Kosovo, “a license plate” stirs up a storm

The story (in Chinese) was first published in South Review magazine, Issue 01/2023.

This English version was translated from the Chinese original with DeepL, with the manual correction of some obvious mistranslations. I apologize for any mistakes made by this AI translation tool.

In recent months, conflict and unrest have flared up again in Kosovo and are on the rise. The ethnic Serbian population in the north of Kosovo has used heavy trucks loaded with debris to set up roadblocks and block traffic on several major roads; Serbian President Vucic has called for up to 1,000 armed troops to be sent to Kosovo in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999, citing the protection of the ethnic Serb population; and the authorities of Kosovo, which is de facto independent and recognised by Western powers such as the US, UK and France, have formally applied for EU membership and have begun to push for NATO membership. The once relatively calm state of affairs in Kosovo has dramatically evolved into a sabre-rattling situation in a short period of time.


Kosovo’s tumultuous history

Kosovo is located in the southwestern part of the Balkan Peninsula in Europe and is predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians, mostly of the Islamic faith. Between 1974 and 1990, it was nominally an autonomous province of Serbia, one of the constituent states of Yugoslavia, but in fact had similar autonomy to the other constituent republics, including the right to secede from the federation. In 1990, Serbian President Milosevic amended the constitution, stripping Kosovo of much of the autonomy it had been granted and laying the groundwork for decades to come.

After the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991, Kosovo was not granted independence like Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina because it did not have the status of a constituent state, and continued to be recognised by the international community as part of Serbia (FRY). In order to consolidate its rule, in the mid-1990s the FRY began to organise a large migration of Serbs to Kosovo, which provoked resentment among the local Albanian population. At the same time, extremist Albanian forces, represented by the “Kosovo Liberation Army” (KLA), were also gaining ground in Kosovo, and Milosevic responded by taking a hard-line approach, such as forcibly relocating Kosovo’s Albanian population.

In 1999, NATO intervened in the conflict by force, without a UN mandate. After 78 days of air strikes, Milosevic eventually agreed to withdraw his troops from Kosovo in accordance with the Kumanovo Agreement and UN Security Council Resolution 1244, and the region was de facto removed from Serbian rule. To date, despite partial international recognition of the regime, the United Nations, as well as about half of its 193 member states, including two permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia, and five European Union countries, including Spain and Greece, still regard Kosovo as part of Serbia.

Relations were normalised for the first time in 2013 with the signing of the Brussels Agreement between Serbia and the Kosovo authorities, setting aside the sovereignty dispute. However, some provisions of the agreement, such as the establishment of a “Community of Serbian Municipalities” in northern Kosovo with partial autonomy, were never implemented. For historical reasons, there are still some 90,000 Serbs living in Kosovo, mainly in the area north of the Mitrovica River. They refuse to recognise Kosovo’s independence and continue to use passports, currency and licence plates issued by Serbia.

A license plate stirs up a storm

The controversy over Kosovo’s licence plates has a long history. The issuance of licence plates for motor vehicles has always been seen as one of the signs of effective rule over an area. Until 1999, Kosovo used a uniform Yugoslav licence plate. Then, in 2010, after the declaration of independence, Kosovo began to issue its own number plates with its national emblem and “RKS” ((Republic of Kosovo).

The RKS licence plates have been consistently refused and continue to be issued to Serbian residents in Kosovo under the code “SRB” (which stands for “Serbia”, the same as the rest of the country). In an interim agreement reached in 2011, Serbia had agreed not to issue such plates, provided that Kosovo continued to recognise the validity of the existing plates and replaced the sovereign “RKS” with the more neutral “KS” in the plates issued to Serb residents. “.

The agreement was automatically renewed every five years, but on 20 September 2021, when it was due for a second renewal, Kosovo announced that it would no longer recognise the “SRB” and “KS” plates used by Serb residents in its territory, prompting immediate protests from the latter. This prompted protests from the latter. Ten days later, the EU brokered a new provisional agreement that vehicles from both sides would be issued with a sticker to cover the unrecognised codes and emblems on their plates when entering the other side’s territory.

Less than a year after the dispute died down, in July 2022, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti announced that local Serbs still using “SRB” plates would have until 1 November to change them to “RKS” plates. This led to a new round of protests by Serbs. In an interim agreement reached in 2011, Serbia had agreed not to issue such plates, provided that Kosovo continued to recognise the validity of the existing plates and replaced the sovereign “RKS” with the more neutral “KS” in the plates issued to Serb residents.

An escalating state of affairs

In the current round of clashes, Serb residents have launched a “resignation from public office” campaign, in addition to continuing to use heavy vehicles to block several major traffic routes. In press photos released by the Associated Press, more than a dozen Serbian police officers, witnessed by a large number of journalists, took off their blue Kosovo police uniforms and announced their resignation from the Kosovo authorities by removing their ties and shoulder patches. The same move was made by a large number of Serbs working in the government, courts and prosecutor’s office, as well as 10 members of Kosovo’s “parliament” from the Serb List party.

