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Territorial dispute flares up as Kosovo seeks to purge Serb license plates

Kosovo was turned into a breakaway republic from Serbia following a NATO bombing campaign against Belgrade in 1999. More than two decades later, Kosovo remains an unresolved and complex territorial dispute at the heart of EU foreign affairs.

(CN) — The long-running territorial dispute between Serbia and the West over the status of Kosovo is boiling up once again as the Kosovar Albanian government in Pristina moves to force Serbs in the breakaway republic to stop using Serbian license plates.

Under pressure from European Union leaders, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti on Tuesday postponed for 48 hours a police crackdown on Serbian license plate holders. Kurti wants to start issuing fines to Kosovar drivers with Serbian plates even though such a ploy risks setting off clashes between the Serb minority and police.

Around midnight on Wednesday, Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign affairs chief, announced the two sides had reached a compropmise with Serbia pledging to stop issuing license plates that include a designation for Kosovo cities and Pristina agreeing to not force drivers to re-register their plates.

With tensions on the rise, thousands of NATO peacekeeping forces in Kosovo this week had been put on alert and Serbian and Kosovar troops reportedly were preparing for the potential of violence. Wednesday's late-night agreement likely defused the immediate escalation of tensions, but the license plate deal leaves unresolved a host of other disputes.

Still, experts on Kosovo do not believe events will escalate into a new war between Belgrade and Pristina any time soon.

“It’s conceivable but unlikely,” said Daniel Serwer, an expert on Kosovo at the Middle East Institute and international politics professor at Johns Hopkins University, in an email. “More likely is chaotic instability.”

Tensions have been rising for months as talks between Belgrade and Pristina to settle the territorial dispute have shown no progress. Kurti's government, meanwhile, argues it can no longer recognize its citizens' Serbian documents and laws. Targeting Serbian license plates is a way for Kurti to declare Pristina has complete sovereignty over Kosovo. Meanwhile, scores of judges and police in northern Kosovo, which is home to about 50,000 Serbs, have resigned en masse to protest Kurti's anti-Serbian measures.

Serbia as well as many other countries, including Russia and China, do not recognize Kosovo's independence and view its creation as the result of an illegal NATO military intervention in 1999. Kosovo is recognized by Washington and most of its allies.

“Right now there is a lot of pressure from the Western powers that Serbia will recognize Kosovo as an independent state,” said Srda Trifkovic, a politics professor at the University of Banja Luka in the semi-autonomous Serbian region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in a telephone interview.

Trifkovic said Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, in keeping with the majority of Serbian politicians, will never recognize Kosovo's independence.

“The overwhelming majority of Serbs still refuse to accept the fait accompli” that Kosovo is an independent state, he said.

He likened Serbian attitudes to those of the French following the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia after Napoleon III made the disastrous mistake to go to war with Otto von Bismarck's army in 1870. Trifkovic recalled that French liked to say the lost regions were “always in our hearts, meaning we are not talking about reconquering Alsace and Lorraine but it remains our objective.”

In many ways, the fate of the land-locked and tiny state of Kosovo – it is only about the size of Delaware – lies at the heart of European affairs and can even be seen as the crest of a wave of nationalistic territorial disputes threatening to boil over in Europe since the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Kosovo was carved out from Serbia in 1999 when U.S. President Bill Clinton launched a NATO bombing campaign against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's forces in Kosovo without approval from the United Nations Security Council.

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Milosevic's forces were engaged in fierce fighting against the Kosovo Liberation Army, a Kosovar Albanian armed insurgency seeking independence from Serbia.

Clinton argued that NATO needed to intervene to prevent genocide against Muslims living in Kosovo. But NATO's military intervention was blasted as a violation of international law because it was not supported by the U.N. Security Council; critics also contend NATO's siding with Kosovar Albanians set a dangerous precedent.

“Kosovo is important primarily because it created an important precedent which runs totally counter to the myth of the rules-based international order,” Trifkovic said. “I think the decision-makers and certainly the public in the U.S. and to a lesser extent in Europe are not aware to what extent it has impacted the thinking, not only in Russia, but also in China and elsewhere in the Third World.”

He said even in Europe many see the Kosovo example as a warning.

“This is certainly the case with Spain, Greece, and Slovakia, each of which has reason to reject the notion that an ethnic minority should have the right to secession on the grounds of its majority in a locale in a given geographic part of the country,” he said.

