Since Yugoslavia fell in the 1990s, there has been tension between Serbia and Kosovo. In the last few months, this tension has increased, and attacks are currently unfolding with civilians being involved. Protests happen more frequently, and NATO forces are used to secure areas and protect the safety of civilians. This article discusses the history of the conflict, the relationship between the two countries, the recent peak of violence, and an outlook on what could happen next.
Following the fall of Yugoslavia in 1991, the land was separated into six countries (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, North Macedonia, and Slovenia). Kosovo was a part of Serbia. During the Kosovo War (1998-1999), ethnic Albanians fought against ethnic Serbs. 13,000 people were killed. NATO intervened and ended up helping Kosovo, despite never receiving authorization from the UN. Serbia eventually agreed to withdraw all its forces from Kosovo. The war ended with Kosovo being put under UN supervision. Two decades after the war, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Serbia never recognized Kosovo as a country, because it was illegal under Serbian law. However, the International Court of Justice provided an advisory opinion, which stated that Kosovo’s independence did not violate international law. After its independence declaration, Kosovo was recognized by most European countries and the United States. China and Russia are among the countries that do not recognize Kosovo. All of the ethnic Serbs living in North Kosovo started protesting to assert their jurisdiction in the region.
In 2022, tension increased significantly when Kosovo attempted to pass a law that would ban Serbian-issued number plates. This would result in ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo needing a Kosovo ID to acquire a Kosovo number plate. Consequently, by acquiring a Kosovo ID, the ethnic Serbs would recognize Kosovo as a country. During the process of trying to pass the law, the ethnic Serbs became more aggressive towards the Kosovo Force Peacekeeping Troops (KFOR). KFOR is a NATO-led operation that started in 1999 and its main mission is to achieve stability and peace in the region. The aggression led to more protests and attacks in North Kosovo. For instance, thousands of ethnic Serbs quit their jobs protesting the law.
The president of Serbia Aleksander Vucic and the premier minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti tried to normalize their relations through the Ohrid Agreement of March 2023. This agreement states that Serbia will not oppose any international membership Kosovo wants to be a part of on the condition that Kosovo ensures an appropriate level of self-management for the ethnic Serbs living in North Kosovo. While both sides verbally accepted the EU-brokered deal at first, its implementation is currently only in planning. After a furious reaction from the Serbian public, the Serbian president verbally backed out but then later changed his position again, stating that he would work on its implementation but would not sign the deal soon. The Premier of Kosovo blames Vucic for failing to sign the plan and wants the EU to make the agreements legally binding.
In March 2023, a large majority of the ethnic Serbs and Serbian political parties boycotted the upcoming election in April, exacerbating the tension. This resulted in almost only ethnic Albanians voting. In North Kosovo, only 3,5% of the entire population voted. As a result of that, ethnic Albanians won the elections, and they became mayors in the Northern Serb-majority municipalities. The public opinion among the Serbs is that the outcome of the elections is illegitimate because of the low voting turnout. They do not accept the outcome of the elections. This election has exacerbated the tension. After installing the new mayors, the Kosovo police replaced the Serbia flag with the Kosovo flag on all federal buildings. Violence erupted and the Serbs started protesting against the Kosovo police in the Serb-majority regions. On the 29th of May, ethnic Serbs started violent demonstrations against the outcome of the election. Stones, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails were thrown at the police who were defending the town halls. At least 35 soldiers of NATO’s peacekeeping mission were injured. Due to this violence, NATO has sent additional troops, adding up to 4,500 troops that are stationed in Kosovo for peacekeeping missions. NATO’s mission is to persuade both sides to resolve the conflict and to explore solutions that respect the rights of all communities. This is important to stabilize the region and achieve a lasting peace in Kosovo.
On the 24th of September, a heavily armed group consisting of around 30 individuals attacked the Kosovo police in Bansjka. In a prior incident between this group and the police, a policeman was killed and one of the attackers was wounded. After that, they barricaded themselves in an orthodox Serbian monastery. A shoot-out started between the group and the police, which led to three of their gunmen being shot and four being arrested in a town near Bansjka. The people who were killed and arrested were Kosovo Serbs. Serbia has been accused of supporting this armed group, in particular, because the group possessed heavy weaponry which, according to Kosovo prime minister Albin Kurti, could have only been supplied by the Serbian military. The Interior Minister of Kosovo Xhelal Svecla uploaded a video of the attackers, in which a man can be seen who looks like Milan Radoicic. He is the vice president of the Serb List, which is the main party representing the Serb minority in Kosovo. However, it has not been officially confirmed if that man is Radoicic. This incident has been the worst escalation since the Kosovo War.
The rising tensions between Serbia and Kosovo could potentially indicate the beginning of another war. After the shooting in Bansjka, Serbia deployed armed forces to the border. As mentioned above, there are around 4,500 NATO troops stationed in Kosovo. However, since the shooting, no further escalation happened between the two countries. There is a possibility that Belgrade is losing control over its Serb allies in North Kosovo, which could lead to more unpredictable actions. Additionally, the momentum for negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia has been lost making it harder to resolve the conflict. For now, it is impossible to predict for certain what will happen in the future due to fast-changing circumstances.