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EXPLANATOR: Why do Kosovo-Serbia tensions persist?

Belgrade, Serbia — Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo erupted again last week after Serbs erected barricades on main roads in northern Kosovo, a former Serbian province. They were protesting against the arrest of a former Kosovo Serb policeman.

Shots were fired from the barricades and a Kosovo Albanian policeman was injured. Someone threw a stun grenade at a European Union peacekeeping patrol. Serbia raised its combat readiness and warned that it would not stand idly by if the Kosovo Serbs were attacked.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has called for the deployment of Serbian troops in northern Kosovo, further fueling fears of a resumption of the 1998-99 war in Kosovo that claimed more than 10,000 lives and left more than a million homeless.

A look at the history between Serbia and Kosovo, and why the latest tensions are of concern to Europe.


Kosovo is a predominantly ethnic Albanian territory that declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The Serbian government has refused to recognize Kosovo’s statehood and still considers it part of Serbia, although it does not does not exercise any formal control over it.

More than 100 countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, including the United States and most Western countries. Russia, China and five European Union countries sided with Serbia. The stalemate fueled tensions and prevented the full stabilization of the Balkan region after the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.


The dispute over Kosovo is centuries old. Serbia cherishes the region as the heart of its state and religion. Many medieval Serbian Orthodox Christian monasteries are found in Kosovo. Serbian nationalists see a 1389 battle against the Ottoman Turks as a symbol of their national struggle.

The majority of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, most of whom are Muslim, consider Kosovo their home and accuse Serbia of occupation and repression. Ethnic Albanian rebels launched a rebellion in 1998 to rid the country of Serbian rule. Belgrade’s heavy-handed response prompted a NATO intervention in 1999, which forced Serbia to withdraw and hand over control to international peacekeepers.


Long before Russian tanks and troops arrived in Ukraine in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the breakup of Yugoslavia as justification for a possible invasion of a sovereign European country. Putin claimed responsibility for the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the West’s acceptance of Kosovo as a country set an illegal precedent that shattered international law and order.

Putin’s argument, repeated many times since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, followed this line of reasoning: if the former Yugoslav republics and a Serbian province could become independent with the support and wars of the West, Why Shouldn’t Ukraine’s Strategic Black Sea Peninsula and Rebels Be? Russian-majority controlled areas in the east of the country separated with Russian help?

Western officials have vehemently rejected Putin’s argument, saying NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was sparked by massacres and other war crimes committed by Serbian troops against ethnic Albanians.

Although that was not the situation in Ukraine before Russia’s full-scale invasion this year, Putin is still using what happened in Kosovo as a precedent for sending troops. He has cited Kosovo and Serbia several times since the invasion.


There are ongoing tensions between the Kosovo government and ethnic Serb residents who have close ties to Belgrade. Government attempts to impose more control in the Serb-dominated north are generally met with resistance.

Mitrovica, the main city in northern Kosovo, is effectively divided into an ethnic Albanian part and a Serb-controlled part, and the two parts rarely mix. There are also smaller Serb-populated enclaves in southern Kosovo. Tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbs live in central Serbia, where they fled with retreating Serb troops in 1999.

Kosovo is a poor country, with much of its pre-war industry not functioning. Crime and corruption are rampant in areas controlled by both Albanians and Serbs. Serbs made up 10% of the population before the war, but now it’s less.


There have been constant international efforts to find common ground between the two former wartime enemies, but no comprehensive agreement has emerged so far. European Union officials have brokered talks aimed at normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo since 2012.

The negotiations achieved results in some areas, such as freedom of movement without checkpoints and the creation of multi-ethnic police forces in Kosovo. However, the latter broke down when the Serbs withdrew from the force a few months ago in protest at Pristina’s decision to ban Serb-issued vehicle license plates and demand their replacement with those issued by Kosovo.

After international pressure, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti suspended the decree but that did not bring Serbs back into Kosovo institutions, including the government, northern hospitals and the police.


Both Kosovo and Serbia have nationalist leaders who were active during the 1998-99 war era. Kurti, Kosovo’s prime minister, is often accused by international mediators of taking actions that trigger unnecessary tension.

For example, he rejected the idea of ​​a territory swap between Serbia and Kosovo, an idea that his political predecessors were prepared to consider in order to reach a negotiated settlement with Serbia. Vucic, the populist president of Serbia, is a former ultra-nationalist who insists that any solution must go through compromise if it is to last.

Vucic acknowledged Serbia’s loss of control over Kosovo and said he accepted that, but also said the country would only settle if it won something.


International officials remain hopeful 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 nations need to normalize their relations if they are to progress towards EU membership.

No breakthrough in EU-led negotiations would mean prolonged instability, economic decline and a constant potential for clashes. Any Serbian military intervention in Kosovo would mean a clash with NATO peacekeepers there, and Serbia is unlikely to move in there.

But Belgrade controls northern Kosovo, and Kosovo is unlikely to become a UN member and a functioning state without resolving the dispute with Serbia. Kosovo has announced that it will soon apply to become a candidate for EU membership, which Serbia vehemently opposes.

ABC News

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