“So, Serbia is not alone,” he added. “If you look at the population of those countries in the world which do not recognize Kosovo, it is actually 70-75% of the world's people and still Kosovo is only recognized by about one half of U.N. members and we've even had some cases of derecognition in Africa and Latin America.”

More than two decades later, Kosovo's status certainly remains unresolved and a source of potentially explosive tensions. Europe is in the midst of a wave of dangerous conflicts over geography, religion and history with the war in Ukraine obviously the most horrendous example.

Serb police officers took off their uniforms in the town of Zvecan, Kosovo, on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, resigning in protest. (AP Photo/Bojan Slavkovic)

The case of Kosovo involves an armed dispute between Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim Kosovars over who will control a province claimed by both sides.

Kosovo was at the heart of the Serbian Empire in the Middle Ages but it fell under five centuries of Ottoman rule after Serbia's defeat in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.

By the end of the 19th century, Albanians replaced Serbs as the dominant ethnic group in Kosovo. But the province came back under Serbian control during the First Balkan War of 1912 and remained so until 1999.

Many Serbs view the loss of Kosovo as a historical injustice and an illegal partitioning of their country imposed by Washington and its Western allies in NATO eager for a military foothold in the Balkans. The U.S. quickly established Camp Bondsteel, a major military base in Kosovo, following the NATO intervention in 1999.

Elsewhere in Europe, similar clashes over territorial sovereignty are taking place between Turks and Greeks over the long-partitioned island of Cyprus; in Spain, the prospect of an autonomous Catalonia is a source of long-simmering turmoil; in Eastern Europe, independence drives by Russian-speaking populations in Moldova and Georgia threaten to boil over; and enclaves of Hungarians in Slovakia are eager to see themselves as part of Hungary.

Serwer said the two sides in the Kosovo dispute “have incompatible goals that have not changed in more than two decades.”

“Kosovo wants sovereignty and independence. Serbia claims sovereignty and denies independence,” the professor said.

Negotiations to settle the conflict involve the EU. Both Kosovo and Serbia want to be part of the EU bloc but the conflict stands in their way of becoming members.

Vucic is seeking to see northern parts of Kosovo return to Serbia in the negotiations, but Pristina is refusing to allow its small territory to be broken up.

“By far the more substantial grievances that hinder resolution are on the Albanian side, but Serb grievances also hinder conflict resolution,” Serwer said.

“Eventually EU membership is the solution, but it is far off and the path is uncertain,” he added. “The EU for now seems more allergic to Muslims than Orthodox Christians.”

Trifkovic was doubtful the prospect of EU membership will do much to change Serbia's position.

“Looking to the future, I believe that, one, neither Aleksandar Vucic nor any other prime minister or president in Belgrade will be able to sign away Kosovo – that would be the end of that politician's career,” he said.

"Two, the western powers – and particularly the EU and the U.S., which are almost acting in unison – have nothing to offer in return and so far what we have seen is simply the demand – 'do it, do it, do it' [recognize Kosovo] – without any quid pro quo,” he added.

He also criticized Kurti for bringing “a certain haughty and even brazen arrogance” to the negotiating table.

"The promise of the European path, which means membership in the EU, which is often mentioned to Serbia as some kind of compensation, is empty,” he said.

Trifkovic said Serbs are disillusioned about the EU after 22 years of seeking entry into the EU club since the fall of Milosevic.

“Most Serbs are now of the opinion that it will never happen and that there is no political will in the EU for further expansion,” he said. “And that even if it were to happen, it wouldn't lead to anything particularly good or meaningful.”

He added: “We've seen how national governments still carry out their own country's interests. At the beginning of the [coronavirus] epidemic when Italy was effectively left high and dry and when the Schengen borders suddenly became borders with border posts and controls once again.”

He argued that even if the EU were to add more members, the newest countries admitted to the club would be offered less favorable terms and gain fewer economic advantages.

As for Kosovo, he saw a bleak future.

“So, in the end, it will remain a frozen conflict,” he said.

But he doubted that Kosovo will become a field of war again.

“I don't think either the Europeans or Americans care enough for Kosovo to allow the creation of another hot spot of acute instability,” he said. “Armed conflict could only come if the Albanian authorities in Pristina tried to intervene in the north by physically subjugating the Serbs and then Serbia has no choice but to intervene. I don't think it will come to that at all.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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