Crisis Group warns resolution of conflict between Serbia and Kosovo increasingly distant

Crisis Group warns resolution of conflict between Serbia and Kosovo increasingly distant
North Mitrovica, one of the majority Serb areas of northern Kosovo that are a source of contention between Belgrade and Pristina. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews April 3, 2024

The prospects for normalisation between Pristina and Belgrade appear to be fading, says a new report from the Crisis Group, which argues there is “scant hope” of the two sides overcoming their difficulties. 

The report was published after a year that saw several violent incidents in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo. This is despite the two sides appearing close to a compromise deal – which would have allowed both to progress towards EU accession – at the start of the year. 

The report traces the origins of the current crisis, citing Pristina's efforts since 2021 to enforce its authority in northern Kosovo through a militarised special police force, which met with resistance from the local Serb population. Escalating tensions culminated in violent confrontations, including clashes between Serbian paramilitary groups and Kosovo police, exacerbating the already fragile situation.

According to the Crisis Group, Kosovo is now “winning the battle for control of its rebellious, Serb-majority north”. 

While international condemnation and a shift in local sentiment broke the resistance, Pristina capitalised on the opportunity to consolidate its control over the region. Aggressive measures such as banning the Serbian dinar and raiding Serbian government offices underscored Pristina's resolve, further complicating prospects for normalisation.

“The remaining Serbian institutions on Kosovo territory, which survived the war of 1999 and Kosovo’s independence in 2008, are being dismantled in the aftermath of a Serbian-supported paramilitary operation in September 2023,” says the report. 

“While limited violent resistance remains possible, northern Kosovo, which was hoping for autonomy or union with Serbia, is grudgingly submitting to Pristina’s authority. These are hard days for the Serb minority, whose future is vital for rapprochement between Belgrade and Pristina.” 

Despite lingering pockets of resistance, the northern region, which once aspired for autonomy or union with Serbia, is gradually acquiescing to Pristina's authority, in a shift in the region's power dynamics, according to the Crisis Group. 

The report points to the potential solution proposed by the EU in December 2022, namely the normalisation deal under which Serbia would act as though it recognises Kosovo's independence, in exchange for autonomy for Kosovo's Serb minority. However, the impasse persists due to divergent interpretations and unresolved issues surrounding the proposed Serb autonomous unit and Serbian recognition of Kosovo.

The Crisis Group stresses the urgent need for demilitarisation and diplomatic intervention to prevent further escalation of the conflict. 

Key recommendations include the withdrawal of Kosovo's special police units from Serb-majority regions and cooperation with Nato's KFOR peacekeepers. Additionally, it urged Serbia to cease support for paramilitary activities and prosecute those involved in violent incidents.

At the same time, it points to multiple contentious issues holding back the two sides from normalising their relations. These are chiefly the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, to the planned Serb autonomous unit (known as an association or community of Serb-majority municipalities). 

“There is scant hope that the EU dialogue can get over these hurdles, and the Belgrade-Pristina relationship is likely to remain frozen,” says the report. 

“Against this backdrop, both the parties and outside actors that want calm in the Western Balkans should turn their attention first to defusing the short-term risk of violence and after that to achievable goals that can encourage political stability failing a breakthrough on the normalisation deal.”