The situation in the north of Kosovo remains tense, although at this point there are no indications that it may lead to a large-scale escalation. The local Serbs do not show any signs they plan to remove their barricades in the near future, while the West reportedly aims to find a solution that would lower tensions in the region.
Following Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti's plan to introduce new license plate regulations – aiming to ban Serbian-issued plates and to force the Serbs in the north to swap them for Kosovo plates – in early November the Serbs decided to withdraw from all central and local institutions in the north of Kosovo where they make up the majority of the population. On December 10, after the ethnic Albanian-dominated authorities in Pristina arrested a former Serb police officer Dejan Pantic, the Serbs in northern Kosovo began to build barricades demanding his immediate release.
Following the Serbs’ withdrawal from Kosovar institutions, the Kurti government attempted to prepare the ground for a local election in the north, originally scheduled for December 18. However, given that the Serb lawmakers, prosecutors and police officers abandoned local government posts, Pristina had a hard time organizing the election in the region. As a result, Kurti postponed the vote, and the introduction of new license plates has been put on hold. The Serbs, however, are unlikely to start cooperating with Pristina until Dejan Pantic is released, or until Belgrade and Pristina, pressured by the United States and the European Union, reach a deal on normalization of the situation in northern Kosovo.
But even if the two sides manage to ease tensions, the Serbs in the north of Kosovo are unlikely to ever be fully integrated into the Albanian-dominated Kosovo society, given they see Kosovo as part of Serbia. In 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, and was recognized as an independent state by most Western countries, although not by five members of the European Union – Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus.
Recently, France and Germany have put forward a proposal to reach a deal on the status of Kosovo, but so far details are scant. Rumors are flying that it will be based on the Basic Treaty of 1972 between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, which suggests that Serbia would not have to recognize Kosovo explicitly, but it would have to accept its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Moreover, Belgrade would have to agree not to block Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, including the United Nations and the European Union. It is, therefore, not surprising that Pristina has already formally applied to join the EU.
From the Serbian perspective, the West expects Belgrade to implicitly recognize secession of its own territory, in exchange for “the prospect of joining the EU eventually”. Over the years, amid Western pressure, Belgrade has be forced to make numerous concessions to Pristina. For instance, in 2011, Serbia agreed to create de facto border crossings with what it sees as its southern province, while Serbian police officers living and working in Kosovo were integrated into the Kosovo police force. In 2013, Belgrade called on Serbs living in northern Kosovo to take part in Pristina-run local elections. Two years later, Serbia’s judicial authorities in northern Kosovo were integrated into the Kosovo legal framework. But the Serbs in northern Kosovo never supported such actions. That is why Belgrade was always either “bribing” them, or pressuring them to integrate into Kosovo’s institutions.
Although Serbia, on December 16, formally asked NATO’s KFOR mission in Kosovo to allow up to 1,000 Serbian military and police personnel to enter Kosovo, based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, it is extremely improbable that the United States-dominated alliance would approve such a request. The US Special Envoy for the Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, openly said that Washington categorically rejects the possibility of the Serbian military returning to Kosovo. The very fact that the American diplomat, following his statement, met with Vucic in Belgrade on December 14, indicates the Serbian leader is unlikely to make any unilateral moves that would jeopardize Serbia’s position.
On the other hand, since Escobar also met with the Serbian leaders in northern Kosovo, and said that “open communication, dialogue and a genuine acceptance that there is a lack of trust between the two communities is important to move forward successfully”, the United States is unlikely to give Kurti a green light to forcefully remove the barricades.
Thus, for the time being, the north of Kosovo is expected to remain in a situation of stalemate. But given the United States – possibly for the first time – acts as a relatively neutral mediator, it is not improbable that both, Belgrade and Pristina, will have to make significant concessions in order to reach a political solution that would lower tensions and allow the barricades to be lifted.
Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist from Serbia. He covers mostly Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Nikola writes for several publications such us Geopolitical Monitor, Global Security Review, Global Comment and International Policy Digest, among others. He is also a regular contributor to KJ Vids YouTube geopolitical channel where he writes video scripts on geopolitical issues.