April 21, 202207:25

A dispute over vehicle licence plates that sparked a blockade of the Kosovo-Serbia border last year is supposed to be resolved this week, but continuing tensions suggest that a deal remains difficult to achieve.

The EU assisted both delegations in identifying solutions, but it is the responsibility of both parties to agree on a solution. We expect them to make progress by 21 April,” Stano told BIRN in written answers.

The EU’s envoy for Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, Miroslav Lajcak was in Belgrade on Wednesday, meeting Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. According to a press release issued after the meeting, they talked about the implementation of the 2013 Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo but there was no mention of any deal on licence plates.

Violeta Haxholli from the Kosovo Democratic Institute think-tank told BIRN that the two countries “have not made any progress in the negotiations that started six months ago”.

Haxholli added that it is “unlikely there will be an agreement between the parties as they are barricaded in their own positions”.

Igor Novakovic, research director of the International and Security Affairs Centre – ISAC Fund, agrees that currently there is little chances for a compromise solution.

“It is a matter of recognising the symbols of Kosovo. Serbia has accepted the interpretation that the recognition of [Kosovo’s] plates, in other words tolerating them, is one step closer to the recognition of Kosovo, while Pristina believes that as an independent state, from its perspective, it has every right to reciprocity [from the Belgrade authorities],” Novakovic told BIRN.

“And it seems to me that these are two opposing positions, neither side wants to give in, an intermediate solution would imply a compromise on both sides and it seems to me that there isn’t the will to make any compromises, at least at this moment because both sides are entrenched in their positions,” he added.

Disputes continue on the ground

Kosovo, where 90 per cent of the population of 1.8 million people are ethnic Albanians, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia does not recognise it as independent and the overwhelming majority of Serbs living in Kosovo remain citizens of Serbia.

After losing control over Kosovo in 1999, after an 11-week NATO bombing campaign, Serbia continued to operate a parallel state system for Kosovo Serbs, with police departments, courts and municipal offices relocated to towns in the Serb-majority north of Kosovo.

This included the issuing of Serbian vehicle licence plates for Kosovo cities.

In 2011, Kosovo and Serbia reached an agreement under which Kosovo authorities would issue licence plates marked ‘RKS’ for the Republic of Kosovo and, in a concession to Serbia’s refusal to recognise its former province as a state, ‘KS’, denoting simply ‘Kosovo’.

The move was aimed at encouraging Serbs in the Kosovo north to start using Kosovo-issued plates. In 2016, Kosovo extended the validity of KS plates for another five years, and made the Serbian-issued licence plates for Kosovo cities illegal.

Stickers were supposed to be used to cover state symbols in both countries. However, this agreement was never implemented and expired in September 2021. It is estimated that thousands of residents in the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo are still using Serbian-issued plates.

When the measure expired, Kosovo’s government, led by Prime Minister Albin Kurti, decided against extending it, and the Serbian-issued licence plates for cities in the north of Kosovo started to be confiscated.

The decree, the Kosovo government argues, reflects what Serbia has been doing for the past two decades – requiring drivers with Kosovo-issued plates to take temporary plates when they enter Serbia.

But the change sparked anger among Serbs, who launched blockades of two border crossings, until the dispute was temporarily ‘solved’ by introducing the sticker system.

Novakovic said he thinks that this system “works quite accurately” but is not a permanent solution.

Haxholli believes that both sides should find try to find common ground for an agreement. “If the practice of placing stickers continues as before, as the public have reported, it is not very satisfactory because the stickers fall off the plates over time,” she said.

Relations between Belgrade and Pristina are difficult in other areas too. Since the licence plates dispute was put on hold for six months, the countries’ heads of negotiations, Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi and the director of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, Petar Petkovic, have not met Lajcak together, only separately.

Only nine days after the ‘sticker regime’ came into force, Kosovo Police clashed with Serb protesters in the ethnically-divided northern town of Mitrovica as they conducted an operation against the smuggling of goods in the town.

The Balkan Policy Research Group think-tank said in a report last month that “unilateral actions of Serbia and Kosovo”, including “arbitrary arrests, intentional restrictions and hindrances to free movement” as well as the imposition of taxes and the issuing of illegal vehicle plates, have dealt a blow to the freedom of movement and integrated border management agreements between Kosovo and Serbia.

The think-tank urged the EU to push Kosovo and Serbia to reach an accord and implement the freedom of movement and border management agreements.

Haxholli suggested that the EU might have become fatigued by the lack of progress in the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations. “In a process such as the dialogue that started 11 years ago where talks have returned to issues where there has been previous agreement, the EU naturally feels tired by this process,” she said.

However, she said the EU can put pressure on both states by linking progress in the dialogue to advancement towards their goal of joining the European bloc, although this would apply more to Serbia, which has already started negotiations with Brussels on membership, while Kosovo “still has no clear perspective without the recognition of [of its independence by] five [EU] member states”.

Reciprocity remains crucial to Kosovo PM

Lajcak wrote on Twitter on April 7 that “with the deadline approaching [for an agreement on licence plates], it’s urgent to reach a compromise to improve the freedom of movement in the region”.

“It’s the responsibility of both parties to agree on a solution,” he urged.

Neither the Kosovo government nor Serbian government’s office for Kosovo answered BIRN’s questions about the deal or the negotiations.

In an interview with Serbian-language Kosovo media outlet Kossev in mid-March, Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Bislimi explained that reaching an agreement on licence plates does not mean Serbia is recognising Kosovo as an independent state.

He emphasised that it can be highlighted in an agreement that “this does not mean that Serbia recognises Kosovo or that Kosovo recognises Serbia”.

Bislimi told Kossev that “option A is to keep the national symbols [on licence plates] and change the abbreviations [of the countries’ names] and variant B is the opposite, to change the national symbols and keep the abbreviations”.

He claimed that “currently the Serbian side is insisting on the stickers”.

EU spokesperson Stano said that the “EU wants to remind both parties once again that it is now urgent to find common ground”.

“Any agreement on licence plates will require political flexibility and compromise,” he emphasised.

However, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti told media on Monday that the principle of reciprocity will be crucial in reaching an agreement.

“April 21 is the deadline for an agreement on the licence plates. I know the principle of reciprocity will be there and for technical aspects we have our technical group and head of negotiations talking to find a solution. But what I know to be indisputable and non-negotiable is the principle of reciprocity as the essence of any solution,” Kurti said.

Last time around, the Serb reaction to the insistence on reciprocity was to stage a blockade of two border crossings between Kosovo and Serbia. But in the last six months, the situation has changed slightly.

This is firstly due to results of this month’s Serbian elections, which President Vucic’s party won at all levels, but must enter coalitions in order to rule, but secondly and even more significantly due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has implications for policy in the Balkans and Serbia in particular.

In this changed environment, Novakovic said he is “not sure that Vucic is ready to be marked as someone who helps destabilisation on the ground”.

“It seems to me that the general policy of the authorities in Belgrade is now to prove themselves as a factor of stability,” he said.