Another turn of tension between Serbia and Kosovo over the weekend nearly escalated into an armed conflict. The crisis has so far been contained by timely international mediation, but it’s only a postponement, not a full-fledged settlement.
This weekend, not much of the world’s media covered the situation in Ukraine, as the international community was on alert for crises in other parts of the world. On Saturday, there was an escalation of the US-China standoff, prompted by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s intention to visit Taiwan. It later turned out that her Asian tour official agenda did not seem to include a visit to Taipei. The tensions still remain, and US and Chinese air and sea forces are on high alert.
On Sunday, tensions escalated in Kosovo’s predominantly ethnic Serb northern provinces. The reason for the tensions was the decision of Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to ban entry into Kosovo by cars with Serbian registration from August 1, as well as to limit the use of some other Serbian documents in the territory. Kosovo’s Serbian community responded to the restrictions by blocking local roads. In the late afternoon, alarming reports of shootings appeared.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic blamed Kosovo authorities, describing the move as “the epilogue of years of abuse against Serbs and disregard for international agreements”. Belgrade saw Albin Kurti’s desire to expel ethnic Serbs from Kosovo as a reminder of the aggravation that occurred in spring, when the Kosovo authorities refused to hold Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections in their territory, demanding that Belgrade recognize the region’s independence.
A new conflagration in the Balkans was temporarily brought under control only thanks to international intervention. EU and US representatives held talks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Overnight, the Kosovo government announced the implementation of the restrictions to be postponed until September 1. The US ambassador in Pristina is reported to have played a key role in this decision. However, there is no final solution to the problem: the aggravation has only been postponed by a month.
The root of the problem is Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosovar independence, even though more than a hundred UN member states have already done so. But it also has its opponents. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez paid an official visit to Belgrade during the aggravation and reiterated his principled position of not recognizing Pristina’s sovereignty. Such a position is easy to explain, given the problems of separatism that Madrid faces in Catalonia and the Basque country. Four more EU states, including Romania, do not recognize Kosovo’s independence in most cases because of their unwillingness to create a potential precedent for separatist activities in their territory. However, this does not radically improve the position of Belgrade, since Kosovo directly borders on its main ally in the region – Albania, while Serbia is landlocked by NATO member states.
Moldova does not recognize Kosovo either, although it participates in NATO’s KFOR peacekeeping contingent in the rebellious province and plays against Kosovo’s soccer team, given the region’s membership in FIFA and UEFA.
In general, the conflict in the Balkans has many similarities with the Transdniestrian problem, although it differs in dynamics and character. For example, again, the previous Serbia-Kosovo aggravation was due to electoral processes. Similar conflicts arose with Transdniestria during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2020-2021. PAS representatives then did their best to prevent the mass voting by Transdniestrians, known for their pro-Russian views. In particular, the current speaker of the parliament stood out by considerably “stirring up” the situation in the security zone, in particular in the Varnita region.
In turn, KFOR is a kind of analog of the peacekeeping mission with Russian participation in the Transdniestrian region. Of course, the contingent in Kosovo is subordinate to the US and NATO, but it is the external military presence in both cases that cements the breakaway territory’s independence from the metropolis, physically protecting the population from any attempts to restore constitutional order. Both Serbia and Moldova vigorously demand the withdrawal of international peacekeepers from the conflict zone.
The road transport is a sensitive issue not only for Serbia-Kosovo relations. Despite the fact that communication between the two banks of the Dniester functions without any particular restrictions, there are problems. The ban on travel to Ukraine and Romania by Transdniestrian license plated cars incited a conflict between Chisinau and Tiraspol last fall. Heavy remarks and threats were exchanged. At the end of the year, the situation further deteriorated after the customs authorities detained preparations of Transdniestrian license plates, to which the Transdniestrian administration responded by limiting the work of the so-called vehicle registration offices in Tiraspol and Rybnitsa.
So far, it has not been possible to find a compromise. The acuteness of the problem, just as in the Kosovo case, is scheduled to peak on September 1, when the parliament may refuse to extend the mechanism of neutral plates developed in 2018. Then, about 100 thousand Transdniestria’s vehicles will not actually be able to travel abroad, to which Tiraspol will probably react somehow.
But the biggest similarity is not even in what is listed above. But in the states’ level of independence. The dynamics and mechanics in both conflicts demonstrate the huge influence of the external factor. If foreign players (be in the West or in the East) want to stir up things in Moldova, it will be done as easily as in the Balkans, the Europe’s powder keg.