between the Kosovo president, prime minister and minister of foreign affairs with the U.S. ambassador to the country, the Kosovo authorities postponed the implementation of the disputed measures for a month until September 1.

The main cause for the incidents is widely believed to be the steady deterioration of the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, which was launched in 2011 precisely to tackle unresolved technical issues — like license plates or the mutual recognition of university diplomas.

“Since September of last year, the two sides have been trying to work out the details of the license plate agreement within the Brussels dialogue and failed to do so,” said Emini.

What’s the broader history? 

The western Balkan region saw extensive fighting and bloodshed during the 1990s as Yugoslavia disintegrated, sparking successive wars among its former republics.

Nationalist politicians and inter-ethnic tensions regularly cause flare-ups even today, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. But since 1999, nothing has reached the scale of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. For the past two decades, the country has seen more involvement from NATO, the United Nations and the EU than in any other European country in order to avert possible bloodshed.

“There are incidents in the north of Kosovo almost every six months and this, sadly, is not news for Kosovo,” Emini said. “This shows how much we have normalized incidents — which is very bad. You’re playing with fire, because one day these incidents might just escalate more than we think they will.”

Who’s in charge now in Kosovo and Serbia? 

In Kosovo, Prime Minister Albin Kurti swept into office in 2021, winning the election by a landmark majority as leader of the Vetëvendosje party, known for criticizing the outsized influence international groups have on the country’s domestic affairs. 

Since taking over, Kurti has taken a more confrontational approach than many of his predecessors to both the EU and Serbia.

“The current government campaigned on the idea that the dialogue was inherently asymmetrical, that more was continuously expected from Kosovo than from Serbia,” said Ramadan Ilazi, head of research at the Kosovo Center for Security Studies.

Kurti has also been more assertive toward the country’s ethnic Serbian minority, which is concentrated in northern enclaves, where time has more or less stopped since 1999. The Serbian dinar is still widely used in these areas and Belgrade continues to finance their health and education systems. Many of the residents there only have Serbian citizenship, even while living on Kosovo territory. 

For years, Kosovo governments have chosen to treat these northern territories cautiously, even though the country’s constitution technically gives it the right to exercise sovereignty over the area. Kurti has gone in a different direction, regularly sending special police units to the north to deal with issues ranging from illegal smuggling to protests.

On the Serbian side, President Aleksandar Vučić has also not shied away from confrontation, accusing Kosovo of provoking the expulsion of Kosovo Serbs with its recent measures. He warned: “If they dare to begin persecuting Serbs” then “there will be no surrender and Serbia will win.”

Many interpreted the remarks to mean Serbia will react militarily. 

What role do NATO and the EU play? 

In case fighting actually erupts, Kosovo and Serbia are bound by an agreement in which NATO has the final say. 

The pact gives Kosovo something akin to NATO’s Article 5 protections — which deems an attack on one military alliance member is an attack on all members — even though Kosovo is not a NATO member. In addition to the NATO-led troops on the ground, NATO can immediately deploy an over-the-horizon or backup force to the country if needed. 

The EU, too, plays a role in crisis management. While Kosovo police are the first responders to any incident in the country — as they were last Sunday — the EU’s local mission is next in line. An international, EU-financed police force has been granted special capabilities, particularly in the north, to help with “operational crowd and riot control.”

NATO is the final option, a fail-safe if the situation deteriorates into serious violence. 

“They can take complete control of the situation if they believe developments jeopardize or are detrimental to safety and security,” Ilazi said.

What happens next?

For now, the barricades have been removed. But the measures that caused them to go up have only been delayed until September 1 in the hopes that a solution can be found. 

The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borell, confirmed that the two sides would meet in Brussels on August 18.

Yet the prospect of the issue being resolved in a month seems slim. 

On Tuesday, Vučić, the Serbian president, said he was prepared to go to Brussels to meet with Kurti in search of a deal. But, he added, he “does not expect anything from the meeting.”

“Anyone who thinks it’s possible to maintain peace with Albin Kurti is wrong,” Vučić told Serbian public broadcaster RTS.

Russia has also been dragged into the conflict because of its close relationship with Serbia, leading people to accuse the Kremlin’s propaganda of fueling tensions. Kurti even urged citizens not to “fall prey to Moscow propaganda” after Sunday’s events. 

But the Kosovo leader must walk a fine line between warning of the Kremlin’s misleading overtures and not making Kosovo Serbs feel alienated. 

“The North was portrayed as the boogeyman, so they inherently do not trust that the Kosovo government genuinely cares about their well-being,” Ilazi said.

According to Ilazi, the best way for Kosovo to make progress is to advance the EU-led dialogue and make it more attractive for local Serbs to shift their loyalties, at least formally, from Belgrade to Pristina.

“The two possible outcomes of the recent incidents are either a new push to finally resolve outstanding issues or a regress in the situation and for the progress made so far to be entirely canceled out,” Ilazi said.