NATO should renew its commitment to Kosovo

Serbia’s refusal to accept Kosovo’s sovereignty is increasing the possibility of renewed conflict in the region.

A man crosses a street near a roadblock in the northern part of the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, December 27, 2022
A man crosses a street near a roadblock in the northern part of the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, December 27, 2022 [File: Miodrag Draskic/Reuters]

On December 10, ethnic Serbs started setting up roadblocks in northern Kosovo, near the Serbian border, to protest against the arrest of an ethnic Serb former police officer. The situation soon escalated into a dangerous standoff between Kosovo and Serbia, with Pristina calling on NATO-led international peacekeeping forces in Kosovo (KFOR) to intervene, and Belgrade announcing its army was on “the highest level of combat readiness” due to tensions at the border.

After holding talks with Serbia’s President Alexandar Vucic, and receiving guarantees from Kosovo’s Western partners that they would not face arrest over the incident, the protesters eventually started dismantling the roadblocks on December 29.

With the end of roadblocks and the reopening of border crossings, the crisis appeared to come to an end. But the escalation in December was not the first incident that almost pushed Serbia and Kosovo into open conflict and it is highly unlikely to be the last.

The fragile relationship between the two neighbouring countries has been on the verge of collapse since last summer, when Kosovo’s government started taking steps to exercise sovereignty over the country’s entire territory.

At the end of July, the government of Albin Kurti demanded all citizens of Kosovo – including ethnic Serbs who refuse to recognise Pristina’s authority and still consider themselves a part of Serbia – start carrying IDs and using licence plates issued by Kosovo. In response, ethnic Serbs in the north barricaded roads and threatened violence, leading KFOR forces to start patrolling the streets in the region. A few days later, following mediation by the European Union and the United States, Pristina and Belgrade reached a deal on ID documents but left the issue of licence plates to be resolved at a later date. In November, after months of protests, occasional clashes, and even mass resignations by ethnic Serb state employees, the licence plate issue was finally resolved with the signing of a deal that required Serbia to stop issuing licence plates with markings indicating Kosovo cities and Kosovo to cease its demands for reregistration of vehicles carrying Serbian plates.

The latest standoff at the borders came just a few weeks after this landmark deal, demonstrating that the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are chronic, and will not be truly resolved until mutual recognition is achieved.

Indeed, recent escalations between Serbia and Kosovo have followed a clear pattern. Kosovo attempts to exercise sovereignty over its whole territory; Belgrade responds by stoking unrest using the ethnic Serbs in the north as its proxies. The EU steps in, brokers a deal and stops the unrest from escalating into a cross-border conflict. Then the cycle is repeated.

All this shows that the recurring tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, and between Kosovo and its ethnic Serb citizens in the north of the country, actually have little to do with practicalities of governance such as licence plates, and everything to do with one core issue: Kosovo’s independence.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, NATO responded to the brutal violence perpetrated by Serbia in Kosovo by undertaking a humanitarian intervention, defeating Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s troops and forcing them to withdraw from Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo has been working hard to build itself up as a state and in 2008 officially declared its independence from Serbia. In the years since, more than 100 countries recognised it as an independent nation and it joined several international institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. In 2010, the International Court of Justice ruled Kosovo’s declaration of independence legal.

Serbia never accepted this new state of affairs and tried to undermine Kosovo’s sovereignty at every opportunity since 2008.

In 2013, Kosovo’s then-Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and Serbia’s then-President Ivica Dacic signed an agreement hammered in Brussels to try and normalise relations between the two nations. In the hopes of preventing ethnic grievances from hindering peace in the region, the agreement detailed conditions for large-scale devolution of northern Kosovo and its majority ethnic Serb population.

Nearly a decade has passed since the signing of this “historic” deal, but as the events since last summer demonstrate, normalisation is still proving elusive. Furthermore, there are fears that this agreement itself may pave the way for the next standoff between Serbia and Kosovo.

The 2013 agreement provided for the merger of the four Serb municipalities in the north – North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic – into an “Association of Serbian Municipalities” that would have extensive powers over economic development, education, healthcare and town planning in Serb-majority areas of Kosovo.

Now that IDs, licence plates, and barricades are out of the way, Belgrade is focusing on ensuring the swift formation of this association. Pristina, however, is sceptical of the purpose and supposed utility of such a move. In November 2015, the government of Kosovo froze its plans to establish the association, drawing accusations from Dacic that it is “threatening regional stability”. A few months later, the Constitutional Court of Kosovo declared parts of the 2013 deal, including the point on the municipality association “unconstitutional”.

While Belgrade, with support from the EU and US, has long been agitating for the reinstatement of the project, the current Kurti government seems determined not to allow the establishment of an Association of Serb Municipalities. In an interview with Al Jazeera Balkans in late August 2022, Kurti drew attention to similar ethnicity-based municipality communities that embarked on a separatist project in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, expressing concern that an Association of Serb Municipalities could function as Kosovo’s own Republika Srpska – an “autonomous” political entity loyal to Belgrade that is powerful enough to hinder the functioning of the state.

The events of the past few months, coupled with the ongoing back and forth over the possible formation of a Serbian municipality community indicate we will likely witness many more cycles of escalation between Kosovo and Serbia in the new year.

But is there a feasible path to normalisation?

There is a Franco-German plan under way that proposes to facilitate Serbia’s quick accession to the EU in exchange for recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Kurti is reportedly in favour of the plan. Serbia’s Vucic, however, already declared that such an exchange is unacceptable for his country.

With the EU’s primary plan to resolve Kosovo-Serbia tensions unlikely to deliver swift results, Pristina appears to be looking at Washington for any possible remedies to its Serbia problem. But the US, focussed on Russia’s war in Ukraine and its repercussions, also appears unable to draw an easy path for normalisation. Furthermore, as Kurti recently warned NATO countries, there is a risk that Russia may flame tensions between its regional ally Serbia and Western-oriented Kosovo, either to move attention away from his failures in Ukraine, or to distract NATO counties with yet another European conflict.

Of course, all diplomatic efforts to achieve normalisation between Serbia and Kosovo should continue, but there is little hope that Serbia will accept Kosovo’s independence and start respecting its sovereignty anytime soon. Given the expectation of continuing strife between the two neighbouring states, three policy steps should be taken to enhance Kosovo’s security.

First, NATO’s presence in Kosovo should be beefed up. With 3,800 soldiers, KFOR is already a formidable force and a pillar of Kosovo’s stability. But by increasing troop numbers, NATO can send a strong message to Serbia, Russia and the world regarding its commitment to the region and to Kosovo’s viability as an independent state.

Second, the US should boost its support – in terms of both equipment and training – for Kosovo’s police force. While KFOR is useful now, in the long term, only a strong national police force can ensure the stability of the country and the security of all its citizens.

Third, Kosovo should be put on a fast track to NATO admission. Kosovo is a reliable pro-Western partner in Southeast Europe and NATO already invested significantly in the country’s security. Only NATO membership can ensure that it does not end up in a power vacuum and enter into active conflict with Serbia.

More than two decades after the NATO intervention and almost 15 years after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Belgrade is still refusing to recognise the facts on the ground and accept Kosovo’s sovereignty. If Pristina’s Western allies are serious about keeping peace in the region, they should renew their commitment to Kosovo before it is too late.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.