Licence to operate: How the EU can counter Russia and ease tensions between Kosovo and Serbia

Leaders in Kosovo and Serbia need to dial back the nationalist rhetoric and prepare their populations for concessions – and the EU’s role in this process remains indispensable

NORTH MITROVICA, KOSOVO – NOVEMBER 06: People, holding banners, gather to protest against government’s “vehicle license plate” decision in North Mitrovica, Kosova on November 06, 2022. Erkin Keci / Anadolu Agency
People, holding banners, gather to protest against government’s “vehicle license plate” decision in North Mitrovica, Kosova on November 06, 2022
Image by picture alliance / AA | Erkin Keci

On 5 November, Kosovo Serb MPs, mayors, judges, and over 500 police officers collectively resigned their positions. This move came after Kosovo’s national police director suspended the head of the Serb-majority northern municipalities for failing to implement a Kosovo government decision taken in June that Serbian-issued car licence plates must be converted to Kosovo-issued plates. The next day, hundreds of ethnic Serbs rallied in the northern city of Mitrovica, singing nationalist songs and making speeches in support of the collective resignations and expressing their anger at the Kosovo government. Kosovo is a constitutionally multi-ethnic state with positions reserved for members of the Serb community in the parliament, in central and local government, and in other state structures. With their collective withdrawal, the MPs and others not only engaged in a protest, they acted to effectively undermine the state and its foundations.

These developments are the result of months of growing tensions between Kosovo and Serbia and years of frozen progress in the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade on normalising relations. Since its start in 2011, this EU-facilitated dialogue has led to the signing of over 30 agreements, including on freedom of movement, the integration of judicial and police structures in Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo, and Kosovo’s participation in regional initiatives, to name just a few that have benefited both countries. However, each side has resisted addressing the most sensitive issues. Kosovo has not yet implemented a 2013 agreement to create an Association of Serb-Majority municipalities (ASM), and its current government has taken an inflexible approach to the dialogue, preconditioning a final agreement on “mutual recognition”. Serbia continues to wage a diplomatic war against Kosovo by blocking its international recognition and accession to international organisations. It wants to see the creation of the ASM, and refuses to commit to a final agreement until this takes place. In Kosovo, public opinion is against the ASM agreement, out of a fear of the greater autonomy its implementation would give to Kosovo Serbs and of the stronger influence Belgrade could acquire over part of Kosovo’s territory.

For almost a decade, each party’s actions have increased divisions between Serb and Albanian ethnic groups in Kosovo

For almost a decade, each party has held the other hostage over these disagreements, while at the same time fuelling tensions. Their actions have increased divisions between Serb and Albanian ethnic groups in Kosovo – but also among the Serbs of Kosovo, who are split between those who want greater cooperation with the central government and those who remain loyal to Belgrade. Indeed, around 2 in every 20 Kosovo Serbs who changed their licence plates have had their cars set on fire. In northern Kosovo, Belgrade has maintained and even strengthened its parallel structures, which Kosovo’s government has resisted through with licence-plate decision and other moves such as a decision earlier in January to deny Kosovo Serbs the right to vote within Kosovo in Serbian’s national referendums and constitutional reforms. Neither government has taken a constructive approach to the EU-backed dialogue. And neither has taken steps to bring the public with them on the concessions in the negotiations they will inevitably have to make as part of a final agreement.

With the war in Ukraine, a flare-up in the Balkans is the last thing Europeans need. In an effort to ease the tensions and avoid escalation, the European Union and the United States this year stepped up efforts to support the negotiation process. A recent Franco-German proposal for a new dialogue framework for Kosovo and Serbia has captured public attention as a potential way forward. However, both parties have interpreted it differently. In Kosovo, opinion is favourable towards the proposal thanks to Albanian media reports and statements by Kosovo officials, which suggested the plans would require Serbia to accept Kosovo’s legal reality (and recognition at a later stage). However, for the Serbian government, the precursor to any progress, including via the Franco-German proposal, remains the establishment of the ASM. Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic will use the current flare-up in the north to forcefully reiterate this point. Indeed, if the various readings of the proposal have any basis in fact, it will be difficult for Vucic to obtain support for a settlement in which Serbia accepts Kosovo’s legal reality, even if at this stage it does not demand formal recognition.

The latest tensions do not bode well for the success of the Franco-German proposal, but its existence does at least challenge the status quo in negotiations: the altered situation puts particular pressure on the Kosovo government to refrain from actions that slow the normalisation of relations and make concessions on the ASM. Kosovo’s constitution stipulates elections in Serb municipalities if mayors stand down, and 18 December is already set as the date. The Serb MPs have since returned to Kosovo’s parliament for what they describe as a “strategic decision” to protect the interest of Serbs in Kosovo. But it is nevertheless hard to imagine a scenario in which the Serb community in the north reintegrates into Kosovo institutions without the government taking concrete steps towards establishing the ASM. The longer Kosovo takes to start its implementation, the longer the crisis will drag on. Unless Vucic at least has the ASM to point to, no agreement of any sort with Kosovo will fly in Serbia.

Russia is also stoking this conflict, using its state-run Serbian-language channels Sputnik and Russia Today to spread disinformation throughout the Western Balkans. This influences public opinion on the question of Kosovo, as well as on the question of the EU’s and overall Western role in the region. A recent report by the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development reveals that over the course of three months, of 458 news stories published in Serbia that mentioned, 17.2 per cent of them were disinformation shared by Russia Today, Sputnik Serbia, and other websites such as Russia Insider. Their aim is mainly to attack the legitimacy of Kosovo’s statehood, but also to fuel ethnic tensions by portraying the Serb community in Kosovo as victims of an abusive central government.

The EU will need to continue its efforts to convince both parties that progress in the dialogue is the only way out of the crisis; that it is a precondition for peace in each country. Much, however, depends on the willingness of leaders in both Kosovo and Serbia to dial back their nationalist narratives and start preparing their countries for concessions. While negotiating efforts continue, the EU and NATO should work to contain the tensions by maintaining an increased number of security forces in northern municipalities and along the border with Serbia until a final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is reached. The EU should equally fight disinformation throughout the region by pressing Serbia to align with Europe on sanctions against Russia and to revoke Russian state-sponsored media channels’ licences to operate. Finally, the EU should not underestimate Russia’s interest in such a crisis which serves its narrative about the EU failing in matters of peace and security in its continent.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Wider Europe

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