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What's behind the tensions between Kosovo and ethnic Serbs?

Cani Bahri | Nemanja Rujevic
December 27, 2022

Recent tensions between ethnic Serbs and Kosovar authorities have reached a dangerous level, with Serbia threatening to send in troops. The international community is seeking a solution.

Members of the KFOR peacekeeping force patrol the area near the border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia in Jarinje, Kosovo
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti has called on KFOR, the NATO peacekeeping force, to remove the ethnic Serb roadblocksImage: Laura Hasani/REUTERS

Tensions between the ethnic Serb minority and the ethnic Albanian majority of Kosovo are once again in the headlines

, with the epicenter of the conflict in northern Kosovo.

What are the latest developments?

On Monday, the Serbian army briefly stationed howitzers at a site just 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the border with Kosovo. After taking a few staged photos and providing dramatic footage for pro-government media in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, the weapons were sent back to the barracks. 

In this photo provided by the Serbian Defense Ministry Press Service, Serbian army self-propelled 155 mm gun-howitzers are seen on position near administrative line with Kosovo
On Monday, Serbia positioned self-propelled 155 mm gun-howitzers near the border with KosovoImage: Serbian Defense Ministry Press /AP/picture alliance

The move has sparked renewed border tensions, coming after eyewitnesses and NATO-led peacekeepers, known as KFOR, reported shots fired near a barricade set up by Kosovar Serbs in recent weeks. So far, it remains unclear who fired the shots, and whether it was "only" warning shots or an exchange of fire. 

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti has called on KFOR to remove the ethnic Serb roadblocks. "If KFOR is not able to remove the barricades, or does not do it for reasons unknown to me, then we have to do it," Kurti said on Tuesday, in an interview with the Bosnian website istraga.ba.

Why is northern Kosovo such a hot spot?

North Kosovo is divided into four municipalities, with a population that is almost exclusively ethnic Serb that maintain close ties to Serbia. Most do not recognize Kosovo as a state. However, the municipalities have 10 guaranteed seats in Kosovo's parliament and are represented by two ministers in the government in Pristina.

Since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999, the Kosovar government has never had full control in the north of the country — this means the area north of the Ibar River, which has a population of about 60,000, is effectively a lawless zone and thus perfect for criminals and smugglers.

Without exception, the leading Serbian politicians in the area are loyal to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

The ethnic Serbs of Kosovo distrust the government in Pristina, which is underpinned by the fact that special police units are regularly sent into the northern area, allegedly to fight crime.

Infografik Karte Bevölkerungsgruppen im Kosovo EN

Why were roadblocks set up?

Roadblocks and barricades set up by the ethnic Serb minority are a tried and tested tool in the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia. Organized in online chat groups, these barriers can bring the region to a halt within minutes, blocking roads and border crossings.

The background to the current protest is the arrest of former Kosovo police officers of Serbian nationality. The Kosovo prosecutor's office has accused one of the men of having carried out a bomb attack on the premises of the election commission in Mitrovica, in the Serb-dominated north. In addition to the release of the policemen, the protesting Serbs are demanding that special units of the Kosovo police withdraw from the northern part of the country.

The aim of the Serb minority was to prevent local elections that became necessary in the north after all ethnic Serbs resigned from Kosovo's state institutions, both at the local and the national level, in early November. All four mayors in northern Kosovo resigned, several hundred Serb police officers left the Kosovo police force and Serb judges stopped going to work.

This boycott was a reaction to Kurti's plan to introduce new license plate regulations, with the aim being to ban plates issued by the Serbian authorities and swap them for Kosovo plates. As far as Kurti was concerned, it was a matter of principle because Serbia does not accept Kosovo license plates. But for Serbian President Vucic and the Kosovo Serbs, the move was a preparation for "ethnic cleansing." 

The introduction of new license plates has been put on hold for now, as have the local elections, as a result of pressure from the European Union and the United States. The West has also called on Serbia to help ease tensions, but that doesn't seem likely at the moment.

Trucks blocking a road
Kosovo Serbs have once again stepped up their protests with roadblocksImage: Idro Seferi/BKS

Could Serbia send troops?

Though it's unlikely that Serbia would actually deploy them, Vucic has put troops on "heightened readiness" several times in recent years. In mid-December, the government in Belgrade officially requested KFOR to allow Serbian police and soldiers to be stationed on Kosovar territory.

That request is possible under the UN Security Council Resolution 1244, adopted in 1999 after a de facto surrender by Serbia. It allows for a few hundred law enforcement officers to be sent to Kosovo — but only if the KFOR international peacekeeping mission agrees.

Even Vucic has openly admitted that his proposal will probably be rejected. According to analysts, he is engaging in propaganda. His critics argue that he wants to distinguish himself as a champion of "all that is Serb." Observers say that even if he were to seriously consider the military option, it would be futile because it would lead to a direct confrontation with the international police and military units stationed in Kosovo.

Is a solution to the conflict in sight?

Even with more pressure from the West, there is little hope for a resolution anytime soon. Positions are firmly entrenched on both sides: Belgrade will "never" recognize the independence of Kosovo, which it says violates international law, while Pristina has said that talks with the former "Serb occupiers" would only make sense if they led to this recognition.

Just under 100 countries, including 22 EU member states, recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Kosovo needs Serb approval to become a UN member — because Russia and China, both partners with Serbia, have veto power on the Security Council.

Serbia is Kremlin's 'client regime,' Kosovo PM tells DW

France and Germany have put forward a proposal to reach a deal on the status of Kosovo, but so far details have been scarce. According to insiders, the proposal will be based on the Basic Treaty of 1972 between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic — Serbia would not have to recognize Kosovo explicitly, but it would have to accept its territorial integrity and sovereignty and not actively block its membership in all international organizations.

The carrot for both sides would be the prospect of eventually joining the EU. Serbia has officially applied to join the bloc, but negotiations have been sluggish. Kosovo is not yet a candidate but plans to apply for accession before the end of the year.

What is the impact of the war in Ukraine?

Since February, there has been concern that Russia could use its close ties with Serbia to open a "second front" in the Balkans. Kosovar Prime Minister Kurti has suggested that Serbia, like Russia, also dreams of restoring a "Serbian world" in the region. For his part, Serbia's Vucic has said Kurti is conducting himself like a "little Zelenskyy."

To the EU's annoyance, Serbia has not joined the sanctions against Russia. According to polls, over 80% of Serbs reject imposing these on a "brother state." Serbia is not only dependent on Russian gas, but also on Russian support in the Kosovo issue.

Yet much of the Serbian economy is oriented toward the West. German companies in Serbia provide for about 75,000 jobs. Western politicians, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, seem determined to curb Russian influence in the Balkans.

Kurti has said a "comprehensive normalization agreement" between Serbia and Kosovo is expected in the spring. But as things stand at the moment, that sounds overly optimistic.

This article was first published on December 14, 2022, and was updated December 27 with the latest developments in the region.

This article was originally written in German.

Headshot of a man with black hair and a beard (Nemanja Rujevic)
Nemanja Rujevic Editor, writer and reporter for DW's Serbian Service