An old dispute over a decision by the government of Kosovo in September 2021 to enforce the use of Kosovo-issued licence plates for Serbs in the northern municipalities – rather than allowing them to continue to use plates issued by the Serbian government in Belgrade – has flared up again and threatens to escalate into conflict between the two countries.
Local residents in northern Kosovo are also incensed that the Kosovo government now requires – in addition to an ID card – an entry/exit permit for visitors from Serbia.
The decision on number plates was announced, and then suspended, in October last year after protests from ethnic Serb residents in northern Kosovo – where approximately half of all Kosovo Serbs live, and which has been a flashpoint for years. The reinstatement of the policy prompted protesters to build roadblocks, triggering the closure of two border crossings over the weekend. Protesters also allegedly fired at Kosovo police.
The permit system is actually something that both countries agreed back in 2011, and that Belgrade has long insisted on for visitors from Kosovo. The government of Kosovo, however, had so far not implemented this decision. But because of a growing sense of lack of reciprocity from Belgrade, Kosovo’s leaders now seem to have reversed course, possibly to have more bargaining power in so far inconclusive negotiations on freedom of movement arrangements at the Kosovo-Serbia border.
The unrest led to Nato issuing a statement that it was ready to intervene to stabilise the situation. The EU and US also urged calm. As a result, the government of Kosovo has agreed to delay the implementation of the new rules on licence plates and mandatory entry/exit permits until the beginning of September.
Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, denounced the attempted implementation of the new rules as a violation of previous EU-mediated agreements on freedom of movement. Unsurprisingly, Russia sided with the Serbian position. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, accused the government of Kosovo and its western allies of violating the rights of ethnic Serbs and of trying to provoke violence.
But it’s not clear whether Russia had an actual hand in the protests, or merely exploited them in a continuing effort to discredit the west. Tensions in the Balkans are clearly welcome to Russia, and Moscow has previously been accused of fomenting instability and unrest – whether in an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, or in the endless saga of the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially the status of its ethnic Serb entity, which is home to approximately one million ethnic Serbs (equivalent to 85% of the region’s total population).
Yet, over time, Russia’s influence in the region has waned. The US and the EU have had varying success in mediating agreements between Kosovo and Serbia. Even though these have failed to achieve a full normalisation, they have prevented major ruptures in relations, the recent tensions at the Serbia-Kosovo border notwithstanding.
While Russia’s support for Serbia’s position of non-recognition of Kosovo is politically very important for Belgrade, China has become a more important economic partner than Russia. Political support from Beijing, which also refuses to recognise Kosovo’s independence, is apparent from the fact that China has made Serbia its regional hub in the western Balkans.
Unlike Russia, China values stability in the region, which is an important transit hub and entry point to EU markets. This is likely to curb Vladimir Putin’s enthusiasm for significant escalation, but not necessarily the Russian president’s ruthless pursuit of an opportunity for destabilisation.
The priority for western policy in the Balkans should be to further curtail Russian influence. The potential for Moscow to escalate tensions in the region is already limited by the high level of Euro-Atlantic integration that these countries have achieved since the break-up of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s. Slovenia and Croatia are members of the EU. Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are official candidate countries in various stages of accession negotiations. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidate countries.
At the same time, all the EU member states in the region are also members of Nato. And the EU and Nato, respectively, maintain a security presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Yet, it is important for the EU and Nato not to be complacent about Russian influence in the Balkans, and not to create openings for the Kremlin to exploit. This requires a clear continuing commitment by Nato to stability in Kosovo and the region more generally. The EU needs to recharge membership negotiations with the region’s candidate countries – including Serbia. EU engagement is also required in the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, which needs to be infused with new momentum to help both sides make the necessary concessions and compromises to resolve the current crisis and avoid any future escalation.
Russia might be tempted escalate tensions in the western Balkans in an effort to put pressure on the west against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. In the absence, for now, of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the west, deterring it from doing so might necessitate a different kind of signalling to Moscow. There needs to be an unambiguous message that any attempts at destabilisation would not go unanswered, and that Russia itself would be vulnerable to western pressure in Syria, Belarus, and its de-facto statelets in Transnistria in Moldova, and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
Together with continued military, economic and political support for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, such a calibrated western strategy will ensure that the Kremlin does not overplay its hand in the Balkans.
Stefan Wolff receives funding from the United States Institute of Peace. He is a past recipient of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Foreign Policy Centre in London and Co-Coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.