Nachricht | Participation / Civil Rights - Southeastern Europe From Frozen to Boiling and Back

With ethnic tensions in Kosovo simmering, a frozen conflict may be the best the region can hope for


In 2018, a “carrot and stick” approach to diplomacy between Serbia and Kosovo still seemed to be working, and a controversial idea had been circling in the so-called “diplomatic circles”. If Belgrade and Pristina could reach a final status agreement, the key players would be rewarded with the sweetest possible diplomatic “carrot”. Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić and his Kosovar counterpart at the time Hashim Thaçi — along with Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Policy at the time — would be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Radomir Klasnić is a Belgrade-based journalist and political analyst.

It would have been a win-win situation. Vučić, an autocrat with a chauvinist past, and Thaçi, currently on trial for war crimes allegedly committed during his time as a faction leader in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), would get the long-desired “peace-washing” of their biographies, while the EU would score a huge point for resolving one of the most dangerous ongoing conflicts on European soil.

This was at a time in which Vučić was so powerful that he could sell anything to the Serbian public using his dominance of the media. For Thaçi, this was the last attempt to save his political career and avoid being tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

However, Vučić and Thaçi’s recycled idea of a split territory wasn’t welcomed, with that ship having sailed a long time ago. A game of geopolitical roulette has since destabilized the world in new ways, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the most relevant development to impact the Serbia-Kosovo conflict.

Dreams Deferred

Fifteen years after its self-proclaimed independence, Kosovo is a de facto state under US protection, albeit one not legally recognized by Serbia, nor in fact the majority of the world’s countries. While the majority of EU countries are in favour of independence, five are still opposed. The “Belgrade–Pristina Dialogue”, a series of EU-facilitated talks between the governments of Serbia and Kosovo that started in 2011, three years after Kosovo self-proclaimed independence, has long since become an exercise in inefficiency. Due to the lack of real progress that these scheduled negotiations have produced, they are often seen as yet another “Groundhog Day”-style event unworthy of real media attention.

However, the stalemate or so-called “frozen conflict” between the two sides recently reached boiling point as a result of the “grand finale” that was the so-called “Banjska incident”. On 24 September 2023, heavily armed local Serbs, led by Milan Radoičić, a close associate of Vučić with ties to organized crime, killed one Kosovo policemen and wounded two others, with three of the Serb attackers later confirmed dead.

Following the events in Kosovo and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vučić and his regime no longer have full control of the narrative in Serbia.

The biggest armed incident since the end of the war showed that almost no progress towards inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation has been achieved. Dreams of any “status agreement” have been shattered for some time now, while Western attempts to facilitate it have been unmasked as unrealistic and in some cases even incompetent. In Serbia, the majority of people no longer see the EU as the “promised land”, with the West’s long-term attitude of having “moral superiority” with respect to Serbs while showing “blank support” for Kosovo only serving to fan the flames of Euroscepticism.

In short, the famous “carrot” has lost its sweetness, while the use of the paternalistic “stick” could perhaps only spark further conflict and resentment toward the EU in Serbia.

Following the events in Kosovo and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vučić and his regime (who have been linked to numerous crime and corruption affairs) no longer have full control of the narrative in Serbia. Nationalist opposition is on the rise, while the EU’s support for him as a kind of “delivery boy” has sullied its reputation even among Serbia’s liberal intelligentsia.

The Albin Kurti-led Kosovo, meanwhile, has become more aggressive in its attempts to achieve de facto recognition, with numerous non-democratic and unilateral acts making it even more difficult for the Serb minority to integrate into the Kosovar system. This Western “state-child” has entered puberty, so to speak, one which, led by the radical Kurti, does not want to be disciplined by its “tutor” and is now aiming to end the so-called “identity crisis” once and for all.

Before we get to that, however, let’s dissect how the events of the last year or so led to the current state of affairs.

The Great License Plate Debate

For Vučić, who has been in power for more than a decade, his latest “dialogue” partner Kurti is far from his desired one. He was able to find a common ground with the former KLA leaders, while their shared ultranationalist past meant that they were unable to adopt a position of moral superiority.

