Explained | What is the Kosovo-Serbia conflict all about? Why have tensions flared again?

Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, unilaterally declared Independence in 2008 and is recognised as a country by about 100 nations including the U.S. and a number of EU-member countries, but not Serbia

June 06, 2023 10:43 pm | Updated June 07, 2023 03:05 am IST

Hundreds of ethnic Serbs carry a giant Serbian flag through the town of Zvecan, in northern Kosovo, on May 31.

Hundreds of ethnic Serbs carry a giant Serbian flag through the town of Zvecan, in northern Kosovo, on May 31. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: In the aftermath of one of the worst escalation of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia in at least a decade, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) last week sent 700 more of its peacekeeping troops to Kosovo. Clashes broke out on May 29 between Serbs protesting in North Kosovo and the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFor), leaving about 30 NATO soldiers and 50 Serbs injured. Since then, the Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo have met once on June 1 under pressure from the European Union (EU) in the presence of French and German leaders. However, a resolution to the long-standing conflict remains uncertain.

What are the roots of the conflict?

Both Kosovo and Serbia lie in the Balkans, a region of Europe made up of countries that were once a part of the erstwhile Republic of Yugoslavia. Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, unilaterally declared Independence in 2008 and is recognised as a country by about 100 nations including the U.S. and a number of EU-member countries.

Serbia, however, does not recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty and continues to consider it as a part of itself despite having no administrative control over it. Serbia sees historic significance in Kosovo. The Serbian Empire had gained control of Kosovo in the 12th century, and the latter went on to become the heart of the kingdom with several Serb Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries of significance being built in Kosovo.

Serbia lost Kosovo for 500 years to the Ottoman Empire in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. During the Ottoman Rule, the ethnic and religious balance shifted in Kosovo, leading it to become a majority ethnic Albanian region with Muslims. After five centuries of Ottoman rule, Kosovo became part of Serbia in the early 20th century and post the Second World War, it was eventually made a province (with autonomy) of Serbia, which was then one of the six republics of Yugoslavia. Serbia considered this the rightful return of Kosovo, but the ethnic Albanians, who currently make up 90% of Kosovo’s population considered it unfair. In the 1980s, Kosovo Albanians increasingly mobilised and sought separation from Serbia. In 1989, Serbia’s autocratic leader Slobodan Milošević leveraged Serbian nationalism to consolidate power and stripped Kosovo of its autonomy.

In the late 1990s, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), consisting mainly Kosovo Albanians, led an insurgency against the Serbian rule of Kosovo. Serbia responded by cracking down on the rebellion by deploying heavy forces in 1998 and 1999. Nearly 13,000 lives, mainly of ethnic Albanians, were lost during this period. However, in 1999, NATO intervened by carrying out air raids and bombardment of Serb targets, forcing Serbia to end hostilities and pull out of Kosovo. Subsequently, NATO deployed 50,000 peacekeepers and through the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1244, a transitional UN-led administration began to head Kosovo.

In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. While Serbia challenged Kosovo’s actions before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the ICJ was of the opinion that Kosovo’s declaration was not against international law.

What has happened since 2008?

Currently, an ethnic Serb minority of more than 50,000 resides in multiple municipalities in the northern part of Kosovo bordering Serbia, making up about 5.3% of the country’s population. The Kosovo Serbs do not recognise Kosovo state institutions, receive pay and benefits from Serbia’s budget, and pay no taxes either to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo or Belgrade, the Serbian Capital.

Since 2008, clashes have broken out on and off in Kosovo’s northern region, either when Serbs have clashed with Kosovo’s police or due to the larger issue of Serbia not recognising Kosovo’s independent status. Meanwhile, Kosovo cannot become a member country of the UN without Serbia’s approval as it has its diplomatic allies in Russia and China who would veto such a decision.

