Kosovo, Serbia and NATO peacekeepers are bracing for a new wave of ethnic tensions, after a two-month implementation period begins for a controversial move to oblige ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo to start using car licence plates issued by the government in Pristina.
Kosovo, which is predominantly ethnic Albanian, has sought to compel about 50,000 ethnic Serbs to accept Pristina’s authority in routine bureaucratic matters since winning independence in 2008 after a near 10-year uprising against Serbia’s repressive rule.
In announcing the October 31 deadline for motorists to switch over Serbian licence plates to those issued by Pristina, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti described the decision as “nothing more or less than an expression of the exercise of sovereignty”.
On Wednesday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he did not believe an agreement with Kosovo over the issue was possible.
“From September 1, [Kosovo] will … try to force Serbs to change plates, … I don’t think they will have a big success,” he told reporters.
A push last year to implement the car licensing was met with protests by the Serbs in the north, who are backed by Belgrade and live close to Kosovo’s border with Serbia.
Tensions flared again last month after Pristina announced the rule would go into effect on September 1, prompting ethnic Serbs to set up roadblocks.
Tensions eased after Kurti, under United States and European Union pressure, agreed to postpone the switch.
The roadblocks were removed under the watch of NATO, which has about 3,700 peacekeepers in Kosovo.
The defence ministry in Serbia, which refuses to recognise independent Kosovo and sees it as its integral part of Serbian territory, said on Wednesday it had stepped up training of some of its troops garrisoned near the border with Kosovo.
“The training is carried out in order to maintain a high degree of combat readiness of the engaged units and their ability to react quickly in case of need, and ensure peace and security along the administrative line,” the ministry said.
But Major General Ferenc Kajari, commander of NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, sought to dispel fears of an imminent conflict as the peacekeepers fanned out across the area to preempt the possibility of violence.
“We don’t see any kind of indication even of a preparation for a war … Those who think responsibly they should not talk about war,” Kajari, a Hungarian, told Reuters news agency in an interview on Wednesday.
Talks between Kosovo and Serbia under the auspices of the EU and US envoys have so far failed to solve the issue, although Belgrade and Pristina last week reached a deal on the use of personal identity documents.
Serbs account for five percent of the 1.8 million people in Kosovo. Serbia accuses Kosovo of trampling on the rights of this ethnic minority, a charge denied by Pristina.
Kosovo is recognised by about 100 countries including the United States and all but five EU members, but not by some other states, notably Russia and China.