Von der Leyen urges end to Serbia-Kosovo border tensions

BELGRADE — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used a tour of the Balkans to call for a reduction of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, who have been engaged in a bitter border dispute over license plates.

Late Wednesday, reports emerged from the Kosovo side that a draft agreement had been reached to bring to an end the spat. But there was no immediate confirmation of an agreement from Serbia.

“I must say I am very concerned about the current crisis,” von der Leyen said Wednesday afternoon at a press conference with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Pristina.

“It is important to de-escalate and to return to the negotiation table to find a sustainable solution. The only way to do that is the EU-facilitated dialogue. That is the only platform to resolve the current crisis,” said von der Leyen, whose visit was originally intended to promote EU enlargement along the bloc’s southeastern border.

“We have come a long way, we have made a lot of progress, we never lose sight of the goal that is all the Western Balkans and Kosovo being part of the European Union,” she added.

Serbia and Kosovo have been attempting to negotiate away their differences through an EU-led dialogue since 2011. Those talks aim to resolve technical issues that have existed between the two neighbors ever since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, which Serbia does not recognize, while also moving them along the path toward EU integration.

The EU has also been assisting with the region’s economic development, including a COVID-19 recovery pledge of €3.3 billion, according to von der Leyen.

However, it was an agreement signed in Brussels in 2016 that led to the latest escalation of tensions.

Kurti’s government sent heavily armed special police to its northern border on September 20 when the validity of U.N. license plates, which were issued along with regular Kosovo plates, expired. 

The U.N. plates began being issued in the period after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, when Kosovo was a de-facto U.N. protectorate. After Kosovo declared independence and got its own license plates, the U.N. plates continued to be issued in parallel — until last year.

Since Serbia recognizes the U.N. mandate and not Kosovo, the U.N. plates were preferred by most of those often traveling to Serbia — including both Serbs and Albanians. Last year, in line with a clause in the 2016 agreement that foresaw the plates expiring in 2021, Kosovo stopped issuing U.N. plates.

Kosovo’s northern region is where the majority of the ethnic Serb minority resides. As a result of the dispute, hundreds of Kosovo Serbs have been camped out along the border, blocking roads leading to the Jarinje and Brnjak crossings.

“There is a crisis on the border between Kosovo and Serbia because Serbia does not want to accept that beyond Jarinje and Brnjak, there is another country,” Kurti said at the press conference with von der Leyen.

According to political analyst Agon Maliqi, the Commission president’s tour of the Balkans — which included stops in Albania and North Macedonia on Tuesday, Montenegro and Serbia after Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina on Thursday — has not had the calming effect she might have hoped for.

“The reactions to Von der Leyen’s visit range from indifferent to cynical,” he said, adding that there was “a widely-held belief among people that the dialogue is unsustainable and that Kosovo can no longer accept the nature of this slow, technical dialogue that leads to nowhere.”

In reaction to the measures imposed by Kosovo, Serbian Defense Minister Nebojša Stefanović visited an army barracks close to the border together with Russian ambassador Alexander Botsan-Harchenko. Military planes were seen flying along the border on Sunday and on Monday and four armored vehicles were sent close to the Jarinje crossing.

“For a long time now, the EU and NATO integration of the region has been held hostage by [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vučić’s tendency for dramatic reactions,” said Maliqi.

Dialogue in doubt

In Serbia, the Kosovo government’s decision to suddenly require temporary plates is seen as a provocation.

“Kurti’s approach is clear — he acts from the position of Kosovo being an independent and sovereign state and believes that he has the right to act the way he does,” said Igor Bandović, director of Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.

“Vučić is having a hard time with that approach. The fact that Kurti proposed a peace agreement between the two in the last round of the dialogue put Vučić in a very defensive position,” he added.

On Wednesday, the heads of the technical teams from Kosovo and Serbia met in Brussels in an attempt to work out an agreement and de-escalate the situation.

The head of the technical team from Kosovo, Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi, told Kosovo public broadcaster RTK late Wednesday that a draft agreement had been reached during the meeting.

He said the agreement would see NATO peacekeepers stationed in Kosovo take over from the special police on Saturday, and both sides lift their requirement for temporary license plates for six months until a final agreement can be reached.

Bandović said the crisis has stretched the willingness for dialogue, both from the respective governments and the public, close to breaking point.

“The Brussels dialogue is at its weakest point since the start and the credibility of the chief negotiator and the EU institutions backing the dialogue is at stake. It really is up to the EU to do something or to encourage the dialogue, otherwise it will just stop,” he said.



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