Leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to meet as they pull back from brink of conflict

Leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to meet as they pull back from brink of conflict
Serbian officials objected strongly to the new rules on the replacement of ID cards and license plates of local Serbs. / Kosovo interior ministry
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje August 7, 2022

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti agreed to meet on August 18 in Brussels as part of the EU-mediated normalisation dialogue, the EU’s foreign policy spokesperson Peter Stano said on August 5.

The meeting, the first between Vucic and Kurti this year, comes shortly after Belgrade and Pristina were on the brink of a serious conflict following Kosovo’s decision not to recognise Serbian ID documents. The decision sparked tensions in Kosovo’s north, which is populated mainly with ethnic Serbs. 

Kosovo and Serbia have a history of tense relations following Kosovo’s independence war, which ended with Nato strikes on Serbia in 1999 and Pristina’s secession from Serbia in 2008.

“I am inviting President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti on August 18 to Brussels, to discuss the way forward between Pristina and Belgrade,” the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell tweeted.

The Vucic-Kurti meeting will be held in the presence of Borrell and EU special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, Miroslav Lajcak.

Lajcak previously announced the meeting between Vucic and Kurti would take place in the second half of July, but it was postponed.

“The meeting on August 18 in Brussels is to move the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade forward. This is something that is very much needed at the highest level as we have not such a meeting for some time,” Stano said.

The spokesperson did not specify what issues will be raised at the meeting, but said: “When it comes to issues related to the rule of law, international prosecution or dealing with the issues from the past this is being tackled at appropriate level and appropriate time with our partners both in Kosovo and Serbia.”

Kosovo’s controversial introduction of reciprocity measures – the issuing of temporary IDs to replace the travel documents of ethnic Serbs issued by the neighbouring Serbian authorities – was due to take place on August 1. The measures were officially announced on June 29, sparking an angry reaction from Serbian officials. The situation escalated on July 31, a day before the implementation of the measure, as ethnic Serbs started to block the roads leading to the border several hours before the entry of the new measures into force.

Serbian officials considered that the new rules on the replacement of ID cards and license plates of local Serbs represent another step towards the expulsion of the Serbian population from Kosovo. The measures also require vehicles with Serbian license plates that want to cross the border to have a sticker to hide the national symbols and state designation. This mechanism will be valid until October 31, 2022. Ethnic Serbs who live in Kosovo should obtain new license plates with Kosovo country code RKS, which is not accepted by Serbia, instead of the KS code.

After the consultation with the EU and US officials, Kurti announced on July 31 that Kosovo is ready to postpone the decision until September 1, if the barricades are removed.

However, the decision has not only been implemented at the Jarinje and Brnjak border crossings, where barricades were erected and then removed, but also applies at other crossings.

Vucic said after the tensions were calmed that “the most difficult scenario” in Kosovo was barely avoided.

“We were one step away from disaster,” Vucic said.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said on July 29 what happens in Kosovo is the result of Kurti's unilateral moves.

“Serbia did nothing to trigger this crisis. On the contrary, this is the epilogue of years of mistreatment of Serbs in Kosovo and non-compliance with international agreements,” she said.

Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged Kosovo and Serbia to “maintain calm” and “avoid unilateral actions” following tensions on Kosovo’s northern border.

During a phone conversation with Vucic about the tensions on August 3, Stoltenberg said that all sides must engage constructively in the EU-mediated dialogue, and solve differences through diplomacy.

“Nato-KFOR stands ready to intervene if stability is jeopardised, based on its UN mandate,” Stoltenberg said.

With Moscow backing Serbia in its refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence, the unresolved situation between Serbia and Kosovo is seen as one of the main potential flashpoints in the Western Balkans.

On August 2, spokesperson of the Russian foreign ministry Maria Zakharova urged the US and the EU to stop encouraging Kosovo’s “radicals” to provoke Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia.

“Until the West realises that the threat to undermine the fragile stability in the Balkan region is very real, dangerous experiments will continue. Responsibility for this lies entirely with the West and, above all, with Washington,” Zakharova said.

The latest progress in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue was seen in the area of energy issues with the adoption of a roadmap on the implementation of energy agreements.

Reaching a comprehensive agreement, which for Kosovo means recognition by Serbia, is a main condition for the progress of both countries on their EU path. Serbia is already in the process of EU accession negotiations, while Kosovo plans to apply for EU membership by the end of the year.