Home / Europe / One step forward, two steps back: Kosovo-Serbia relations in light of recent tensions

One step forward, two steps back: Kosovo-Serbia relations in light of recent tensions

3 March, 2023

By Irena Baboi – Senior Fellow

At the end of 2022, an escalation in tensions between Kosovo and Serbia raised concerns of a renewed conflict between the two Balkan countries. In December, in protest to the arrest of Serbian former police officer Dejan Pantic, ethnic Serbians living in Kosovo set up roadblocks in the northern part of the country. Following pressure to defuse tensions from both the European Union and the United States, Pantic was eventually released from prison, and placed under house arrest. On 29 December, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic promised that all barriers and roadblocks would be removed, and on 5 January, the last barricade was dismantled. This flare-up brought Kosovo-Serbia relations back to international attention, only this time this is in the context of a completely altered geopolitical situation. Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine has heightened the importance of Kosovo and Serbia reaching a sustainable agreement on relations between their two countries – it has also created a window of opportunity that all sides need to take advantage of if real progress is to be achieved.

Tensions have characterised relations between Kosovo and Serbia since the latter separated from the former after a violent conflict that only came to an end as a result of international military intervention. The 1998-1999 war erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians launched a rebellion against Serbian rule, and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown. NATO intervened by bombing the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – comprised of Serbia and Montenegro at the time – to protect the Albanians in Albanian-majority Kosovo. In 2008, after years of working to build itself up as a state, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Since then, more than one hundred countries have recognised Kosovo as an independent state. Pristina has also joined several international institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the International Court of Justice ruled Kosovo’s declaration of independence legal in 2010. Serbia has never recognised Kosovo’s independence, and relies on friends and allies Russia and China to veto any resolution benefiting Kosovo in the United Nations’ Security Council.

According to Kosovar authorities, former police officer Dejan Pantic was arrested because of his alleged organising of attacks on the country’s election commission and police, and “accused of committing terrorist acts and attacking the constitutional order”. Ethnic Serbians living in the north of Kosovo, who constitute the majority in this part of the country, responded to Pantic’s arrest with mass protests and resignations. December 2022 witnessed a series of clashes between Kosovar authorities and ethnic Serbians, which quickly escalated in gunfire exchanges. For the first time since the war between Serbia and Kosovo, the Serbian government asked permission from the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo (KFOR) to send up to 1,000 Serbian police and army personnel to Kosovo. This request was rejected, with KFOR arguing that there was no need for a return of Serbian troops and forces to Kosovo. The Serbian government criticised KFOR for allegedly informing them of this decision on the eve of the Christian Orthodox Christmas, the same day that Kosovo police arrested an off-duty soldier suspected of shooting and wounding two young Serbians near the Kosovar town of Shterpce. Serbian media also reported that another young man was allegedly attacked and beaten by a group of Albanians the following day, as he was on his way home from church.

Pantic’s arrest may have triggered this escalation towards the end of 2022, but the real starting point of the recent build-up in tensions between Kosovo and Serbia can be traced back to last summer. At the end of July 2022, the Kosovar government demanded that all citizens of Kosovo – including the ethnic Serbian minority, who refuse to acknowledge Pristina’s authority and consider themselves part of Serbia – start carrying identity cards (IDs) and use license plates issued by Kosovo. In response, ethnic Serbians living in the northern part of the country set up roadblocks and threatened an escalation of violence, prompting KFOR forces to start patrolling the streets. Following mediation from the European Union and the United States, Kosovo and Serbia reached a deal on ID documents, but the issue of the license plates was left to be resolved at a later date. In November, after months of protests, clashes and mass resignations from ethnic Serbians, Kosovo and Serbia signed a landmark deal on the issue: Serbia was requested to stop issuing licence plates with markings indicating Kosovo cities, and Kosovo had to cease its demands for reregistration of vehicles carrying Serbian plates.

Although more intense and violent than usual, this recent build-up in tensions between Kosovo and Serbia has been following a familiar pattern. Any attempt from Kosovo’s government to exercise authority over the entire territory of the country is generally met with unrest from the Serbian minority, which in turn is fuelled by Belgrade. The European Union and the United States intervene and a deal is reached between the two countries, but the deal fixes a minor issue, and completely avoids opening a conversation on the crucial one. The core issue in Pristina-Belgrade relations is and will remain Kosovo’s independence – and in the absence of real progress towards full mutual recognition, it is unlikely that true normalisation of relations between the two countries will ever be achieved.

Despite the familiarity of the pattern that this recent flare-up in tensions has followed, concerns were heightened this time because of its potential link with Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. Back in December 2022, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti warned that Russia may be fuelling tensions between Serbia and his country in an attempt to either move attention away from Moscow’s losses in Ukraine, or create a new conflict for the Western countries to focus on. Russia responded to the flare-up in tensions between Kosovo and Serbia by saying they want the situation resolved “through diplomatic means”, but also that they stand for “ensuring that all the rights of the Serbs are guaranteed”. Echoing a similar sentiment, Russia’s ambassador in Belgrade, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, has repeatedly likened the position of Serbians in Kosovo to that of Russians in the Ukrainian Donbas.

