. . . Photos from Jarinje showed hundreds of vehicles were backed up for several kilometers into central Serbia. The closure has disrupted the supply of food and medication to Serb communities in the north of the province.
In a replay of events from 2011, local Serbs gathered at the checkpoints and surrounded the police. Police targeted the protesters with tear gas canisters at both Brnjak and Jarinje, but failed to disperse them, local media reported.
Kosovo police have been seizing all license plates from Serb-majority counties in the north of the province, forcing the drivers to use those mandated by the ethnic Albanian government in Pristina, Serbian public television RTS reported. Drivers from central Serbia were told to pay a €5 tax and get temporary ‘Republic of Kosovo’ plates if they wanted to cross into the province.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic addressed the nation on Monday afternoon, saying that the ethnic Albanian authorities “magically” interpreted the 2011 and 2016 free movement agreements to mean something that exists only in the mind of Albin Kurti, the hard-line leader in Pristina.
Calling it a “show of force” by the ethnic Albanians, Vucic added that “it’s very hard to reach a rational solution when dealing with irresponsible people only aiming to increase their power.”
The standoff began as the European Union’s special representative Miroslav Lajcak arrived in Belgrade on Monday for scheduled talks with Vucic ahead of the next round of negotiations with Pristina, due to take place in October.
The EU has urged both sides to “exercise restraint” and use the EU-facilitated mechanisms to resolve this and other outstanding issues.
The US embassy in Pristina has echoed the EU statement, “calling on Kosovo and Serbia to exercise restraint, refrain from further unilateral actions, and reduce tensions – immediately, without delay.”
However, Kurti’s hard-line ‘Self-determination’ party insists there can be no negotiations with Serbia, nothing short of full recognition will do, and has even mulled unification with neighboring Albania.
According to Vucic, Kurti’s delegation has refused to discuss any issue with Serbia, including the fate of the missing persons from the 1999 conflict – in which NATO intervened to back ethnic Albanian separatists and occupied Kosovo following a 78-day air war against the Serbs.
Pristina’s attempted takeover of the two checkpoints exactly a decade ago triggered a four-month-long protest by the local Serbs, which also saw tear gas deployed multiple times and even the use of live ammunition by NATO ‘peacekeepers’. The barricades were forcibly dismantled in February 2012 by Serbian gendarmerie. Vucic first came to power thanks to the backlash against that move, with a coalition led by his Progressive Party winning the presidential and general elections later that year.
While Washington recognizes Kosovo as an independent state, five EU members do not. Neither does Serbia, though the government in Belgrade has made a series of ‘technical’ agreements with Pristina over the years – most recently in September 2020, when the Trump administration in Washington got Israel to recognize Kosovo.
. . . The statement refers to the ongoing crisis in northern Kosovo, involving several crossings into inner Serbia, which have been effectively blocked by the partially recognized authorities of Kosovo after the government in Pristina banned cars with Serbian license plates from entering the region.
Accompanied by a ramped-up security presence, Kosovo police proceeded to seize license plates from the locals, saying they had to be replaced by Republic of Kosovo plates. They banned drivers with Serbian plates from entering Kosovo unless they paid a tax and acquired the newly mandated plates before crossing the border, creating kilometers-long traffic jams.
The situation has disrupted food and medication deliveries to local communities, which, despite now living in the breakaway province, are dependent on supplies from inner Serbia. Attempts by ethnic Serbs to protest at border crossings against what they view as Pristina’s occupation and a crackdown on their local autonomy, have been quelled by tear-gas-firing Kosovo police. On Friday, Reuters cited the police as having said that two government offices were attacked in northern Kosovo, and that disgruntled Serbian residents were blocking the roads.
Serbia responded to the situation by deploying tanks and fighter jets right next door, with footage of the armored vehicles rolling in triggering calls for “restraint” from the US and their allies.
Vucic remarked on Sunday that everyone was “suddenly worried” when they saw “Serbian helicopters and planes over the territory of central Serbia because, I guess, they shouldn’t take off until [Kosovo Prime Minister Albin] Kurti or someone from the international community approves.”
Despite cozying up to the US for years, Vucic has had no public support from Washington, and attempts to resolve the situation via NATO have proven similarly fruitless. Speaking by phone to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Vucic stressed that Serbia remained committed to the 2013 EU-brokered agreement that laid the groundwork for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Stoltenberg only urged Vucic and Kurti to take steps towards de-escalation and dialogue.
Russia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, said the Pristina authorities were to blame for the escalation of tensions. The Russian ambassador to Belgrade toured the positions of the Serbian military with the country’s defense minister on Sunday, the Russian embassy saying the Serbs had been acting “responsibly” in the circumstances.
Meanwhile, the EU foreign policy head, Josep Borrell, issued a statement urging both the Serbian and Kosovo authorities “to unconditionally de-escalate the situation on the ground by immediately withdrawing special police units and dismantling roadblocks,” and said they must resolve the crisis via “the EU-facilitated dialogue.”
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, just over a decade after NATO’s ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the Yugoslav conflict, which saw a bloody guerilla campaign, led by ethnic Albanians, met with a military crackdown by then-President Slobodan Milosevic. The US and its allies sided with the guerilla fighters, bombing former Yugoslavia for three months, destroying its military, as well as civilian infrastructure, and NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force was deployed in Kosovo. An ethnic Albanian rule was eventually established in the province, except for several Serb-majority regions that maintained de-facto autonomy. Despite years of talks, the signing of the 2013 Brussels Agreement, and various suggestions of mutual exchange of territories, the situation remains unresolved, and Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.