On 29 December 2022, the blockade in Jarinje and Bernjak crossing points in the North Kosovo region1 bordering Serbia ended after 19 days, following lengthy negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo with assistance from the European Union (EU) and the United States. However, the uneasy peace remains a cause for concern, with the potential to unravel again.
This flare-up is rooted in the conflict which erupted in June 2022 amidst the detention of former Kosovo-based Serbian police officer Dejan Pantic. The Kosovan authorities suspected him of attacking the municipal election commission offices in North Mitrovica.2 The arrest was the catalyst for the subsequent blockade at the border.
Notably, the June 2022 protests were linked to Kosovo’s decision to levy fines on vehicle owners using license plates issued by Serbia during the pre-1999 period, i.e., before Kosovo’s demand for independence.3 The government had also decreed that the owners would now have to re-register their vehicles using the newly-issued Kosovo number plates. The Serbian leadership vehemently opposed this measure but pursued a diplomatic solution to end the crisis.4
In November 2022, local Serbian officials resigned from their posts in response to these measures carried out by the majority Albanian Kosovar community.5 A diplomatic intervention by the EU temporarily reversed the government’s decision. Nonetheless, unrest reignited in the subsequent month.
This issue is at the core of the ethnic divide between the two groups, as Serbs consider it an infringement of their ethnic identity and kinship with their ‘comrades’ across the border. More importantly, they perceive this as an attempt to erase their ‘Serbianess’, which they symbolise with the license plates.
Kosovan authorities’ postponement of the local elections in North Kosovo for security reasons6 and the Serbian army being put on high alert for combat readiness to protect the border7 further fuelled this conflict.
The ongoing conflict has roots in Pristina’s demand for independence from Belgrade over two decades ago, which Serbia strongly opposed. Following NATO’s intervention and bombings in the disputed region, Kosovo sought autonomy and finally emerged as a sovereign country in 2008. As a Western ally, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and EU supporting its independence, Kosovo today has gained recognition from 117 countries. However, it is yet to secure membership in the European bloc.
Incidentally, post-2008, the region has largely been stable except during the summer of 2011 when clashes broke out between local Albanians and Serbs in North Kosovo. Hostilities had broken out largely on account of the mutual trade embargo imposed by Kosovo and Serbia.8 However, an agreement negotiated by the EU in September 2011 put a lid back on tensions.
Similar to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Yugoslavia’s disintegration also created a notable political-ethnic divide in Kosovo. This has been compounded by Kosovo’s religion-based segregation between its Muslim (Albanian descent) and Serbian populations. The ethnic Serbs residing in border areas of Kosovo and BiH have demanded secession from their respective countries to become an integral part of Serbia.
This ethnic divide is apparent even during sporting events. Ethnic Kosovan Albanians Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri displayed the Albanian Eagle in solidarity with Kosovans during a football match with Serbia.9 Serbian authorities, in return, demanded the pair face punitive measures for what they termed ‘controversial’ celebrations, which led to them being fined by the global football body (FIFA).
Meanwhile, ultranationalists’ far-right groups of Serbia such as the Narodna Patrola (People Patrol) Group have sought to further fuel the ethnic divide. The groupparticipated in the December 2022 clashes on the Serbian side of the border to protest Kosovo’s actions. The group’s leader Damjan Knežević is now on Kosovo’s list of wanted individuals. Notably, he is considered close to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s son, who is also on the list.10
Role of Major Powers
Russia remains one of the key stakeholders in the Balkans with Serbia being its key link. It shares a close partnership with Serbia due to its shared Slavic identity. This has seen Russia supporting Serbia in international forums such as the UN and also during the recent flare-up with Kosovo.
Notably, Moscow perceives this relationship as political and pragmatic.11 Russia likely perceives Serbia as a bulwark against NATO’s expansion in the Balkans, by leveraging the 1999 NATO bombings which remain deeply embedded in Serbian memory. Incidentally, Russia had also backed Serbian minorities in BiH, including giving an audience to Republic Srpska leader Milorad Dodik during the Bosnian crisis of 2022.12
Meanwhile, Kosovo remains a key part of the Western geo-strategic calculus. Today, NATO can justify making further inroads towards Eastern Europe as Kosovo currently houses its 3,700 Peace Keeping Forces (KFOR). KFOR mandate is to bring peace and stability to Kosovo.13 Kosovo also formally applied for EU membership in December 2022,14 thereby demonstrating its Western tilt. This could, however, have an impact on how Russia sees the region.
In March 2023, Serbian and Kosovo leaders met in North Macedonia in an EU brokered mediation attempt to find a solution to the ongoing impasse. However, the messages emanating from both sides indicate a long road ahead.15
Notably, a few parallels can be drawn between the conflicts in Kosovo and Ukraine. The presence of NATO troops next to a Russian ally could lead to a second front for Russo-NATO strife in Europe. In addition, statements such as the ‘De-Nazification of Kosovo’ by a Serbian Member of Parliament, Vladimir Djukanovic, are reminiscent of Russian objectives in Kyiv.
With the West and Russia having stakes in the Balkans, a new proxy conflict could emerge between Serbia and Kosovo. This could further destabilise a region known for its volatility. A potential conflict in Kosovo could be a distraction for NATO amidst its focus on Ukraine. Therefore, NATO’s primary objective would likely be to avoid conflict.
The year 2023 could be a pivotal year for peace in the Balkans which has experienced ‘fractured peace’ since 1990s. One could witness a positive step forward or capitulation into conflict reminiscent of the past. Domestic politics as well as geopolitical contestation would be key determinants in shaping the region’s future.