Kurti, on the other hand, the former student organizer of non-violent demonstrations against the Yugoslav police’s occupation of Pristina University who ended up in Serbian prison for “conspiring to commit an enemy activity linked to terrorism” and who was a “radical leftist” grassroots activist leader in Kosovo’s newly established society, is not exactly Vučić’s preferred sparring partner.

Kurti has taken a hardline approach to negotiations, asking for “de facto” recognition, banging into drums of old war narratives, accusing Serbia of genocide, and demanding reparations. His image as an “uncompromising leader” was not helpful in dialogues with Belgrade, as compromise has been the stated goal and the entire reason for negotiations in the first place. Kurti has even made statements supporting Kosovo’s unification with Albania, confirming the claims of Serb nationalists that had warned the West of the “Greater Albania” project. His radical views and actions have meant that Kosovo’s PM has even attracted a lot of criticism from its main ally, the United States.

On the other side of the administrative border, Vučić’s authoritarian “control freak” attitude and links to organized crime, which he used to control Serb-dominated municipalities in Kosovo, have become more openly destructive, especially after the brutal assassination of Kosovo Serb opposition politician Oliver Ivanović in 2018. Ivanović, who was shot dead with six bullets in front of his party offices, was known as a moderate Kosovo Serb politician, and was one of the rare opponents of Srpska lista, the Belgrade-backed political party operating in Kosovo.

The main suspects for his killing are Zvonko Veselinović and Milan Radoičić, best friends and Kosovo underworld kingpins who have been at the forefront of disruptive incidents in Kosovo for almost 20 years. Since Vučić came to power, the two have had all criminal charges dismissed while simultaneously being given an avenue to create business empires throughout Serbia as a result of construction jobs awarded by state institutions. Both are currently blacklisted by the US for criminal activities. Radoičić, who was at one point even a vice president of Srpska lista, later took sole responsibility for the Banjska incident.

The confrontation between Vučić and Kurti — or, more precisely, the escalation of confrontation — took on a more radical shape in 2021 in the form of the so-called “licence plates” dispute, elements of which have been a consistent obstacle to improved relations ever since the 1998-99 Kosovo war.

Tensions only increased as a result of Kurti sending more and more Kosovo police to the north to conduct so called anti-smuggling activities, angering locals who saw them as being “fabricated” actions aimed at bullying the Serb community.

In 2011, Kosovo and Serbia reached an agreement under which Kosovo would issue licence plates marked both “RKS” (Republic of Kosovo) and, in a concession to Kosovo Serbs who refuse to recognise its former province as a state, plates marked simply “KS” (denoting Kosovo), which are more neutral. The move was aimed at encouraging Serbs in the north of Kosovo to start using license plates issued by Kosovo authorities as opposed to going to Serbia for plates issued by Belgrade, as was their practice at the time.

The agreement expired in 2016, but Kosovo extended the validity of pre-existing neutral KS plates for another five years. At the same time, it also made Serbian-issued licence plates for Kosovo cities illegal. Due to this, Serbs could no longer go to Serbia to get licence plates for Kosovo, even if they did not want to use those issued in the name of the Kosovo Republic. This created a situation in which many Serbs now drive cars with either no plates or “illegal” ones.

After the agreement expired in September 2021, the Kosovo government decided not to extend it, and police started confiscating Serbian-issued licence plates. Kurti’s government saw it merely as a reciprocal measure, given that Belgrade required drivers with Kosovo-issued plates to obtain temporary plates upon entering Serbia.

Dissatisfied with how Kurti had been treating them in general, this move angered ethnic Serbs from Kosovo’s Serb-dominated north enough to block the border crossing points in Jarinje and Brnjak, with Kosovo deploying armed police special forces in response. Following the tensions, the reciprocal “sticker system” was put into place in October 2021, which required everyone to cover the state emblem with a sticker and delayed the confiscation of plates by around six months.

This delay did not stop the Kosovo government from eventually implementing the decision to confiscate plates and adding another one. In June 2022 it decided to begin issuing every person using IDs issued by Serbian authorities presenting at the border with temporary Kosovo declaration forms valid for 90 days that were intended to replace the Serbian-issued documents. This decision was also presented as a reciprocation of Serbian authorities’ non-recognition of Kosovo-issued IDs.

