NATO should renew its commitment to Kosovo
Serbia’s refusal to accept Kosovo’s sovereignty is increasing the possibility of renewed conflict in the region.
By Hamza Karčić for Al-Jazeera |
On December 10, ethnic Serbs started setting up roadblocks in northern Kosovo, near the Serbian border, to protest against the arrest of an ethnic Serb former police officer. The situation soon escalated into a dangerous standoff between Kosovo and Serbia, with Pristina calling on NATO-led international peacekeeping forces in Kosovo (KFOR) to intervene, and Belgrade announcing its army was on “the highest level of combat readiness” due to tensions at the border.
After holding talks with Serbia’s President Alexandar Vucic, and receiving guarantees from Kosovo’s Western partners that they would not face arrest over the incident, the protesters eventually started dismantling the roadblocks on December 29.
With the end of roadblocks and the reopening of border crossings, the crisis appeared to come to an end. But the escalation in December was not the first incident that almost pushed Serbia and Kosovo into open conflict and it is highly unlikely to be the last.
The fragile relationship between the two neighbouring countries has been on the verge of collapse since last summer, when Kosovo’s government started taking steps to exercise sovereignty over the country’s entire territory.
At the end of July, the government of Albin Kurti demanded all citizens of Kosovo – including ethnic Serbs who refuse to recognise Pristina’s authority and still consider themselves a part of Serbia – start carrying IDs and using licence plates issued by Kosovo. In response, ethnic Serbs in the north barricaded roads and threatened violence, leading KFOR forces to start patrolling the streets in the region. A few days later, following mediation by the European Union and the United States, Pristina and Belgrade reached a deal on ID documents but left the issue of licence plates to be resolved at a later date. In November, after months of protests, occasional clashes, and even mass resignations by ethnic Serb state employees, the licence plate issue was finally resolved with the signing of a deal that required Serbia to stop issuing licence plates with markings indicating Kosovo cities and Kosovo to cease its demands for reregistration of vehicles carrying Serbian plates.
The latest standoff at the borders came just a few weeks after this landmark deal, demonstrating that the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are chronic, and will not be truly resolved until mutual recognition is achieved.
Indeed, recent escalations between Serbia and Kosovo have followed a clear pattern. Kosovo attempts to exercise sovereignty over its whole territory; Belgrade responds by stoking unrest using the ethnic Serbs in the north as its proxies. The EU steps in, brokers a deal and stops the unrest from escalating into a cross-border conflict. Then the cycle is repeated.
All this shows that the recurring tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, and between Kosovo and its ethnic Serb citizens in the north of the country, actually have little to do with practicalities of governance such as licence plates, and everything to do with one core issue: Kosovo’s independence.
Almost a quarter of a century ago, NATO responded to the brutal violence perpetrated by Serbia in Kosovo by undertaking a humanitarian intervention, defeating Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s troops and forcing them to withdraw from Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo has been working hard to build itself up as a state and in 2008 officially declared its independence from Serbia. In the years since, more than 100 countries recognised it as an independent nation and it joined several international institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. In 2010, the International Court of Justice ruled Kosovo’s declaration of independence legal.
Serbia never accepted this new state of affairs and tried to undermine Kosovo’s sovereignty at every opportunity since 2008.
*Hamza Karčić is an Associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo