Kosovo-Serbia tensions fading after deal reached

The slow-motion crisis between Kosovo and Serbia over automobile license plates that began with little notice on September 20 escalated into a tense show of military force on both sides of the countries’ shared border until a deal was reached September 30 after two days of negotiations in Brussels. Violence over the issue remained extremely limited and military de-escalation will be completed in several phases over the next two weeks.

A “crisis” about car registration documents

This crisis began on September 20 when Kosovar authorities required all drivers from Serbia entering Kosovo to use permanent printed 60-day registration details. Most drivers from Serbia are in fact traveling short distances to visit or supply Serbian communities inside Serb-majority northern Kosovo. These measures were said by the Pristina government to be in retaliation for steps Serbia took regarding license plates back in 2008 when Kosovo formally declared its independence, since Belgrade did not recognize that position nor Pristina’s authority to issue Kosovo-based license plates. Violence reported so far included attacks against a means registration office in addition as several other Kosovo Interior Ministry buildings in Serb-majority northern Kosovo on September 25.

Military activity had increased

Both Serbia and KFOR (the NATO-led multinational Kosovo Force) military operations had increased considerably over the past week but there have been no engagements between the sides. At the onset of the crisis, KFOR had stated that it increased the number and duration of its routine patrolling activities all around Kosovo. For its part, Serbia had also begun military maneuvers near the border and sent military jets on sorties above the two currently closed crossings in northern Kosovo as a form of protest.

EU diplomacy delivers

Albanian chief Minister Edi Rama, otherwise on good terms with top Serbian leaders, visited Kosovo on September 27 and criticized Serbia’s “theatrical military maneuvers”, explaining that the “only solution is dialogue.” Also on September 27, Kosovar chief Minister Albin Kurti repeated an offer for both countries to lift the rule on permanent license plates.

The European Union’s Balkan envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, organized two days of bilateral talks in Brussels and announced a deal on September 30, which he posted in complete on Twitter:

1. Special police units located at the joint border crossings in Jarinje and Brnjak will leave and remove barricades on October 2, while members of the NATO-led KFOR stabilization force will deploy at the two crossings before the start of the withdrawal of the police and the removal of barricades, remaining there for two weeks to ensure security;
2. From October 4, a sticker will replace the removal of the license plates of cars registered in Kosovo and Serbia as a permanent measure until a long-lasting solution is identified;
3. On October 21, Kosovar and Serbian officials will form a working group chaired by the EU and start working toward a long-lasting solution that will be presented within six months to the high-level format of the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue.

In the shadow of the upcoming EU-Balkans Summit

This activity on the Kosovo-Serbia border occurred just prior to a scheduled EU-Balkan Summit set for October 6, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was making her three-day tour of six Balkan countries, which began on September 28. Her regional tour was designed to show high-level European Commission concern for the vicinity and upcoming Enlargement plans, in addition as to generate momentum and media sustain, but it appears the Kosovo-Serbia escalation shifted at the minimum some of the focus from the Enlargement discussions.

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