Tensions only increased as a result of Kurti sending more and more Kosovo police to the north to conduct so called anti-smuggling activities, angering locals who saw them as being “fabricated” actions aimed at bullying the Serb community.

Both Sides Raise the Stakes

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Kurti exploited the commonly held view of Serbia as Putin’s puppet state to try to portray it as a mini-imperial force that could cause chaos in the Balkans and even invade Kosovo. Kurti’s reason for opposing the Association of Serb Municipalities, Vučić’s main request that was agreed to as part of the EU-mediated Brussels Agreement in 2013, is closely linked to his Weltanschauung of Serbia’s regional role.

According to the agreement, the association would be entitled to full participation in the areas of economic development, education, health, and urban and rural planning. Despite the fact that it will officially be established within Kosovo’s legal framework, which would entail Serbs finally accepting Kosovar jurisdiction, Kurti fears it will be used to create a Serb para-state within Kosovo, comparing it with the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina in which the Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska strongly advocates for independence.

Many of Kurti’s moves have been interpreted by analysts as a way to provoke Belgrade. Every large-scale and aggressive move undertaken by Kosovo’s special forces in the north has been followed by the deployment of Serbian army troops at the border.

This heated atmosphere has become the norm. The situation reached a peak in November 2022 when Serbs resigned from their positions in state institutions in four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo, claiming that EU-mediated agreements between Serbia and Kosovo in Brussels are being breached.

The propaganda games Vučić was playing seemed to have spun out of control, especially for the Serbs whose daily lives he was playing with.

The heavily circulated video of Serb police officers taking off their Kosovo uniforms from this time is sure to feature prominently in history documentaries in future — the only question is in what context it will be used. At the time, the then-captain and head of operations for the Kosovo Police in the north, Aleksandar Filipović, said that “We have made a joint decision to resign from the Kosovo Police and to stand by our people. Enough is enough!”

Alongside police officers, resignations were also submitted by the mayors of four majority-Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo, as well as by councillors, deputies in the Assembly of Kosovo, judges, prosecutors, and administrative staff employed by the judiciary.

Srpska lista (a Serb minority party in Kosovo) stressed that Pristina needed to stop pushing Serbs to take Kosovo plates and urged it to finally establish the long-awaited Association of Serbian Municipalities in order to provide adequate representation for Serbs’ interests in Kosovo. Kosovo responded with an increased police presence and the arrest of even more Serbs, including the former police officers who resigned. In addition, as a direct consequence of the Serbs’ abandonment of institutional positions, Kosovo authorities also announced snap local elections for 18 December 2022.

The security situation in the north was further undermined by incidents in the Serb-dominated municipalities of Zubin Potok and Severna Mitrovica on 6 December, when new Albanian members of the Municipal Election Commission, assisted by police, tried to enter the premises. Their Serb counterparts prevented them from doing so, with reports of the use of “shock bombs”.

Former policeman Dejan Pantić was arrested on charges of attacking the election commission premises, which led to local Serbs setting up barricades and demanding for the release of all arrested Serbs. Srpska lista accused Kurti’s government of wanting to remove all Serbian men under the pretence of false accusations in order to thwart any potential Serb minority resistance. The Kosovar government responded by saying that they were simply upholding the law across the entire territory of their state.

With the atmosphere remaining tense, the barricades lasted for three weeks and were removed just two days before New Year’s Eve following an alleged request made by Vučić to local Serbs.

The propaganda games Vučić was playing seemed to have spun out of control, especially for the Serbs whose daily lives he was playing with. The move to leave Kosovo institutions proved to be a disaster, since it resulted in the vacuum being filled by Albanian police and bureaucrats who have pushed Serbs even further into uncertainty.

However, what once seemed to be reaching a boiling point has since simmered down to a more lukewarm temperature in light of what went on to happen in 2023.

A Year of Long Barrels

In 2023, the so-called “international community”, aka the US–EU axis, realized they needed to push the dialogue further before it was too late, especially given the upcoming US and European Parliament elections scheduled for 2024. They sought to urge both Kurti and Vučić to make concessions using all the leverage they had.

This resulted in the agreement proposal initiated by France and Germany, which seemed to be based on the model of the Basic Treaty signed between the two Germanies in 1972 that resulted in both countries receiving wider international recognition and membership to the United Nations.

