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What You Need to Know About Rising Serbia-Kosovo Tensions

Three decades after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, the ethnic hostilities that ignited the conflict linger on. Kosovo declared its independence from former Yugoslav republic Serbia in 2008, but Serbia refuses to let it go. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added a new dimension to the standoff. And now, Serbia’s army has been ordered on high alert after weeks of rising tensions between authorities in Kosovo and the local Serb minority there. 

1. What’s driving the tensions in Kosovo? 

Kosovo has a predominantly ethnic Albanian population of 1.8 million, but it includes more than 100,000 Serbs. In August, authorities sought to force the minority Serbs to switch to car plates and personal documents issued by the Kosovar rather than the Serbian government. Many ethnic Serbs viewed the administrative order as an affront and a threat to their identity. Authorities eventually agreed not to enforce the policy, but not before large numbers of Serb police officers in northern Kosovo quit in protest. After three such officers were arrested on suspicion of terrorism, members of the community responded by protesting and blocking roads. Kosovo Premier Albin Kurti accused Serbia of instigating the unrest. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic raised the prospect of sending troops into Kosovo to protect the Serb minority.

2. What’s the history? 

Protests erupted in Kosovo in 1981 following the death of Yugoslavia’s long-ruling Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito. An initial demand by ethnic Albanians that Kosovo be upgraded from a province within Serbia to a federal republic within Yugoslavia triggered Serbian nationalism and helped propel Slobodan Milosevic to power in Serbia in 1987 as he vowed to stem the separatism. His crackdown, however, escalated demands by Kosovo’s majority to seek full independence. War over the territory broke out in 1998, killing more than 10,000 people. The fighting ended in 1999 when bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forced Serb troops out of Kosovo, and an estimated 200,000 Serb civilians fled as well. Serbia has vowed never to agree to the secession of what it considers its historic heartland, a stance backed by Russia, China and even five members of the European Union. 

3. What’s been the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine?

Geopolitical divisions over Kosovo have become more acute since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia under President Vladimir Putin, an outspoken Serbia supporter. Putin has criticized the West for what he says are double standards. He has compared the cause of Kosovo — which has been recognized by most of the Western world — to that of two regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. In turn, the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo have used the war in Ukraine to intensify their rhetoric. There’s a risk that an escalation could spill over to other parts of the volatile Western Balkans, including Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still, a NATO-led peace force of nearly 3,800 troops has helped keep peace in Kosovo for years and it has said it is prepared to intervene if stability is threatened. 

4. Who are the key players?

Kosovo’s Kurti has accused Serbia of serving Russian interests, while Serbia’s Vucuc has said Kosovo officials are trying to exploit alarm over Ukraine for their own purposes. Both have opponents at home who question their handling of the recurring tensions, but their populations remain largely entrenched in rival nationalism. The US generally wields more influence than the EU over Kosovo’s leadership, while Serbia seeks support from Moscow as well as from Washington and Brussels in handling the dispute. Vucic has condemned the invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations while stopping short of adopting EU sanctions against Russia. In 2022, Vucic secured five more years as president, with his party holding a majority in parliament. Kurti’s refusal to make any concessions to Serbia has further complicated any talks with the neighboring nation. 

5. What about the EU’s relationship with Serbia and Kosovo?

Serbia and Kosovo signed an EU-brokered agreement in 2013 on trade, energy and communications, and which envisioned giving Kosovo Serbs some self-rule. Kosovo later said it wouldn’t give autonomy to the minority population and demanded Serbia’s full recognition before any further consideration. While the EU remains the key investor in both nations, progress in their efforts to join the bloc has been slow. Serbia is negotiating its entry and is further ahead in the process than Kosovo, which has yet to become an official candidate. The EU has made resolving the standoff between them a condition for accession. Disillusion with the bloc is growing in Serbia, where the EU is seen as increasingly distant and preoccupied with its own issues. 

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