A dispute over car license plates in Kosovo threatens to erupt into open riots and one of the most serious regional crises in years as tensions continue to escalate between Serbia and its former breakaway province.
The EU, US and NATO expressed alarm after more than eight hours of emergency talks in Brussels on Monday failed to resolve the dispute over Kosovo’s plans to fine ethnic Serb residents who refuse to deliver their Belgrade-issued license plates.
Hours before the 7 a.m. deadline, when police were to start issuing the €150 (£130) fines, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti agreed early Tuesday to wait another 48 hours, saying he was “happy to work with the US and the EU” to find a solution.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said both sides had shown a “total lack of respect for their international obligations” and would take “full responsibility for any escalation of violence that might occur on the ground in the days that follow.” “.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price expressed Washington’s concern, calling on both sides to make “concessions to ensure that we do not jeopardize decades of hard-won peace in an already fragile region.”
Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, which has 3,700 peacekeepers still deployed in Kosovo. said he was “disappointed it was not possible to resolve the tuition dispute” and urged “pragmatic solutions” to avoid any escalation.
Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have flared in recent weeks as the license plate issue has become the focus of a long-running sovereignty dispute dating back to Kosovo’s formal declaration of independence in 2008.
While around 100 countries have recognized Kosovo, whose 1.8 million people are mostly Albanian, and it has been granted membership of various international institutions, Serbia and its key allies Russia and China refuse to do so. .
Serbia’s constitution defines Kosovo as part of its national territory and many of the roughly 50,000 Serbs in the former province’s north remain fiercely loyal to Belgrade, giving them significant financial and political support.
Locals in a dozen Serb enclaves reject Pristina’s authority, wave the Serbian flag, use its currency, and some 10,000 adamantly refuse to exchange pre-independence Serb license plates for new Republic of Kosovo plates.
Pristina began implementing its multi-step swap plan, which includes warnings, fines, and eventually driving bans, on November 1, prompting heated resistance and the mass resignation of Serb police, judges, prosecutors, and other officials. in Kosovo.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, whom Kosovo accuses of deliberately fomenting tensions, has warned of “hell on the ground” if Kosovo police try to impose fines or bans and warned that the two sides are “on the brink of conflict”. .
Borrell said the EU, which also has a 130-member mission on the ground in Kosovo, had proposed a compromise that could have prevented escalation, but while Vučić accepted it, Kurti, who wants broader negotiations to normalize relations, did not. did.
The EU’s foreign policy chief said the situation sent “a very negative political signal” as both sides have made it a target for the EU.
He urged Pristina to suspend all further steps related to vehicle re-registration in northern Kosovo and Serbia to stop issuing new registration plates. Both sides needed “space and time to find a sustainable solution,” she said.