Rising Tensions in Kosovo: Budding Conflict

Athina Tesfa YOHANNES
03 October 2011
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Tensions in the Balkans region during July-August 2011 have been higher as a result of border tensions between both (northern) Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia, due to a Kosovar policemen being sent by Pristina to the border to set up customs checkpoints (complete with customs stamps which identify Kosovo as an independent entity). Ethnic Serbian locals and militants in the area responded by setting up road blocks. Roadblocks existed in the towns of Brnjak, Zvečan, Jarinje, and Rudare, and Zupče.


Kosovo declared itself independent in 2008, and as of late, between 81-83 out of 193 United Nations (UN) countries have also recognized the entity as fully independent of Serbia.

During the crisis, a Pristina-based ban was instituted on Serbian goods, enraging Serbian authorities. The ban was implemented after Serbia blocked Kosovo exports to what they said were violations of customs regulations. When Kosovo’s local police were sent to the border to enforce the embargo, troubles ensued, replete with roadblocks, riots, and even the death of one policeman from Kosovo. Many of the roadblocks have since been removed, with the help of KFOR (the NATO-led Kosovo police force), yet tension remains. Mitrovica, the ethnically divided major city in the region, had similar barricades set up, made up of rocks, trucks, buses, etc. KFOR is often seen by northern Kosovo’s Serbs as unreliable at times, even biased towards helping Kosovo’s Albanians (especially since the multinational troops largely derive from countries that recognize Kosovo as independent). KFOR is helping to enforce the Pristina trade ban, both frustrating northern Kosovo’s Serbs and reinforcing the idea that these NATO-led troops are violating their neutral stance. The only organization somewhat trusted by northern Kosovo’s population is EULEX, the EU’s (European Union) rule of law mission monitoring force. It remains neutral in stance to the conflict, particularly because the EU’s member states are not in political unison regarding the viability of having an independent Kosovo.

Dangling (EU) carrot, more (EU) ‘stick’

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has stated during her recent tour of the region that Serbia needs to normalize, and fundamentally relinquish control over Kosovo if they want any hope of joining the EU anytime before 2019 (which is the earliest predicted date, given the speed of reforms and current Serbia-Kosovo relations). But Serbia remains firm that it will not recognize Kosovo as a separate entity from itself, even if it seemingly hurts the country’s own EU bid, for which Serbia’s President Boris Tadić has been strongly striving. Elections in Serbia have been tentatively set for April 2012; therefore, in the months leading up to the elections next year, dialogue regarding Kosovo might change, especially with Serbia’s economic crisis and frustrated citizens (despite being granted access to the EU visa liberalization scheme in late 2009). Visa liberalization was a tangible incentive and reward for Serbia, but the EU remains fairly firm on its pro-Kosovo stance (22 out of 27 EU member states currently recognize Kosovo). Serbia refuses to budge, even attempting to get some attending countries to change their Kosovo stance (1) at the recent Non-Alignment Meeting held in Belgrade in September. The moral crusade over Kosovo continues, being loosely supported by Russia. Russian representatives have been quite vocal about their adamant support for Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosovo, and trying to steer away Serbia from membership in (Western) international organizations like NATO and the EU. Flags with Putin’s image were even seen at quite a few of the northern Kosovo’s recently dismantled roadblocks, (2) highlighting the close ties between Serbia and Russia.

Dual Citizenship: Compromise for EU Progression

Kosovo’s Serbs are generally strongly against the idea of Kosovo citizenship. Perhaps a situation like that of Northern Ireland can be implemented. Northern Ireland has also experienced deadly conflict, hardship, and difficulties due to religious differences. Given the timeline in which Serbians will have EU citizenship, if Serbia has at least another 20 years before EU membership, then the vastly underdeveloped Kosovo will be even further away on the EU path (as seen by being left out of the EU’s current visa-liberalization scheme). Due to the job/education/healthcare issues within Kosovo, many (young) Kosovars are looking abroad for a better life. If Serbia enters the EU before them, then those opportunities will be more open to those holding Serbian citizenship. Therefore, much like N. Ireland’s residents (who are traditionally a part of the United Kingdom) have been extended a right to Irish citizenship, perhaps a confidence-building exchange extended to northern Kosovo’s Serbs in such a citizenship proposal would help sway them towards allowing the two entities to operate independently to help the region resume progressive EU membership talks.

