The resignations of several Serbian mayors in the north of Kosovo have created a fresh spike in Serbia-Kosovo tensions – but some Serbian experts expect the crisis to de-escalate shortly.

Filip Rudic BIRN Belgrade, 29.11.2018.

As a crisis over Kosovo’s import tax hikes continues in Serb-majority northern Kosovo, a former Serbian Minister for Kosovo, Goran Bogdanovic, says that he expects a “status quo” to settle in before the import taxes on Serbian products are scrapped.

“I believe that this decision [to raise taxes on Serbian imports] will be revoked very soon,” Boganovic told BIRN.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini spoke on the phone to Kosovo President Hashim Thaci on Wednesday, telling him that the 100 per cent tax increase on Serbian and Bosnian products does not bring a solution to Kosovo’s aspirations for its present and its future.

“This is a measure that does not help to build good neighbourly relations and needs to be revoked,” a press statement from Mogherini’s cabinet said.

Kosovo increased import taxes on Serbian goods to 100 per cent on November 21, after Serbia blocked its attempts to join the global police body, Interpol.

Two days later, Kosovo police arrested three persons in the divided northern town of Mitrovica in connection with the murder of the Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic who, before he was killed, had become ever more critical of the Serbian government.

Both actions have angered Kosovo Serb leader and the mayors of four municipalities in the north have since resigned, announcing daily rallies against the tax hike and the arrests.

By law, new local elections should be held within 45 days of the mayors’ resignations.

But Serbian political analyst Cvijetin Milivojevic said this might be complicated, because while Pristina could call elections, Belgrade might call parallel elections of its own.

“Which of these elections the Serbs would participate in is a matter of their own choice,” Milivojevic told BIRN.

However, Bogdanovic does not believe that Kosovo will force elections in the northern municipalities, saying it is not in its interest.

“There won’t be [Serbian] communications with Pristina until the 100-per-cent tax is revoked, so in a way Pristina doesn’t care to do something in the north because it is questionable what the turnout of Serbs would be [in elections] and if anyone from the Serbian community would participate,” he said.

However, he doubts the mayors’ resignations will force the Kosovo government to revoke the tax hike, saying the authorities see the resignations as a frivolous move, which is not irrevocable.

“You also have ministers in the Kosovo government who ‘resigned’ but are still listed as ministers and go to their offices; they just don’t attend the government [sessions]. With the mayors, it will be the same,” Bogdanovic predicted.

Serbian officials have warned of possible shortages of food and medicine in the north if the tax remains in place, but Bogdanovic brushes those fears aside, saying that there are “alternative ways” to supply northern Kosovo, which borders Serbia.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said on Tuesday that Belgrade had filed a request for consultations within the Central European Free Trade Agreement, CEFTA, over the tax increase.

The EU has said Kosovo is breaking the terms of its CEFTA membership by imposing the customs taxes.

According to Brnabic, the request was filed to the CEFTA Secretariat, the UN General Secretary and the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK.

She said they have a 90-day deadline to “solve the problem”, before Serbia initiates an arbitration process before the courts.

Bogdanovic does not think that things will go that far, comparing the situation with a previous trade dispute in 2011 that lasted for 58 days, after which Serbia accepted Kosovo custom stamps and Kosovo withdrew its blockade on Serbian goods.

“I believe the taxes will be abolished very soon and that a good part of the international community, especially those countries that have influence in Kosovo, are aware of the danger and where all this is leading to,” Bogdanovic said.

Milivojevic said he would “not be surprised” if Belgrade went back to the negotiating table after the initial spike in tensions with Kosovo, especially if Pristina makes “a sign of good will” and decreases the tax.

He said that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic “first builds tension after misunderstandings with [Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush] Haradinaj and [President Hashim] Thaci, and then … goes back to negotiations.”