After Two Decades, Serbia and Kosovo Are on the Brink of War

August 17, 2022

Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have been simmering for over two decades due to the unresolved Kosovo conflict.

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have returned to the forefront after on June 29 the authorities in Pristina announced their decision to impose a ban on cars with Serbian license plates crossing the Kosovo border. Following the violent reaction of ethnic Serbs living on Kosovo’s border, the Kosovo government has postponed the implementation of the order until September 1, 2022.

What is happening on the border?

New regulations proposed by the Kosovo government, which does not recognize identity cards and license plates held by Serbian citizens in Kosovar territory, escalated the tension between the two countries.

According to the new regulations, the owners of vehicles with the license plates “PR (Priština)”, “KM (Kosovska Mitrovica”, “PZ (Prizen)”, “GL (Gjilan)”, “UR (Uroševac)”, “PE (Peja)”, and “DA (Đakovica)”, which were issued by Serbia from June 10, 1999 to April 21, 2022 would have to get “RKS (Republic of Kosovo)” plates until September 30, 2022. This means that Serbian citizens entering Kosovar territory will be required to replace their license plates and personal identification cards with the new documents issued by Kosovar authorities.

As a response, ethnic Serb protesters living in the north of Kosovo blocked the access to two border crossings with Serbia on Sunday, July 31.

Serbia has been applying the same rule on IDs issued by the Kosovo government since 2011. Pristina reiterated its willingness to lift the restrictions if the Serbian government takes the necessary steps, but the proposal has been repeatedly rejected. This is due to the fact that Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s self-declared independence.

As a preventative measure, the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) stated that the troops are ready to intervene in Kosovo “if the stability is jeopardized,” in accordance with Resolution 1244 by the United Nations Security Council, which was issued in 1999.

Since the Kosovo War in 1999, security in Kosovo has been provided by KFOR in line with the United Nations Security Council Article 1244 on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. However, Serbia continues to view its former province as a part of the Serbian territory.

In 2013, Serbia and Kosovo initiated a reconciliation dialogue sponsored by the European Union to resolve ongoing issues between the two countries, but little progress has been made since then.

Path to independence?

Since its declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, Kosovo has been officially recognized by 117 states, including the U.S. and most of the EU member states. Despite the initiations for UN membership, two permanent veto-wielding members, Russia and China, blocked the requests for membership by Pristina.

Although Kosovo, which was part of the Federal Republic of Serbia before the dissolution of Yugoslavia, was granted major autonomy in 1974 Constitution of Yugoslavia, this decision was overturned in 1989 by Serbian nationalist president Slobodan Milošević.

Kosovo’s autonomy was revoked during Milošević‘s presidency, bringing it under the direct control of Belgrade.

With the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Kosovo Albanians became uneasy with the rising Serbian nationalism and laid the foundations of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which later played a crucial role in the country’s independence.

After a decade of unrest, the conflict between the Serbian government and Kosovar separatists heightened in 1998. Over 13,000 Kosovars and more than 8,000 Albanians were killed in the war, and thousands were forced to leave their homes.

The attacks of the Serbian forces in Kosovo came to an end with the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia as a result of the operation that started on March 24, 1999, and lasted for 78 days.

Kosovo-Serbia dialogue

Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have been simmering for over two decades due to the unresolved Kosovo conflict, which began in 1999, when the province gained de facto autonomy after the NATO campaign against former Yugoslavia.

In 2011, the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue process began for the first time under the mediation of the EU to improve relations between Kosovo and Serbia and ultimately recognize Kosovo’s autonomous status.

In April 2013, the EU-led talks between the two countries reached a historic agreement in Brussels, in which Serbia did not recognize the autonomous status of Kosovo yet partially agreed to Kosovo being governed as a sovereign state.

However, in practice, the terms of the agreement remained ambiguous, and the process came to a standstill after facing several setbacks.

The EU has been trying to mediate between Belgrade and Pristina since 2013. Yet, Belgrade and Pristina’s decade-long history of ethnic conflict frequently forestalled the reconciliation process.

After Kosovan authorities decided to postpone the new ID and license plate requirements to September 1, protesters removed the barricades that blocked the two crossings at the Serbian border.

Ecem Elif Sağlık is an undergraduate Political Science and Public Administration student at İhsan Doğramacı Bilkent University, Turkey. Her areas of interest are EU-Turkey affairs, Turkish foreign policy, European integration, and international political economy.