Why do Kosovo-Serbia tensions persist?

by Cristian Florescu

This week, tensions between Serbia and Kosovo escalated as Kosovo’s police conducted raids on areas dominated by Serbs in the northern region and took control of local municipality buildings.

Unfortunately, there have been instances of violent clashes that have occurred between Kosovo’s police and NATO-led peacekeepers on one side, and local Serbs on the other. These incidents have resulted in injuries to dozens of people on both sides. Serbia has increased the readiness of its troops near the border and expressed concern about the safety of Serbs in Kosovo. They have emphasized that they will not tolerate any attacks on their people. This situation has raised concerns about the possibility of a renewed conflict in Kosovo, which in the past has resulted in significant loss of life and displacement of people.

Kosovo, which was once a province of Serbia, has a predominantly Albanian population and declared independence in 2008.

Despite not having formal control, Serbia has chosen not to recognize Kosovo as an independent state and instead considers it a part of Serbia.

The independence of Kosovo has been acknowledged by approximately 100 countries, including the United States. However, several nations, including Russia, China, and five EU countries with separatist regions, have sided with Serbia. This impasse has resulted in simmering tensions and has hindered the complete stabilization of the Balkan region following the violent conflicts of the 1990s.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, expressed concern regarding the situation in Kosovo, stating that it has the potential to cause further conflict in the heart of Europe.

According to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, it has been reported that ”a large explosion” is being planned in the centre of Europe, at the location where NATO attacked Yugoslavia in 1999, which was seen as a violation of international principles.

China stated that it was keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

Mao Ning, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, kindly requested that NATO demonstrate respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the relevant countries and take measures that are truly beneficial for regional peace.

It appears that the Serbs chose not to participate in the local elections held in northern Kosovo last month, despite being the majority population. As a result, last Friday, ethnic Albanian mayors who were newly elected were able to assume their positions with the assistance of Kosovo’s riot police.

Despite the efforts of the Serbs, the police resorted to using tear gas to disperse them and allow the new mayors to take over the premises.

On Monday, there were some fierce clashes between Serbs and NATO peacekeepers, resulting in injuries to more than 50 rioters and 30 international troops.

The election boycott was a result of a collective resignation by Serb officials from the area, which included administrative staff, judges, and police officers in November 2022.

Until this week, approximately 3,800 NATO troops were present in Kosovo. Their main objectives were peacekeeping duties and monitoring the borders, particularly the one with Serbia, where Belgrade has recently increased its troop presence.

On Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that the alliance had deployed an additional 700 troops to Kosovo in order to assist in calming the ongoing protests. Additionally, a battalion has been put on standby in the event that the unrest spreads.

The issue surrounding Kosovo has been present for centuries. It is believed by Serbia to be the core of their statehood and religion.

There are a significant number of medieval Serb Orthodox Christian monasteries located in Kosovo. Some individuals with Serb nationalist beliefs consider a battle fought against Ottoman Turks in 1389 at this location to be a representation of their national struggle.

The majority of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo consider Kosovo as their own country and have accused Serbia of occupying and repressing the region. In 1998, ethnic Albanian rebels initiated a struggle to eliminate Serbian control. Due to Belgrade’s severe reaction, NATO intervened in 1999, resulting in Serbia withdrawing and granting control to international peacekeepers.

Despite continuous international efforts, a final comprehensive agreement has not yet been reached between the two former wartime foes.

EU officials have graciously facilitated negotiations aimed at normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Several agreements have been arrived at, albeit with limited implementation on the ground. Nonetheless, in some regions, positive outcomes have been observed, such as the establishment of freedom of movement within the country.

Both Kosovo and Serbia are currently being governed by leaders who have strong nationalist views and have not demonstrated a willingness to make concessions.

Albin Kurti, who was previously a student protest leader and political prisoner in Serbia, is currently leading the government in Kosovo. He holds a prominent role as the main negotiator in EU-mediated talks. Additionally, he is recognized for his unwavering support for Kosovo’s unification with Albania and is opposed to any form of compromise with Serbia.

Serbia is currently being governed by President Aleksandar Vucic, who is considered a populist leader. During the Kosovo War, Vucic served as the information minister. Although he was once an ultranationalist, he now emphasizes the importance of finding a compromise solution that will be sustainable over time. Vucic believes that Serbia cannot settle for anything less than gaining something from negotiations.

International officials are kindly seeking to expedite negotiations and achieve a resolution in the near future.

If both nations wish to progress towards EU membership, it would be necessary for them to normalize their ties. Failure to make significant progress could result in prolonged instability, economic decline, and the possibility of frequent clashes. Would it be possible for both nations to work towards normalizing their relations?

If Serbia were to intervene militarily in Kosovo, it could potentially lead to a confrontation with the NATO peacekeeping forces stationed in the region.

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