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Anatomy of a new Serbia-Kosovo crisis: the politics of license plates

  • Halime Pehlivan
  • 18 Oct 2021

The dispute over registration numbers is just the tip of the iceberg as Serbia continues to dance to the tune of its foreign backers and refuse to recognise Kosovo as an independent nation.

( AP )

In "The Light That Failed," Rudyard Kipling says, "Talking of war; there will be trouble in the Balkans in the spring." A century later, the region is still rife with conflicts. The most recent Serbia-Kosovo tensions are reminiscent of this reality. 

On 27 September, Belgrade sent tanks to its borders with Kosovo while Serbian fighter jets flew over the region. Such an escalation came after a week of Serbia-Kosovo border tensions and a lacklustre reaction from the international community. 

Just two days ago on October 16, the  Special Representative and head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Zahir Tanin, said relations between the two sides have deteriorated to the point that may contribute to unravelling “steady but fragile progress made in rebuilding trust among communities” in Kosovo and Serbia.  

On September 20, Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti promulgated a new regulation, stating that drivers from Serbia are obligated to hide or remove their registration details. This dispute has been the most serious since 2011, when Pristina introduced an embargo on products from Serbia. Now, Serbian cars must buy a new temporary plate, which costs 5 euros and has 60 days of validation. Given Kurti's reciprocity agenda toward Serbia, such a decision was expected. 

Nevertheless, the Serbs in North Kosovo did not react well to these developments. 80 percent of drivers in North Kosovo use Serbian registration numbers. Consequently, hundreds of Kosovo Serbs closed the road to Jarinje and Brnjak border crossing. The protest continued while Kosovo officials sent extra police forces to the region. 

With this action, the ball was very much in the Serbian court. Subsequently, Vucic announced economic and political sanctions. Then, he urged the international community to intervene and said: "If they do not want that, we will know how to protect our country, there is no doubt about it." Next, he called for an emergency meeting of the national state council, describing Pristina's move as a "criminal action." 

Rock throwing crowd of Ethnic Serbs block a gather in the northern Serb-dominated part of ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.(AP)

A coup de grace

A brief analysis of the actions and the language clearly shows that the registration numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. First and foremost, Serbia does not recognize Pristina's authorities. Belgrade defines the mutual frontier as an administrative and temporary separator. Moreover, Kosovo's declaration of independence came ten years after the Kosovo war that killed more than 13,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians. NATO troops are still in the region to preserve a fragile peace. During the crisis, they increased their presence and moved close to the barricades made of trucks.

Second, there are 50,000 Serbs in North Kosovo who also refuse to recognize Kosovo as a state. Third, similar restrictions are applied to Kosovo drivers in Serbia. As Kurti said, it is a tit-for-tat action, and as long as Kosovo citizens pay to enter Serbia, the same will be applied to Serbian cars entering the country. 

A recently expired agreement from 2011 states that vehicles with RKS plates are restricted to enter the country, while Serbian licenses are free to drive in Kosovo. They accepted only the KS plates issued under the former UN administration of Kosovo.

Right after the escalation, a statement by High Representative Josep Borrell urged both sides to remain calm. Also, he emphasized that "the EU-facilitated dialogue is the only platform to address and resolve all open issues" and advised them to use that opportunity. On the other hand, in his UN speech, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov did not directly point the conflict but mentioned Kosovo as an "artificially-created entity" and "forcefully seized from a European country." The ensuing images of the Russian Ambassador in Belgrade and the Serbian Minister of defence inspecting the border did not surprise.

Afrim Hoti, an international law expert at the University of Pristina, said on TRT World's "Across the Balkans" that Belgrade is following the democratic agenda while keeping good relations with the EU. However, it is still close to Moscow. As a result, Russia has a direct and permanent influence on the region's affairs. 

Turn a deaf ear

On 24 September, Kosovo authorities said that two interior ministry offices in the North were attacked with grenades, but no casualties occurred. On the other side, Vucic kept his promise and sent tanks and fighter jets to the frontier. Such an escalation managed to attract wider attention. NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called for dialogue, while Borrell said further provocations, unilateral or uncoordinated actions, are unacceptable" and renewed the EU's interest in finding solutions to the crisis.  

Similarly, during her farewell visit to the Balkans, the former Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel said that "there is no point in talking about the end of the EU integration process before solving the Kosovo-Serbia issue." A week later, the license plates' conflict intensified. 

Fortunately, further escalation was prevented. Kosovo agreed to withdraw its police units from the border, and NATO troops replaced them. Then, it was decided for both countries to use special stickers on their cars. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that she welcomes the deal and “the dialogue needs to continue.”

Given the historical background and existing political predicaments, the issue of license plates will not be the last conflict between both parties. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo. The latter applied a tit-for-tat policy. Meanwhile, the EU insists on amenable political representatives from the Kosovar side. Such a mix is challenging to break the vicious circle, and neither the protagonists nor the mediators seem close to finding long-term solutions for the deep-seated issues.

As a Serbian proverb says, "The wound heals, the scar remains." The region remembers the scars, and it is always ready to avenge them by opening new wounds. 

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