Kurti and Vučić supposedly accepted the agreement, which was hammered out in more detail in March in Ohrid, North Macedonia. As of yet, however, no signature has been put on the agreement, with Kurti and Vučić continuing to bicker about what it actually means.

Vučić faced heavy criticism in Serbia, especially from right-wing opposition parties that had previously not been so critical of him until that point. The “French–German” proposal became a “red line” for those who had previously tolerated Vučić’s autocracy, and opponents even started calling him a “traitor”, a label which Vučić himself has used for his entire career to demonize his enemies.

Kurti, meanwhile, continued to block the formation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, despite urgings from the EU, while persisting in pushing local Serbs closer to the edge. In April 2023, Kosovo authorities decided to organize elections in the country’s north, despite Serbs pledging to boycott them. This led to four municipalities electing mayors from the Albanian community for the first time. The EU subsequently criticized the Kosovo authorities’ actions, questioning the move’s legitimacy, since only Albanians — who only make up 3.5 percent of voters — went to the polls.

The EU has repeatedly directed criticism towards Kurti, demanding new elections in the north and allowing the establishment of Vučić’s main request — the Association of Serb Municipalities that was agreed to a decade ago.

Kosovo Serbs’ dissatisfaction with Vučić only continued to increase, especially after 26 May, when he ordered them to attend an SNS rally in Belgrade that was aimed at countering pressure he was facing from the opposition. This was at a time when the “Serbia against violence” protests that had started in response to two mass shootings which had shocked the country at the beginning of the month were at their peak. Kurti took advantage of the massive absence of Serbs in the north of Kosovo to take over municipality buildings and installing the newly elected Albanian mayors.

A few days later, a large-scale conflict erupted between local Serbs and the Kosovo police, with the NATO soldiers caught in the middle bearing the brunt of the violence. According to reports, at least 30 soldiers were badly injured.

Following the incident, the situation only got worse. Kosovo police continued to arrest Serbs, often without a clear legal reason, while Serbia responded by arresting three Kosovo policemen on 14 June, accusing them of having entered Serbia’s territory illegally. Kosovo again imposed import sanctions on Serbia, which today continue to cause a shortage of groceries and particularly medicine in Serb-dominated north Kosovo.

The EU has repeatedly directed criticism towards Kurti, demanding new elections in the north and allowing the establishment of Vučić’s main request — the Association of Serb Municipalities that was agreed to a decade ago. The EU also criticized Kosovo’s move to expropriate Serbs’ private property in order to create police bases along the border with Serbia.

During those months, Serbia appeared to have the upper hand over Kosovo in the negotiation process. In June, the EU imposed sanctions against Kosovo for failing to “de-escalate” tensions in the country’s north.

On 24 September 2023, however, a strange thing happened — something that is still a source of controversy and fuel for conspiracy theories. Around 30 armed men, led by Vučić’s associate Radoičić, attacked Kosovo police, killing one and wounding two in the village of Banjska. In response, the Kosovo police killed three Serbs and arrested several more, while others were able to flee back to Serbia, including Radočić. It remains a mystery how they were able to make it.

Kosovo later seized a large number of arms and equipment that BIRN journalists have traced back to Serbian defence ministry institutions, although it remains unclear whether Radočić had Vučić’s support or acted on his own as he claims.

The attack has made the position of Kosovo Serbs worse than before and all the leverage gained in the negotiations due to Kurti’s hardline nationalistic position has been squandered.

The Future Is the Past

After the leader of socialist Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito died, various forms of nationalism in the multi-ethnic country began to rise, including Albanian nationalism in Kosovo and a broader Serbian nationalism that was one of the main culprits of the bloody war that led to the country’s dissolution.

During the 1990s, the Serbian state, led by strongman Slobodan Milošević, systematically oppressed Kosovo Albanians. According to the Humanitarian Law Center, 10,500 Albanians were killed during the conflict in 1998 and 1999, 8,700 of whom were civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Albanians were expelled by the Serbian army, police, and paramilitaries. The HLC has also noted that during the same conflict, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was responsible for the death of 2,197 Serbs.

Almost a quarter of a century later, with the Kosovo state now controlled by ethnic Albanians, the situation has changed. Ethnic Serbs are an oppressed minority exposed to “attempts of delegitimization, dehumanization, finger-pointing, and criminalization” on a daily basis, according to the NGO New Social Initiative.

