How a license plate row morphed into a diplomatic crisis between the neighbouring Balkan countries.

It’s a dispute that came to the fore on the weekend with the discourse over which country gets to keep its name and flag on the number plates of vehicles crossing the Kosovo-Serbia border.  

As the issue snowballed into a diplomatic crisis over the weekend, warmongers on social media heightened fears of another conflict in the volatile region, sharing unverified reports of an armed confrontation along the border. 

Thankfully international diplomatic efforts prevailed and steered the two neighbouring Balkan countries away from any potential hostility. 

Kosovo and Serbia have a bitter history marred by bloodshed, a sense of loss, mass displacement and a desire to join the European Union for a better future. 

Here’s what led to the latest round of escalation in tit-for-tat accusations. 

 A new rule for number plates 

Kosovo, which gained full independence from Serbia in 2008, was set to enforce a new rule from Monday which required all its citizens to travel on Kosovo-issued number plates and travel documents. 

Almost every country has a similar requirement. Although it's a common practice elsewhere, things between Kosovo and Serbia aren’t that simple. 

Most of Kosovo’s two million people are ethnic Albanian Muslims. But the country also has a Kosovar Serb minority, which refuses to accept the authority of institutions based in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. 

While a hundred countries around the world have recognised Kosovo as an independent state, Serbia - along with a handful of others such as Greece - refuses to do so. 

Accepting the Kosovo number plates with the country flag imprinted on them could be seen as Belgrade's recognition of Pristina – a scenario that is unacceptable for the Serbian leadership of President Aleksander Vucic. 

The Kosovar Serbs, numbered around 50,000, are mostly based in the north of the country. They use Serbia-issued license plates and travel documents. 

To circumvent border security, people crossing the border cover their number plates to hide the flags and initials of their country’s name. 

Thousands of ethnic Albanians were killed by Serbian troops in the late 1990s.
Thousands of ethnic Albanians were killed by Serbian troops in the late 1990s. (AP Archive)

De-escalating situation

In anticipation of the new rules going into effect, people in the Serb-dominated border region of Kosovo blocked the roads with trucks and heavy machinery over the weekend. 

To do its part, Kosovo’s police have shut off two border crossings - Jarinje and Bernjak - with Serbia.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti announced that the decision to enforce the new rule had been postponed until September 1. In a statement, he indicated that the US and EU officials have played a role in de-escalating the situation. 

At the same time, he said that barricades from the roads should immediately be removed in northern Kosovo. 

Russia, one of Serbia’s closest allies, jumped into the fray and accused Kosovo of instituting conditions which were aimed at sidelining its Serb minority. 

Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, also criticised the EU and the United States, which have imposed economic sanctions on Moscow over the Ukraine crisis. 

“Such a development of events is more evidence of the failure of the mediation mission of the European Union. This is also an example of what place Serbia has been prepared for in the European Union by offering Belgrade to de facto put up with the lack of rights of its compatriots,” she said. 

Not first time

This is not the first time the issue of number plates and consequently the bigger debate concerning Kosovo’s sovereignty and independence has come out into the open. 

The two sides, nudged on by EU members, have been trying to find a solution for a decade without any success. 

Kosovo was a Serbian region until the late 1990s. 

In 1998-99, Serb forces launched a crackdown against Kosovo residents who were agitating for a separate homeland and more rights. It led to mass exodus of Albanian Muslims from the region. 

The fighting stopped after the UN-led intervention. European forces had carried out massive bombings, including in Belgrade, to push back Serbian troops. 

NATO troops are still based in Kosovo to prevent a repeat of the 1990s ethnic cleansing in which thousands of Albanian Muslims were killed.

In 2018, Oliver Ivanovic, an ethnic-Serb politician from northern Kosovo, was gunned down in an attack which Serbia’s President Vucic referred to as “an act of terrorism”. 

Both Balkan countries are vying for EU membership. In 2014, Kosovo and Brussels signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement to help Pristina improve its laws to fight corruption, a prerequisite to accession talks. 

Source: TRT World