The end of an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo for the transit of vehicles threatens to stoke tension in the Balkans | International

On the border between Serbia and Kosovo, another ritual is added to the delivery of the passport for the drivers of some vehicles: covering the national insignia of the license plate with a bland white sticker, considered illegal by the authorities on the other side. The so-called tuition conflict is the latest disagreement between Belgrade and Pristina. Almost three decades after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, enacted in 2008 and recognized by 100 of the 193 member countries of the UN (Spain is not among them), the Serbian Government has not normalized its relations with the authorities of which it still considers his rebellious province. This is the most intractable of the conflicts that still strain the seams of the Balkans, the European region that has experienced the most armed conflicts in the last 150 years.

Last summer there were some disturbances on the border between Serbia and Kosovo due to the lack of mutual recognition of the identity documents they issue, which mainly affected the Serb minority in Kosovo, approximately 5% of the population, who did not reaches two million people. In August, the mediation of the high representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, reached an agreement in extremis at a tripartite summit in Brussels. On October 31, this provisional pact on the issue of license plates will expire (which allowed, among other things, to cover the national symbols on one side and the other with stickers), so the nearly 4,000 soldiers of the KFOR (acronym in Kosovo Force English, led by NATO) deployed in Kosovo are preparing to once again be on alert for possible clashes. Besnik Bislimi, Kosovar deputy prime minister, warned in an interview with El PAÍS two weeks ago: “Hopefully there will be no escalation. But there could be tensions at the border when our police seize the illegal license plates.”

The interviews with political leaders from both sides chain a string of mutual reproaches that shows a complete lack of trust between them. “The dialogue is in crisis due to the disastrous behavior of Pristina. They are constantly causing escalations, which could spell disaster for everyone in the region. Above, the premiere kosovar [Albin] Kurti says that he will not comply with the agreements already agreed upon”, maintains a high authority of the Serbian State, who denounces “hundreds of attacks” every year against the Serb minority in Kosovo. For his part, Bislimi assures that Belgrade fabricates these false allegations of ethnic violence and blames the Serbian government for the lack of progress: “There is a lack of absolute commitment on the part of [el presidente serbio Aleksandar] Vucic in these negotiations.”

Beyond the conflicts of a more or less symbolic nature, both parties have been negotiating a standardization of their relations, since the recognition of the independence of Kosovo is a taboo in Serbia. The positions are quite far apart, even more so after the rise to power last year of the premiere Kosovar Albin Kurti, who has hardened Pristina’s negotiating position. The main stumbling block is the status of the Community of Serb Municipalities, which brings together the 10 Serb-majority localities in Kosovo. Belgrade maintains that the 2013 Brussels agreements provided for the creation of this institution, something that has not yet happened.

Pristina opposes Belgrade’s ambition to create a Serbian autonomous region within Kosovo, and argues that the so-called “Brussels process” of 2013 did not address this point. The Kosovar deputy prime minister, Besnik Bislimi, alleges that the agreement does not establish that the Community of Municipalities has executive powers. “Serbia’s main goal,” she maintains, “is to manipulate this association to be an autonomy and make the country dysfunctional. That is, create a new Republika Srpska [una entidad serbia en el interior de Bosnia]. The Serbian minority already enjoys broad protection and representation in our institutions”.

NATO soldiers patrol at a junction near the town of Leposavic, in northern Kosovo, on October 12.
NATO soldiers patrol at a junction near the town of Leposavic, in northern Kosovo, on October 12.
Ferdi Limani (Getty Images)

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The recurrent invocation among the Kosovars of the precedent of the Serb autonomous entity in Bosnia Herzegovina as a scarecrow is not accidental. After years toying with the idea of ​​secession and then joining Serbia, the leader of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, announced at the end of last year the launch of a secession process for Bosnia Herzegovina that was to begin with the withdrawal of some national institutions of that territory. Among Dodik’s plans was the creation of his own army, something that set off all the alarms in the international community. Although in Sarajevo it is considered that Belgrade encourages these independence aspirations, the Government of Aleksandar Vucic, he categorically denies it. “We defend the principle of territorial integrity enshrined in international law for all States, and that includes Bosnia. Period”, assures a high Serbian authority.

According to independent Bosnian analyst Jasmin Mujanovic, the Republika Srpska leader’s moves are marked by his close ties to the Kremlin: “Dodik was informed of the invasion of Ukraine in advance, and if the plans for [Vladímir] Had Putin turned out well, he probably would have declared independence. Only the forcefulness of the European response, and above all the sanctions, made him stop”.

On the other hand, the Serbian analyst Serdjan Cvijic, from the Center for Security Policy in Belgrade, considers that the real danger of secession has been exaggerated: “Dodik is not crazy or stupid. He knows that if he were to declare independence he would lose power. He uses the threat of secession for internal political reasons and as a strategy to obtain concessions”. Also, Dodik has recently had a new problem. The opposition has denounced that the close victory of the Bosnian Serb leader in the elections on October 2 was due to a rigging, and he took to the streets. The Central Electoral Commission has chosen to do a recount, opening the door to a repeat of the elections.

Rise of the far right

For Cvijic, the greatest danger for the destabilization of the area is represented by the rise of the far-right and ultra-nationalist parties, which won positions in the Serbian elections last year. “The government-controlled media encourages these messages and the population is becoming radicalized,” he warns. A concept that has become fashionable in these media is that of the “Serbian world”, which seems inspired, if not directly copied, from the “Russian world” defended by the Kremlin with irredentist aspirations.

The Serbian Minister of the Interior, Alexander Vulin, assimilates it to that of “Greater Serbia”, popularized during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and has repeatedly supported the project of unifying all Serbs under the same state. When questioned by the foreign press, the Serbian leaders limit themselves to saying that “it is a personal opinion and does not reflect the government’s policy”.

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