Where Albanians were once discriminated against by the Serbian state apparatus, it is now them who are the ones doing the repressing.

In their April 2023 report, the UN Mission in Kosovo note “verbal and physical abuse by the Kosovo Police special operations unit”, 12 incidents perpetrated against Serbian Orthodox churches, and further “incidents of an inter-ethnic nature”. Meanwhile, the US State Department’s most recent annual report on Kosovo highlighted the “violence or threats of violence targeting ethnic minorities” and “social and employment discrimination” enacted against Kosovo Serbs.

Faced with pressure from Pristina, but also from Radoičić-led criminal structures backed by Belgrade, many Serbs have been leaving Kosovo, sadly realizing that it is a place where there is no future for their children.

What is clear is that the situation is radically different to what it was in the 1990s. Where Albanians were once discriminated against by the Serbian state apparatus, it is now them who are the ones doing the repressing. While the KLA, which the majority of the Kosovo elite can trace its origins back to, was considered a terrorist organization by Milošević, Kosovo’s authorities now deem Radoičić’s armed group to be the terrorist one.

Reopening Old Wounds?

In a situation dominated by past resentments and political populism, possible solutions seem thin on the ground. With the EU Parliament and US elections right around the corner, we can only hope for another cooling of the conflict.

For the vast majority of Serbs, Kosovo is a historic monument to their nation’s importance, a place filled with a great deal of cultural heritage and significant sites for the Serbian Orthodox Church, a territory deeply engraved in their collective national thought. Irrespective of what he has promised to its Western allies, Serbia’s president Vučić is hardly likely to deliver official recognition of independence. Indeed, as a narcissist who aims to have his name written in golden letters in the history of the Serbian nation, he will not let himself be remembered as the one who “sold” Kosovo.

Having ruled with an iron grip for 12 years due to his autocratic style — even if he no longer enjoys the luxury of ruling uncontested — he has just secured another four years for the SNS at the parliamentary elections held in mid-December of last year. Although practically all election observers reported numerous irregularities, especially in the capital Belgrade where the opposition could easily have won, his election victory nevertheless received support and recognition from the West.

Anything is better than houses in flames and columns of unfortunate refugees.

But he did not get it for free. Just days after the elections, Vučić finally accepted the validity of Kosovo-issued licence plates, despite having previously pushed Kosovo Serbs into conflict with Kurti’s police over that precise issue.

Nevertheless, the best the West can hope for is Vučić’s gradual de facto recognition of Kosovo as a state, in the form of the French–German proposal he has previously verbally accepted. This will not come without a cost, however, and the Serbian president will continue to require counter-favours that serve to bolster his power-hungry form of authoritarian rule.

For Kurti and Kosovo’s elites, their goal is close. Ethnic Albanians, given all their sacrifices, will not let their statehood slip away. Even liberal intellectuals take a hardline nationalist approach, as most recently evidenced by Kosovo civil society organizations demanding that the EU withdraw the proposal concerning visa liberalization for Kosovo Serbs if they don’t accept Kosovo documents. In the recently held general elections in December, Kurti himself once again banned Kosovo Serbs from voting.

Without a compromise, however, there will not be any solution. As it stands, two sides obsessed with history and the narrative of victimization seem unable to find a common language.

In 2006, Clive Baldwin from Human Rights Watch, who previously worked for the OSCE in Kosovo, warned the international public about the dire situation, stressing that “nowhere in Europe is there such segregation as Kosovo”. He went on to say:

Nowhere else are there so many “ethnically pure” towns and villages scattered across such a small province. Nowhere is there such a level of fear for so many minorities that they will be harassed simply for who they are. And perhaps nowhere else in Europe is at such a high risk of ethnic cleansing occurring in the near future – or even a risk of genocide.

The re-opening of old wounds too often leads to the opening of new ones. Nowadays we see many similar examples, from Ukraine to the Middle East. Let’s hope that the Balkans will for once buck the trend and avoid violent conflicts on a bigger scale than those seen in recent times. If the conflict needs to be frozen again, so be it. Anything is better than houses in flames and columns of unfortunate refugees.