European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used her latest tour of the Balkans to call for an easing of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, with Belgrade and Pristina having been engaged in a bitter border dispute over vehicle license plates
It was late on 29th September that reports emerged from the Kosovo side claiming that a draft agreement had been reached to bring to an end the clash, but no immediate confirmation of such an agreement has been forthcoming from Serbia.
“I must say I am very concerned about the current crisis,” said von der Leyen, speaking at a press conference with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Pristina.
“It is important to de-escalate and return to the negotiating table to find a sustainable solution. The only way to do that is the EUfacilitated dialogue. That is the only platform to resolve the current crisis,” said the Commission president, whose visit was originally intended to promote EU enlargement along the bloc’s southeast border.
“We have come a long way. We have made a lot of progress. We never lose sight of the goal that is the whole of the Western Balkans and Kosovo being part of the European Union,” she added.
Serbia and Kosovo have been attempting to negotiate away their differences through an EU-led dialogue since 2011. Those talks aim to resolve technical issues that have existed between the two since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, which Serbia does not recognise, while also advancing them along the path to EU integration.
The EU has also been assisting with the region’s economic development, including a COVID-19 recovery pledge of €3.3 billion, according to von der Leyen.
However, it was an agreement signed in Brussels in 2016 that led to the latest escalation in tension.
Kurti’s government sent heavily armed special police to its northern border on 20th September, the date marking the expiry of the validity of U.N. license plates, which were issued along with regular Kosovo plates.
The U.N. plates began being issued in the period following the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when Kosovo became a de facto U.N. protectorate. After Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia and began issuing its own license plates, the U.N. plates continued to be issued in parallel — until last year.
According to political analyst Agon Maliqi, the Commission president’s Balkan tour — which included stops in Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina — has not had the calming effect she might have been hoping for
Given that Serbia recognises the U.N. mandate in Kosovo and not Pristina’s independence, the U.N. plates were preferred among most of those travelling regularly to Serbia — including both Serbs and Albanians. Last year, however, in line with a clause in the 2016 agreement that foresaw the plates expiring in 2021, Kosovo stopped issuing U.N. plates.
Kosovo’s northern region is where the majority of its ethnic Serb minority resides. As a result of the dispute, hundreds of Kosovo Serbs have been camped along the border, blocking roads leading to the Jarinje and Brnjak border crossings.
“There is a crisis on the border between Kosovo and Serbia, because Serbia does not want to accept that, beyond Jarinje and Brnjak, there is another country,” said Kurti at the same press conference.
According to political analyst Agon Maliqi, the Commission president’s Balkan tour of late September — which included stops in Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina — has not had the calming effect she might have been hoping for.
“The reactions to Von der Leyen’s visit range from indifferent to cynical,” he said, adding that there was “a widely-held belief that the dialogue is unsustainable and that Kosovo can no longer accept the nature of this slow, technical dialogue that leads to nowhere.”
In reaction to the measures imposed by Kosovo, Serbian Defence Minister Nebojša Stefanović visited an army barracks close to the border, together with Russian Ambassador Alexander Botsan-Harchenko. Military planes were seen flying along the border on 26th and 27th September, while four armoured vehicles were sent close to the Jarinje crossing.
“For a long time now, the EU and NATO integration of the region has been held hostage by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s tendency for dramatic reactions,” said Maliqi.
DIALOGUE IN DOUBT
In Serbia, the Kosovo government’s decision to suddenly require temporary plates is seen as a provocation.
“Kurti’s approach is clear — he acts from the position of Kosovo being an independent and sovereign state and believes that he has the right to act the way he does,” said Igor Bandović, director of Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.
“Vučić is having a hard time with that approach. The fact that Kurti proposed a peace agreement between the two in the last round of the dialogue put Vučić in a very defensive position,” he added.
Heads of the technical teams from Kosovo and Serbia met in Brussels on 29th September, in an attempt to work out an agreement and de-escalate the situation.
The head of the technical team from Kosovo, Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi, told Kosovo public broadcaster RTK that a draft agreement had been reached during the meeting.
He claimed that the agreement would see NATO peacekeepers already stationed in Kosovo take over from the special police on 3rd October, with both sides lifting their requirement for temporary license plates for six months, until a final agreement can be reached.
Bandović said the crisis has stretched the willingness for dialogue, from both the respective governments and the public, close to breaking point.
“The Brussels dialogue is at its weakest point since the start and the credibility of the chief negotiator and the EU institutions backing the dialogue is at stake. It really is up to the EU to do something or to encourage the dialogue, otherwise it will just stop,” he warned.
Serbia And Kosovo Reach Agreement
Serbia and Kosovo have reached an agreement to ease the situation on their border, Under the agreement, special police units deployed at the Jarinje and Brnjak border crossings will be removed on October 2 to be replaced by NATO peacekeepers (KFOR). These will remain there for two weeks “to maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement”.
From October 4, the sticker regime agreed between the two countries will be applied on a “temporary” basis until a permanent solution is agreed upon. It plans for drivers to cover their licence plates with stickers when entering the other country.
A working group, chaired by the EU, and attended by representatives from the bloc as well as Serbia and Kosovo, will convene on October 21 and will have six months to negotiate a permanent solution.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen “warmly” welcomed the agreement on Twitter.
“This is a very positive development,” she said. “It’s good for the whole region. The dialogue now needs to continue.”