Beware: This Kosovo Crisis Is Not a Game

Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti during handover ceremony of Government
Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti during handover ceremony of Government

A seemingly trivial dispute over vehicle license plates has triggered serious tension and troop movements in Serbia and Kosovo. 

In the Balkans, it’s no good reacting too late. Whenever conflict erupts, it inevitably draws in Americans and Europeans alike. That is an old lesson; World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia, while the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s only ended after major NATO aerial campaigns and the deployment of tens of thousands of peacekeepers — 60,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone following the Dayton Accords. Likewise, failure to finally put an end to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict, which began in 1998, is causing serious problems.   

Reactions to the latest events from the US, EU, and NATO have been rather lame. The transatlantic alliance should use this crisis to end the Serbia-Kosovo conflict rather than calling on “both sides” to de-escalate.  

The dispute stems from a new Kosovan regulation requiring vehicles crossing from Serbia to purchase temporary registration plates. That matches a long-standing Serbian rule for Kosovan drivers designed to make the point that the country does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. That generated immediate resistance from Kosovo’s small but vocal Serbian community: Kosovan Serbs blockaded two crossing points and Kosovo ordered special police units to the border. Kosovo’s police observed implementation of the new policy and monitored the situation to identify potential violence, an unsurprising deployment given Serbia's frequent use of proxies to stir up conflict in northern Kosovo.   

This time, however, Serbia reacted forcefully, amassing troops along the border, including T-72 tanks, Lazar 3 armored vehicles and BOV M16 Miloš multi-purpose combat vehicles. In addition, it deployed MiG-29 fighter jets and Russian-made helicopters for overflights along the border. The military maneuvers have been accompanied by highly inflammatory language from Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vučić. 

Just in case anyone had missed the message, Serbia called on its old friends in the Kremlin to discuss next moves. Over the weekend, Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense — Nebojša Stefanović — met with the Russian ambassador to Belgrade, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko Stefanović, to inspect troops near the border with Kosovo.  

Western governments are generally risk-averse, especially when it comes to military force. But the US and Europe, including the UK, cannot walk away from events in Kosovo, if only because they still have a 3,600-strong peacekeeping force, KFOR, deployed there. This includes a so-called forgotten battalion of US troops. KFOR units have now moved close to the border to observe. 

Despite this, the EUNATO and the US responded with “both sides” statements — calling on Serbia and Kosovo to de-escalate tensions — as if both parties are equally guilty of escalating the conflict. Such statements liken the victim to the perpetrator.   

To add insult to injury, the President of the European Council Charles Michel demanded that Kosovo withdraw its special police. This is despite the fact that a government building in northern Kosovo was set on fire while another was hit with grenades that did not explode. Thus, the EU is asking Kosovo to refrain from conducting policing on its own territory at a time of heightened tensions.

The number plate debacle is a minor issue related to a broader conflict. Following ethnic cleansing and other large-scale atrocities committed against Kosovo Albanians by Serbian troops, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008. Kosovo’s independence is recognized by the US and over 100 countries around the world. Its independence is not recognized by Serbia, Russia, China and five EU member states.  

This week, the US dispatched Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Gabriel Escobar, to Brussels for EU-led talks between the main adversaries. He will be supporting the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue — Miroslav Lajčák — in the hope of calming the situation.  

It is highly unlikely that the Brussels talks, or even mediation in the medium term, will resolve the territorial issue. As argued in a recent policy paper, the Serbia-Kosovo conflict is not “ripe for resolution.” The reasons are clear: Firstly, Vučić states that Kosovo remains Serbian territory and secondly, the EU membership carrot, once seen as highly prized, is fading as an incentive to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo. That is because the EU is suffering new member fatigue; Vučić, an authoritarian leader, wants Serbia to join the EU for economic reasons, but is unwilling to commit to political reforms as that would constrain his power; and Serbia is rapidly creating alternatives to EU membership, including stronger relations with China. 

The role of Russia in making matters worse should also be acknowledged. Quite frankly, an interstate war between Serbia and Kosovo would be a win for Russia because it would guarantee Serbia and Kosovo’s exclusion from the EU and NATO for the foreseeable future. As the situations in Georgia and Ukraine have demonstrated, transatlantic organizations are allergic to new members with ongoing conflicts.  

The US and EU should not squabble over number plates. Rather, if they are to make any real progress, they should use this crisis as an opportunity to speed up resolution of Serbia-Kosovo issue. There are short- and medium-term policy options available. 

  1. Recognize that the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue is deadlocked and seek alternatives to help resolve a volatile security issue; 
  2. NATO should identify Serbia as the main provocateur and demand its withdrawal to a reasonable distance from the Kosovo border; 
  3. KFOR should be deployed in full to northern Kosovo and reinforced with additional NATO assets; 
  4. A robust defense agreement should be signed by the US, UK and EU member states to protect the country’s sovereignty and provide deterrence;
  5. The EU should map out a clear path towards membership for Serbia and Kosovo;
  6. The US, UK and EU member states recognizing Kosovo’s sovereignty should persuade the EU’s five laggards —Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain — to recognize Kosovo or at least refrain from obstructing EU membership for the country. 
  7. The transatlantic alliance should support Kosovo’s security sector and admit the country to NATO‘s Partnership for Peace (PfP). Serbia joined the PfP in 2006 even though it regularly conducts joint military exercises with Russia and has no NATO aspirations.   

Dr. Leon Hartwell is the Acting Director of the Transatlantic Leadership Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

September 28, 2021