Border between Kosovo and Serbia near Brnjak, 2013 (Source: Wikimedia)
On the 27th of August 2022, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles proudly announced that Serbia and Kosovo have settled their ethnic dispute over the movement of citizens across their border during the dialogue that was facilitated by the EU in Brussels. Whoever anticipates that this might be a step towards Serbia’s recognition of the state of Kosovo or a step towards reconciliation between the two countries will soon be disappointed.
Agreement only concluded for practical reasons
Earlier on the day of the agreement between both countries, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić declared to the press that Serbia will issue a disclaimer on the border between both countries which implicates that the use of Kosovar identity documents should not be perceived as a sign of recognition. As expected, Serbia’s attitude toward recognition of Kosovo remains unchanged in this regard. It is clear that through the disclaimer, any possible indication that Kosovo is a legitimate state is resolutely rejected in the eyes of Serbia.
After Kosovo declared that identity documents and vehicle license plates issued by Serbia would no longer be valid on Kosovar territory, violence erupted in Northern Kosovo where approximately 50.000 ethnic Serbs use license plates and identity cards issued by Serbia. Instead of the Serbian identity cards, a temporary document issued by Kosovo with a validity for 90 days would serve as a replacement during their stay in the country. In doing so, Kosovo’s declaration was similar to Serbia’s policy which required Kosovo identity card holders to acquire special passes to enter Serbia. The deal over the abolishment of the special passes for Kosovo identity card holders and the agreement of Kosovo to not introduce the non-validity of Serbian identification documents has now settled one of the tension points in the longstanding conflict between both countries. Despite the breakthrough in the dispute over identity cards, it considerably serves as only a partial diffusion of the ongoing tension between both countries.
Licence plates remain a contentious issue
Although the issue of the identity cards is settled, the other disputed issue regarding the license plates has not yet been resolved. Kosovo’s government began its 2-month implementation period on the 1st of September. The ethnic Serb-minority in Kosovo, which makes up roughly 5% of the 1.8 million people living in the country, are required to exchange their Serbian-issued vehicle plates for those issued by Kosovo until the 31st of October. The 2-month period was initially announced on the 31st of July, which sparked protests and roadblocks on the border crossing between Serbia and Kosovo. The tension eased after Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti announced the postponement of the implementation. The dispute over vehicle licensing caused protests by ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo already in 2021,when the government of Kosovo attempted to push the implementation.
Kurti describes the decision to move the deadline to the 31st of October as “nothing more or less than an expression of the exercise of sovereignty”. However, as the non-recognition of Kosovo by Serbia remains, the exercise of sovereignty will always be seen as provocative from a Serbian perspective. After the latest tensions and only a partial resolution to the disagreement between the two countries, it remains to be seen how the implementation after the postponed deadline will be received by the ethnic Serbs and in Belgrade.
Stability between Kosovo and Serbia imperative for European future
The fragile relationship between Kosovo and Serbia is a significant hurdle for both countries to eventually become members of the European Union. Serbia has been recognised as an official candidate and is negotiating for membership; Kosovo has been recognised as a potential candidate. In a long timeline in which both countries are supposed to work towards a sustainable neighbourly relationship, a trend seems to be emerging in which tension increasingly predominates only to be solved after dialogues that do not bring any long-term resolutions to stabilise the relationship.
Stability in the Western Balkans is also crucial for the European Union, which wants to strengthen its influence in the region after the new dynamics created in Europe by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A solution to the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo is essential for the stability in the region.
The European Union’s efforts to revive the stalled dialogue and normalise relations between the two countries has been unsuccessful thus far. Before the tensions over Kosovo’s government policy implementation, Aleksandar Vučić and Albin Kurti met twice. These meetings, the last of which was over a year ago, were considered unconstructive, difficult and unstatesmanlike. Keeping in mind the long track-record of disputes between countries, the process of normalisation between the two countries and the European Union’s role in it is currently more about resolving new areas of tension. Therefore, the current expectation is not whether the EU has to act as a mediator between the two countries again, but rather when the next conflict resolution between the EU, Kosovo and Serbia will take place in Brussels. On the 9th of September, the EU’s special representative for dialogue, Miroslav Lajčak, will have explorative discussions separately with Vučić and Kurti to discuss the possibilities for progress in the dialogue during his joint visit to Belgrade and Pristina. He will be accompanied by foreign policy advisers of Macron and Scholz to further support the EU’s bid for complete normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.