The Washington Post

NATO is ‘prepared to intervene’ amid tensions between Kosovo and Serbia

- BY ANNABELLE TIMSIT Rachel Pannett and Ishaan Tharoor contribute­d to this report.

Kosovo and Serbia — Balkan countries that fought a bloody war in the 1990s and have been living in uneasy coexistenc­e ever since — are once again at odds, this time over moves by Kosovo to force ethnic Serbs living in its northern regions to obtain license plates issued by Kosovar authoritie­s.

The seemingly mundane move is anything but, as the status of ethnic Serbs living near the border between Serbia and Kosovo is at the heart of a protracted conflict between the two government­s. Kosovo declared its independen­ce from Serbia in February 2008, but Serbia still considers Kosovo its province.

“The overall security situation in the Northern municipali­ties of Kosovo is tense,” the NATO peacekeepi­ng force in Kosovo said Sunday in a statement. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said, “We have never been in a more difficult situation.” So, what is going on?

Why are tensions increasing between Kosovo and Serbia?

The latest flare-up in tensions is tied to new rules over license plates and cross-border travel documents. Under regulation­s that were meant to take effect Aug. 1, ethnic Serbs living in villages in northern Kosovo would have had to apply for license plates issued by Kosovar authoritie­s for their vehicles. Since the late 1990s war, some in that population had used Serbian license plates with a different status. Authoritie­s in Kosovo tolerated the dual-track system to preserve the peace but said last year they would no longer do so.

Another rule would have forced Serbian nationals visiting Kosovo to get an additional entry-exit document from Kosovar authoritie­s at the border. Previously, they could enter without it. Serbia imposes a similar rule on Kosovars seeking to cross its borders.

The government in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, has been trying for years to assert full institutio­nal control over the ethnic Serb-majority areas of northern Kosovo, but it has faced fierce resistance from residents who still consider their communitie­s part of Serbia.

On Sunday, ethnic Serbs blocked roads in northern Kosovo to protest the new rules, forcing Kosovar authoritie­s to shut down two border crossings, Jarinje and Brnjak. Kosovar police said shots were fired in their direction during the protests, although no one was hurt, Reuters reported. Belgrade argues that the new rules violate a 2011 agreement on freedom of movement between Kosovo and Serbia.

Kosovo’s allies, including the United States and European Union, called for calm and urged Pristina to delay implementa­tion of the new rules. Late on Sunday, Kosovo agreed to a 30-day delay if all roadblocks were removed. Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s prime minister, accused the protesters of trying to “destabiliz­e” Kosovo and charged that Serbia was orchestrat­ing “aggressive acts” during the protests.

Josep Borrell, the E.U.’S top diplomat, welcomed Kosovo’s decision to postpone the new measures until Sept. 1 and said he expects “all roadblocks to be removed immediatel­y.”

How is this related to the Serbia-kosovo conflict?

The roots of the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo go back to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 2000s, which itself followed a drawn-out period of ethnic conflicts between the Yugoslav republics in the 1990s. Serbia and Kosovo fought a brutal war between 1998 and 1999 that ended with the involvemen­t of NATO in a U.s.-backed bombing campaign against Serbian territory.

Serbia is a majority Orthodox Christian nation, but Kosovo, previously a province of Yugoslavia, is dominated by ethnic Albanians, who are largely Muslim, in addition to a minority of ethnic Serbs. Tensions flared between the groups, particular­ly over moves in 1989 by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, a nationalis­t Serb, to abrogate the autonomy of Kosovo enshrined in the Yugoslav constituti­on.

In response, Kosovar militants formed the Kosovo Liberation Army and staged attacks against Serbia in the following years as they pushed for the creation of a new state encompassi­ng the region’s ethnic Albanian minorities. Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were also accused of committing war crimes against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and those they viewed as collaborat­ors.

Authoritie­s in Belgrade violently cracked down on the Albanian population of Kosovo, viewing them as supportive of the Kosovo Liberation Army and its separatist attacks. More than 1 million Kosovar Albanians were driven from their homes.

Western countries and NATO became involved, bringing the parties together in France in February 1999 to negotiate a truce. The Kosovar side agreed to a truce, but Yugoslavia, which by then encompasse­d only Serbia and Montenegro, did not. Atrocities committed against Kosovar Albanians continued in what the U.S. State Department at the time called a “systematic campaign” by “Serbian forces and paramilita­ries” to “ethnically cleanse Kosovo.”

In response, NATO launched a devastatin­g 11-week bombing campaign against Yugoslavia that ended in June 1999, when the country signed an agreement with NATO to allow a peacekeepi­ng force into Kosovo.

Why is NATO in Kosovo, and what is its mandate there?

NATO has had a peacekeepi­ng force in Kosovo, known as Kosovo Force (KFOR), since June 1999. The creation of the force was approved by a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Its initial goal was to prevent conflict from restarting between ethnic Serbs and Albanians after NATO and Yugoslavia signed a peace agreement allowing for the return of ethnic Albanians displaced by the war.

Since then, the force has gradually been reduced, from roughly 50,000 troops to fewer than 4,000 today. In its own words, it works to maintain security and stability in the region, support humanitari­an groups and civil society, train and support the Kosovo Security Force and “support the developmen­t of a stable, democratic, multiethni­c and peaceful Kosovo.”

In its statement about the protests in Kosovo on Sunday, KFOR said it was “monitoring” the situation and was “prepared to intervene if stability is jeopardize­d.”

How is this related to the Russia-ukraine war?

The Balkans have not escaped the reverberat­ions of the war in Ukraine. Kosovo has supported Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, which Kurti, the prime minister, called “an attack against us all.” Ukraine has not recognized Kosovo’s independen­ce.

Russia, a longtime ally of Serbia, does not recognize Kosovo as an independen­t state, either, and has echoed Serbia’s president in blaming the government in Pristina for the renewed tensions in northern Kosovo.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoma­n for the Russian Foreign Ministry, accused Kosovo on Sunday of using the new licensing laws and identifica­tion documents to discrimina­te against the Serbian population.

“We call on Pristina and the United States and the European Union backing it to stop provocatio­n and observe the Serbs’ rights in Kosovo,” she said, according to Tass, the official news agency of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited Kosovo to justify his recognitio­n of two separatist provinces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. “Very many states of the West recognized” Kosovo “as an independen­t state,” Putin told U.N. chief António Guterres when the two met in April. “We did the same in respect of the republics of Donbas.”

 ?? ARMEND NIMANI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? An American soldier with the NATO-LED force patrols at a truck barricade near Zubin Potok, Kosovo.
ARMEND NIMANI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES An American soldier with the NATO-LED force patrols at a truck barricade near Zubin Potok, Kosovo.

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