Home Politics What is behind the renewed tensions between Serbia and Kosovo?

What is behind the renewed tensions between Serbia and Kosovo?

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Police officers patrol following a shooting, on the road to Banjska, Kosovo, September 25, 2023. Photo by Ognen Teofilovski/REUTERS

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo A new outbreak of violence broke out this weekend when around 30 heavily armed Serbs barricaded themselves in an Orthodox monastery in northern Kosovo, sparking a day of shootouts with police that left one officer and three attackers dead.

Sunday’s clash was one of the worst since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It came as the European Union and the United States attempt to mediate and to finalize years-long talks on the normalization of relations between the two Balkan states.

LEARN MORE: Serbia again threatens armed intervention in Kosovo as tensions escalate

There are fears in the West of a resumption of the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo, which cost more than 10,000 lives and left more than a million homeless.

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti accused Serbia of sending the attackers to Kosovo. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic denied the report, saying the men were Kosovo Serbs who had had enough of “Kurti’s terror.”

A look at the history between Serbia and Kosovo and why the latest tensions concern Europe.

Why are Serbia and Kosovo at odds?

Kosovo is a majority Albanian territory that was part of Serbia before its declaration of independence. The Serbian government has refused to recognize Kosovo’s statehood, even though it has no formal control over it.

About a hundred countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, including the United States and most Western countries. Russia, China and five EU countries sided with Serbia. This impasse fueled tensions in the Balkan region after the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

What are the roots of the conflict?

The dispute over Kosovo is centuries old. Serbs consider this region central to both their religion and their state. Many medieval Serbian Orthodox Christian monasteries are found in Kosovo, and Serbian nationalists view the 1389 battle against the Ottoman Turks as a symbol of their national struggle for independence.

Kosovo’s Albanian majority, most of whom are Muslims, consider Kosovo their country and accuse Serbia of occupying and repressing it for decades.

Albanian rebels launched an uprising in 1998 to rid the country of Serbian rule. Belgrade’s brutal response prompted a NATO intervention in 1999, forcing Serbia to withdraw and cede control to international peacekeeping forces.

Some 4,500 peacekeepers are still stationed in Kosovo, a poor country of around 1.7 million people, with little industry and where crime and corruption are endemic.

Are tensions particularly strong at the moment?

There are ongoing tensions between the Kosovo government and ethnic Serb residents who live primarily in northern Kosovo and have close ties to Belgrade. Mitrovica, the main northern city, is effectively divided into an ethnically Albanian part and a Serb-held part, and the two sides rarely mix. There are also smaller enclaves populated by Serbs in southern Kosovo.

Government attempts to impose more control in the north are generally met with resistance, and the situation deteriorated earlier this year when Serbs boycotted local elections in the north. They then tried to prevent the newly elected Albanian mayors from entering their offices.

Around 30 NATO peacekeepers and more than 50 Serbian protesters were injured in the ensuing clashes.

Is there a link with Russia and the war in Ukraine?

Long before Russian tanks arrived in Ukraine last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the breakup of Yugoslavia to justify a possible invasion of a sovereign European country.

Putin, whose troops illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, has repeatedly claimed that NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the West’s recognition of Kosovo set a precedent. He said this allowed Russia to intervene in the strategic Black Sea peninsula and Russian-majority areas in the country’s east.

Western officials vehemently rejected Putin’s reasoning, saying NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was triggered by massacres and other war crimes committed by Serbian troops against ethnic Albanians. This was not the case in Ukraine before Russia’s full-scale invasion.

There are fears in the West that Russia, through its ally Serbia, is trying to destabilize the Balkans and thus divert at least some attention from its aggression against Ukraine.

What was done to resolve the dispute?

There have been continued international efforts to find common ground between the two former war foes, but no comprehensive agreement has yet been reached. Officials from the European Union and the United States held negotiations designed to normalize relationships between Serbia and Kosovo since 2012.

The negotiations produced results in some areas, such as freedom of movement without checkpoints and the creation of multi-ethnic police forces in Kosovo. However, the latter collapsed when Serbs withdrew from the force last year to protest Pristina’s decision to ban Serb-issued vehicle registration plates.

Under international pressure, Kurti, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, suspended the decree, but this did not bring Serbs back into Kosovo’s institutions.

To add to the difficulty of finding a solution, both Kosovo and Serbia have nationalist leaders. Kurti is often accused by international mediators of taking measures that trigger unnecessary tensions.

Vucic, meanwhile, is a former ultranationalist who insists Serbia will never recognize Kosovo and insists that a previous deal to give Kosovo Serbs some level of independence must first be implemented before new agreements are concluded. Vucic has tacitly acknowledged Serbia’s loss of control over Kosovo, but also says the country won’t settle if it doesn’t get something.

What happens next?

International officials still hope that Kosovo and Serbia can reach an agreement that would allow Kosovo to gain a seat in the United Nations without Serbia having to explicitly recognize its statehood. The two countries must normalize relations if they are to progress towards EU membership.

No progress in EU-led negotiations would lead to prolonged instability, economic decline and a constant potential for clashes. Any Serbian military intervention in Kosovo would result in a clash with NATO peacekeepers, and Serbia is unlikely to intervene unless it gains some support from Russia.

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