The blockade of two border crossing points between Kosovo and Serbia by Kosovo Serbs protesting against new measures on vehicle licence plates imposed by Albin Kurti’s government is now in its eighth consecutive day, with the tensions between the two sides showing no signs of abating.
Srdjan Cvijic from the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels told BIRN that the crisis was artificially created, but that it is the most serious since 2011, when Serbs in northern Kosovo burned down the Jarinje border crossing after Pristina introduced an embargo on products from Serbia and tried to take over the crossing using special police units.
“The crisis is fake, because there will not be any war, but the biggest problem after this will be to build the fragile trust between ordinary people who live in Kosovo,” Cvijic told BIRN.
“On both sides, opinion-formers are spreading a poisonous atmosphere, and this rattling of weapons frightens ordinary people. How people from the [Serb-majority] north of Kosovo will find a common language with the rest of the population of Kosovo, I think that is the key problem,” he said.
Cvijic added that Kurti should have imposed the new licence plate regulations with more subtlety and understanding for local Serbs, and not have banned overnight the ‘status-neutral’ licence plates that 80 per cent of drivers in North Kosovo had been using.
“If he had done that, the Serbian regime could not have used this to escalate a conflict,” he said.
Kosovo analyst Agon Maliqi there is “no sincere wish for dialogue either in Kosovo or in Serbia and there isn’t the necessary energy from the West to provide the impetus in moving forward the EU integration process”.
He said that in the current situation, the ongoing EU-facilitated dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade to normalise relations is “clinically dead”.
“For the dialogue to be revived, we maybe should be reminded why it is needed. The current status quo is quite unsustainable and the security crisis could escalate to the extent that the dialogue needs reanimation. Let us not forget too that both countries are in an election mood and the leaders have domestic political motives,” Maliqi added.
Diplomatic activity has been intensifying in an attempt to overcome the tensions, which initially flared when Pristina imposed measures forcing people entering Kosovo from Serbia to replace Serbian licence plates with temporary Kosovo plates, as people with Kosovo plates have had to do while entering Serbia for many years.
Local Serbs in northern Kosovo then blocked two key border crossings, Brnjak and Jarinje, in protest. Serbia was also infuriated because Kosovo sent armed police special forces into Serb-majority northern Kosovo to oversee security.
Albanian premier Rama says ‘Kosovo is right’
In a visit to Pristina on Monday, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama gave his support to his Kosovo counterpart Albin Kurti for the measures imposed measures on licence plates and described Serbia’s sending of troops to the area near the border as “theatre”.
“Serb citizens in Kosovo are not threatened by anyone. They are even paid electricity bills by the government of this country, unlike in any other country, not only in the Balkans but even in the world,” Edi Rama told media in Pristina after a meeting Kurti.
He said it was the “legitimate right of the Kosovo state” to ask people to change their Serbian licence plates to Kosovo ones when crossing the border.
“The position of Albania, which is clear, just and unchanged, is that Kosovo is right. Full stop,” Rama said.
After tensions spiked over the weekend when Serbia sent troops and planes to the border with Kosovo, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic met the ambassadors of the United States, Britain, France, Italy and Germany, as well as the head of the European Union delegation, who came to ask him to help de-escalate the crisis.
Vucic’s press service stated after the meeting that he will not allow “the humiliation of Serbia and its citizens”, but details of the talks have not been disclosed.
EU High Representative Josep Borrell said on Sunday that Belgrade and Pristina’s main negotiators in the ongoing dialogue process will soon arrive in Brussels for talks.
“Serbia and Kosovo need to unconditionally de-escalate the situation on the ground, by immediately withdrawing special police units and dismantling of roadblocks,” Borrell said in a statement.
He added that he had told both Kurti and Vucic by telephone that “both Kosovo and Serbian leaders are fully responsible for any risks to the safety and well-being of local communities”.
“The EU-facilitated dialogue continues to be the only platform to address and resolve all open issues between the parties, including those related to freedom of movement and licence plates, and I strongly urge Kosovo and Serbia to use it,” he added.
Borrell’s spokesperson Peter Stano said on Monday that the US envoy for Kosovo, Gabriel Escobar, will also be involved in efforts in Brussels to find a solution to the crisis in northern Kosovo.
Media in Kosovo have reported that NATO’s Kosovo peacekeeping force, KFOR, is planning to take over the running of the two blockaded border crossing points in the North, a move, which would make protesters unblock the roads and cause Kosovo’s special police units to withdraw.
KFOR told BIRN that it has increased the “number and duration of routine patrols Kosovo-wide, including in northern Kosovo”, without giving further details.
A number of KFOR soldiers have been seen patrolling near the border in Jarinje for the first time since the protest started last Monday.
Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti said he had talked to KFOR’s commander and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg about the situation.
I do not have any information that KFOR is getting prepared to intervene,” Kurti told media on Monday in Pristina.