A dispute over car license plates in Kosovo threatens to escalate into open unrest and one of the most serious regional crises in years as tensions between Serbia and its former breakaway province continue to rise.
The EU, US and NATO have expressed concern after more than eight hours of emergency talks in Brussels on Monday failed to resolve the dispute over Kosovo’s plans to impose fines on ethnic Serb residents who refuse to surrender their Belgrade-issued plates.
Hours before the 7am deadline, when police were due to start handing out fines of €150 (£130), Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, agreed early Tuesday wait another 48 hours, saying they are “happy to work with the US and the EU” to find a solution.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said both sides had shown a “complete lack of respect for their international obligations” and would bear “full responsibility for any escalation of violence that could happen on the pitch in the following days”.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price voiced Washington’s concern, calling on both sides to make “concessions to ensure we don’t jeopardize decades of hard-won peace in a region already brittle “.
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO – which has 3,700 peacekeepers still deployed in Kosovo – said he was “disappointed it was not possible to resolve the license plate dispute” and called for “pragmatic solutions” to avoid any escalation.
Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have erupted in recent weeks as the license plate issue has become the center of a long-running sovereignty dispute that dates back to Kosovo’s formal declaration of independence in 2008.
While around 100 countries have recognized Kosovo, whose 1.8 million inhabitants are predominantly Albanian, and it has won membership in several international institutions, Serbia and its main allies, Russia and China , refuse to do so.
Serbia’s constitution defines Kosovo as part of its national territory, and many of the estimated 50,000 Serbs in the north of the former province remain fiercely loyal to Belgrade, which provides them with significant financial and political support.
Residents of a dozen Serbian enclaves reject Pristina’s authority, fly the Serbian flag, use its currency – and about 10,000 people categorically refuse to exchange Serbian pre-independence license plates for new Republic of Kosovo plates.
Pristina began implementing its multi-stage swap plan – involving warnings, fines and finally driving bans – on November 1, triggering stiff resistance and the mass resignation of police, judges, prosecutors and other officials Serbs in Kosovo.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, whom Kosovo accuses of deliberately fomenting tensions, warned of “hell on the ground” if Kosovo police tried to impose fines or bans and warned that both sides were “on the brink of conflict”.
Borrell said the EU, which also has a 130-member mission on the ground in Kosovo, offered a compromise that could have avoided escalation, but while Vučić accepted it, Kurti, who wants more negotiations wide on the normalization of relations, did not.
The EU’s foreign policy chief said the situation sent “a very negative political signal” given that both sides have made it a goal for the EU.
He urged Pristina to suspend all other measures related to the re-registration of vehicles in northern Kosovo, and Serbia to stop issuing new license plates. Both sides needed “space and time to seek a lasting solution”, he said.