This has made it difficult for some official institutions in northern Kosovo to function. In the almost entirely Serb municipality of northern Mitrovica, for example, the Kosovo side sent 12 Albanians, two Bosniacs and one Serb to replace the 15 Serb municipal councillors after they resigned en masse. Obviously, this is not at all representative of the true ethnic composition of the municipality. In an interview with the media, the newly elected Assembly President, Ugljanin, confessed directly to the dilemma he and the Assembly were facing by saying “we have come to a house without an owner”. Kosovo’s “prime minister” Kurti accused the “collective resignation” of Serbia’s “attempt to destabilise the country”. . In response to the escalation of the conflict, NATO has sent more troops to Kosovo.

On November 8, the two leaders met in Paris for two days of talks at the invitation of French President Macron, but no written outcome was reached, and on November 23, the EU mediated a tentative agreement that Serbia would no longer require vehicles entering from Kosovo to have stickers covering their license plates, and Kosovo would no longer force Serbian residents to replace their existing plates.

The agreement, however, did not bring about another lull in the conflict, as it did in 2021. The Serb blockade of roads continued into December, and large demonstrations broke out in several Serb-populated areas in Kosovo, as well as in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. The Kosovo authorities had announced that elections were scheduled for 18 December in several municipalities where a large number of positions had been left vacant due to the resignation of Serbs en masse, but the election commission offices were attacked with grenades. The authorities then announced that the elections would be postponed until March next year due to security concerns.

In a speech to the nation, Vucic called for 1,000 troops and police to be sent to Kosovo to protect the local Serb population, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1244. According to the resolution, Serbia can send “hundreds” of armed troops to Kosovo, but only with the prior approval of NATO. This is the first time since 1999 that Serbia has made such a request. Vucic said his request would be put on record, although it was “almost certain that it will not be approved”. Kurti hit back immediately, accusing Vucic of creating a crisis. NATO, for its part, did not reject Vucic’s application outright, as had been expected, but simply said it was “under consideration”.

On 14 December, Kosovo officially submitted its application to become an EU “candidate”. Serbia did not respond too strongly to this, as in the Brussels Agreement of 2013, both sides promised not to block each other’s efforts to join the EU. On 23 December, Kosovo’s ‘foreign minister’, Donika Gervalla Schwarz, told the ‘parliament’ that she wanted Kosovo to join NATO by 2023. She said she hoped that Kosovo would join NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” in 2023. The programme, which currently has 21 members, is considered to be the path to NATO membership.

National reconciliation in a volatile situation

In 2022, the world landscape has changed dramatically. The protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine has left Russia, formerly one of the major forces in the Balkans, too wounded to attend to such “secondary” matters. Serbia’s position has become even more delicate.

Vucic, who has been seen as trying to strike a balance between Russia and the West, is facing an unprecedented challenge, despite being re-elected to a new five-year term in April’s presidential election: in addition to diminished support from Russia, he is facing calls from right-wing forces at home. In a poll conducted in June, 51% of Serbian residents said they were “against EU membership”, raising further questions about Vucic’s ambitious plans to join the EU by 2025. And at an emergency special session of the Serbian parliament on Kosovo in September, he told a group of far-right MPs who were calling for the “complete recovery of Kosovo” that “it would be better to spend 100 years on negotiations and diplomacy than one day on conflict”. The Russian Federation has been a major player in Kosovo.

On the Kosovo side, the temporary disappearance of Russian forces in the region has apparently made them see this as an opportunity to resolve the Serb problem in the north and “solidify” their dominance throughout Kosovo. The successful submission of the candidature for EU membership has given the current regime even more confidence. However, the path to NATO membership may not be as close as its “foreign minister” claims: both the current 30 members of NATO and the 21 members of the Partnership for Peace programme are all universally recognised as sovereign states by the international community. sovereign states. In the case of Kosovo, even within NATO alone, four countries (Spain, Slovakia, Greece and Romania) have never recognised its sovereign statehood.

The tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbs, caught between the two forces, have always been the biggest victims of this impasse. When I visited Mitrovica in 2018, the north and south sides of the city, separated by a bridge, were very different: the Albanian-populated area on the south side was like any other city in Kosovo, clean and vibrant from years of EU aid, while the Serb-populated area on the north side was in a state of near-anarchy, dilapidated and depressed from years of ethnic disputes. A huge statue of Prince Lazar stands at the head of the bridge on the north side, looking silently out across the Albanian-ruled river. He was known to the Serbs as ‘Tsar’ after he expelled the Ottoman Turkish invaders and reunited the disintegrating Serbian Empire in the 14th century. His birthplace is in what is now Kosovo, which is one of the biggest reasons why the Serbs have never wanted to give up this land.