Russian involvement in Serbia – arguably the most important Balkan country from both the West’s and East’s point of view – has long been a matter of concern for the European Union and the United States, and Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has only exacerbated the issues that come with it. Serbia’s close ties with Russia have meant that Belgrade has condemned the invasion of Ukraine, but so far refuses to align itself with European Union sanctions against Moscow. Alongside a heavy dependence on Russian gas, Serbia’s siding with Russia in international relations is motivated by the benefits of having Moscow as a friend and ally in the United Nations Security Council, as Russia can veto any resolution on Kosovo that Belgrade finds unacceptable. The latter also benefits Moscow, who can use Kosovo as leverage in its relationship with Serbia – and since Belgrade is reportedly diversifying its energy sources, ensuring Kosovo’s independence is not fully recognised is now more important than ever for Russia.

This, however, has not been something that Moscow has often had to worry about in the last more than a decade. Since 2011, Kosovo and Serbia have been involved in a so-called “comprehensive normalisation of relations” dialogue led by the European Union, but this process has yielded few concrete results. In 2013, Kosovo’s then-Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and Serbia’s then-President Ivica Dacic signed an agreement that detailed conditions for the large-scale devolution of northern Kosovo and its majority ethnic Serb population. This 2013 agreement provided for the merger of the four Serb municipalities in the north – North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic – into an “Association of Serbian Municipalities” that would have extensive powers over economic development, education, healthcare and town planning in Serb-majority areas of Kosovo. In November 2015, however, Kosovo’s government froze its plans to establish this association. The following year, the Constitutional Court of Kosovo declared parts of the 2013 deal – including that on the municipality association – “unconstitutional”. In an August 2022 interview, Kosovo’s current Prime Minister Albin Kurti reiterated this position on the 2013 agreement, and expressed concern that an Association of Serbian Municipalities could function as Kosovo’s own Republika Srpska – an “autonomous” political entity that is loyal to Belgrade, and powerful enough to hinder the functioning of the Kosovar state.

Since then, the focus has been on the economic rather than the political, with the United States in particular aiming for quick agreements on minor issues between Kosovo and Serbia. Now, however, the changing security landscape since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine seems to have prompted both the United States and the European Union to push for Kosovo and Serbia to reach a political deal this year. A secret so-called Franco-German proposal was the subject of widespread discussion in the media for months, and at the end of February, the European External Action Service finally made its content public. The Franco-German proposal does not include mutual recognition, but acts as a potential building block to a more comprehensive agreement further down the road, and includes significant carrots for both countries. For Kosovo, the proposal calls on both countries to “mutually recognise their respective documents and national symbols, including passports, diplomas, license plates, and customs stamps”. Serbia is also required to stop objecting to Kosovo’s membership in any international organisations, and the two sides need to exchange permanent missions, support each other’s aspirations to join the European Union, and “proceed on the assumption that neither of the two can represent the other in the international sphere or act on its behalf”. For Serbia, one of the carrots is that Kosovo will need to formalise the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo and “afford strong protection to the Serbian religious and cultural heritage and religious sites”. Crucially, although not presented in these words, the proposal includes a revival of the 2013 agreement on the creation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, and a requirement for both sides to fulfil what they promised nearly a decade ago. As part of the agreement proposed, both Kosovo and Serbia need to commit to ensuring “an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo”, which could include the possibility for financial support by Serbia and a direct communication channel for the Serbian community to the government of Kosovo.

The so-called Franco-German proposal was made public following an EU-led meeting in Brussels on 27 February, where it is reported that Kosovo’s Albin Kurti and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic tentatively agreed on this European Union plan to normalise relations between their two countries. However, only a day later, President Vucic declared that he will not sign the agreement proposed, as he does not accept mutual recognition and Kosovo joining the United Nations. The Serbian President went on to say that he is willing to negotiate the implementation plan intended to be part of the annex of this agreement, and will push for the creation of the proposed Association of Serbian Municipalities – expressing doubt, at the same time, that Prime Minister Kurti will agree to implement it.

These declarations echo the state of affairs back in January when, following meetings with European Union and United States representatives, the governments in Pristina and Belgrade expressed their views on this plan proposed by the European Union. On the Kosovar side, Prime Minister Kurti signalled potential willingness to accept the plan but not the 2013 agreement, and Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla argued that the proposal was just “a basis for discussion”. Serbia’s Vucic, meanwhile, took a different yet predictable approach, and told the Serbian media that his country is being pressured to accept the proposed plan, and threatened with a number of consequences if they refuse. Vucic said that if Serbia does not accept the plan until March, Belgrade’s European integration will be halted, their investments will be blocked, and the country will face “comprehensive measures in the political and economic sense that will cause great damage to the Republic of Serbia”, including the abolition of the visa-free regime with the European Union. With respect to whether or not Serbia is likely to accept the plan, Vucic said that that the voice of the parliament and the Serbian people must also be heard – hinting at the possibility of a referendum being held so that he can avoid taking responsibility for any decision on the issue – but also noted that Belgrade would be “economically and politically” lost without their links to the European Union.

While it is likely that these threats Vucic is claiming the European Union and the United States have made are exaggerated, this is precisely the kind of tough approach that Brussels and Washington need to take if real progress towards the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia is to be achieved. Since full mutual recognition seems to be off the table for now, the Franco-German proposal should indeed be a conversation starter towards it, and any unwillingness on either side to negotiate and move the relationship forward should have consequences. The carrots are on the table, the sticks should be there too – and both Kosovo and Serbia need to recognise that this is the time to show that they are open to the process ahead of them.

Image: A barricade in North Kosovo on 12 December 2022 (Source: Glas Amerike (Voice of America)/Public Domain

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.