(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.