In 2011, EU, backed by the U.S, initiated talks to resolve the conflict between the two countries, offering the prospect that the two could only become a part of the EU if they bilaterally normalised relations. In 2013, the two reached the Brussels Agreement brokered by the EU, which included measures to dismantle Serbia-backed parallel structures in Kosovo’s north and the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities to administratively link Kosovo’s 10 Serb-majority municipalities. While the agreement was not fully implemented on the ground, the participation of Serbs in elections was facilitated.

In July 2022, violent clashes broke out in the northern region over the issue of Kosovo asking Serbian drivers to use temporary Kosovo number plates for their vehicles when in the country, just like Serbia requires Kosovo vehicles to change number plates when they pass through or travel in Serbia. The ethnic Serbs in the north then staged protests and put up blockades at the two border entry points between Serbia and Kosovo. These are the only points through which Kosovo citizens can travel to Western Europe and engage in trade. Clashes once again escalated in December last year with the Kosovo Serbs putting up more barricades and Serbia warning that it was ready near the border with its combat troops.

What prompted the recent clashes?

In April this year, Kosovo held mayoral elections in municipalities. These elections were boycotted by ethnic Serbs in the northern municipalities and saw only about a 3% turnout, as a result of which ethnic Albanian mayors got elected in these municipalities. Notably, protesting the July 2023 move by Kosovo asking for a change of number plates, ethnic Serb mayors in northern municipalities, along with local judges and 600 police officers had resigned in November and opposed fresh elections to their posts.

Over a week ago, with the support of the Kosovo police, ethnic Albanian mayors took office in northern Kosovo’s Serb-majority area and faced protests by Serbs. The move by Kosovo to install Albanian members led the U.S. and its allies to rebuke Pristina, as it triggered clashes. Then on May 29, violent clashes took place between NATO soldiers and Serb protesters.

Where do the resolution talks stand?

So far, the dialogue has produced over 30 mostly technical and some political agreements, between Serbia and Kosovo. Since late 2015, there has been little progress in reaching new agreements or implementing existing ones. In 2018, former Kosovo President Thaçi and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić had proposed redrawing borders and swapping some territories between the two countries as a way of normalising ties but the EU rejected it saying it would open the Pandora’s box of territorial claims in parts of Europe.

The talks were suspended in 2018 due to Kosovo’s imposition of 100% tariffs on Serbian goods in response to the latter’s campaign to block Kosovo’s Interpol membership bid.

In February this year, both Serbia and Kosovo tentatively agreed to EU’s plan which proposed that Belgrade should stop lobbying against Kosovo’s candidature in international organisations including the United Nations. In turn, Kosovo was to form an association of Serb-majority municipalities. Additionally, both sides were to also open representative offices in each other’s capital to help resolve outstanding disputes. However, the two parties eventually walked out of singing the deal as Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti faced nationalist opposition for not being assertive enough while Serbia’s populist leader Mr.Vučić was criticised back home for engaging in a compromise. Talks have also stalled because both sides now doubt the EU’s seriousness about granting them membership as many of the EU countries, including France, are against the bloc’s further expansion.

What about Serbia’s ties with Russia?

Kosovo’s current leader and the West are also concerned about Serbia’s strong historic and military ties with Moscow and its political closeness with President Vladimir Putin who has maintained support for the Serbian claim. The concerns have intensified after the start of the Ukraine conflict and Mr. Kurti has warned of a spillover in the Balkans backed by Russia. Besides, Serbia’s dependence on Russia for diplomatic support to counter Kosovo’s bids at the UN puts Moscow in a position of influence. The Carnegie Endowment paper on the issue points out that Kremlin also “fears that ending the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo will diminish Russia’s stature in Serbia and severely undermine its clout in the Balkans”.

What next?

Since the Presidents of both sides met on June 1, Kosovo has indicated that a solution for de-escalation is close and it is open to holding fresh elections in Serb dominant municipalities, provided they are held in a free and fair manner, without Belgrade pressuring ethnic Serbs to boycott the vote.

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