Flexing of muscles by Serbian officials fuels worries in the neighbouring states.
Tensions have soared at the border between Kosovo and Serbia as Kosovo deployed additional police to implement a rule to remove Serbian licence plates from cars entering Kosovo, while Serbs protested the move.
Kosovo special police with armoured vehicles were sent to the border on Monday as hundreds of Kosovar Serbs reportedly drove to the border in their cars and trucks, blocking a road leading to one of the crossing points in protest.
Serbia’s police have been taking off registration plates from Kosovo-registered cars entering Serbia for years, and the latest move by Kosovo authorities appears to be a tit-for-tat move.
Serbia does not recognise its former province of Kosovo as a separate state and considers the mutual border only as an “administrative” and temporary boundary.
Kosovo officials said that as of Monday, the licence plates issued in Serbia will be replaced with temporary ones and that the additional police were deployed to implement the “reciprocity” action.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that Serbia was the first to impose temporary licence plates. He added that Kosovo’s move does not limit freedom of movement and is not directed against Serbs.
“We didn’t ask for the temporary licence plates, but they were imposed by the other party,” he said. “As long as our citizens must pay for the plates when they enter Serbia, they will be used on entry into Kosovo, as well.”
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano urged both Kosovo and Serbia to “immediately, without any delay” exercise restraint and refrain from unilateral actions.
“Freedom of movement is one of the cornerstones of the European Union and as such we expect both Kosovo and Serbia to promote freedom of movement in the region,” he said in Brussels.
The two sides agreed in European Union-mediated talks in 2014 to allow free traffic. However, Kosovo officials said the deal has expired and only proper Kosovo symbols are now valid in the territory.
In Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called an emergency meeting for Tuesday of the state national security council as Serb officials in Kosovo urged help from Belgrade.
Top Kosovar Serb official Goran Rakic described the latest move as “a direct threat” against Serbs living in Kosovo, saying they have informed EU mediator Miroslav Lajcak and other international officials about the new developments.
“This [protest] is a reaction by the people who are worried about their future, their children and their families,” said Rakic. “People are anxious and frightened.”
Thousands of people were killed and more than a million were left homeless after a 1998-1999 bloody crackdown by Serbian troops against Kosovar Albanian separatists. The war ended only after NATO intervention.