Serbia has already handed over many of its (Bosnian war era) criminals summoned by the Hague in a bid for EU membership, in addition to working on reforms in property and anti-corruption measures. But the issue of Kosovo will remain an obstacle to continuing membership negotiations. Offering northern Kosovo’s Serbs the opportunity for dual citizenship might be a step in alleviating their fears of being ‘stuck’ in a Kosovo handled by an (ethnically Albanian dominated) Pristina administration. However, problems in this arena are still present, where Kosovar Serbs holding Serbian passports are still required to have a visa to access Schengen, although Serbia entered the 2009 visa liberalization scheme. This citizenship hurdle (and discrimination, in the eyes of the region’s Serbs) becomes further complicated as a few of the EU member states do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, making the legal position of Kosovo’s residents (being viewed as either Kosovar or Serbian citizens, or both) in regards to the Schengen area rather tricky to maneuver. While Serbia generally allows dual citizenship of its citizens, it would need to grant the recognition of Kosovo in order to award its’ citizens there possibilities of citizenship with Schengen benefits. While the recognition issue will be a big pill that the EU is asking Serbia to swallow in exchange for accelerating membership talks, it will be a necessary step for the exasperated country to fulfill. Then, negotiating fair dual citizenship schemes, in addition to closing the EU’s visa liberalization loophole on Kosovo, might help edge Serbia towards the idea of accepting Kosovo of being independent, particularly if it accelerates EU candidacy talks.

Neutrality Woes: Diminished Trust, Divided Actions

Such discrepancies in legal proceedings have increasingly frustrated and isolated the region’s citizens, highlighting that the EU’s need to internally agree on a single stance on Kosovo before it can proceed with addressing regional conflicts. This can also be seen in other aspects. Instead of operating independently, the European Union’s Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) operates under the supervision of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). As UNMIK reiterates the UN’s stance on Kosovo as neutral (under UN’s Security Council resolution 1244/UNSCR 1244), EULEX operates under this shadow, likely to respect the decision of its five member states that do not recognize Kosovo as independent (Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Romania, and Cyprus – all members states struggling with their own internal separatist issues). Despite this aspect, the EU not only gives large aid packages to Kosovo through its Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA) instrument, but it is additionally acting in the region through the participation of their respective countries’ policing contribution to NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR). The validity of the UNSCR 1244 passed in 1999 then also comes into question, because while the document protects and identifies the Kosovo region as a working (but not-independent) entity, three of five permanent members of the UN’s security council also concurrently recognize Kosovo as an independent nation (save for UN security council members China and the Russian Federation). These international organizations operating in Kosovo must reconcile these discrepancies within their own internal organization’s views and present them in a unified way to Kosovo’s citizens, thus being able to deliver efficient assistance to the conflict prone region.

Another solution could be that northern Kosovo operates as an autonomous region within Kosovo, much like Republika Srpska in Bosnia/Herzegovina or Serbia’s Vojvodina. But given the ethnic division and hostility within Mitrovica (the likely capital of such a proposed entity), in addition to the reported high levels of organized crime within the highly mineral rich (lignite) region, autonomous designations could prove more complicated for northern Kosovo. Autonomy for the northern region (without the necessary reforms, development, and administration) could inadvertently lapse those residents into an even worse situation than their current troubles.

O Referendum, Where Art Thou?

On a similar note, given the recent flare-ups in the region, it has become clear that northern Kosovo’s residents are not content with the duality of their legal existence. Therefore, perhaps the introduction of a referendum might be appropriate for residents in the northern districts of Zubin Potok, Zvečan, Leposavić, and Mitrovica. These districts are identified as areas of tension, particularly given their dominantly ethnic Serb population. Many of the residents feel as if their fate has been decided for them by the international community in terms of ‘lumping’ them with Kosovo and shutting them out of Serbia. Belgrade has also repeating stated that while it sees Kosovo as an integral part of its country, it often insists on protecting the rights of its citizens primarily based in Kosovo’s northern region. However, Serbia could find itself isolated in the near future if it refuses to budge on the Kosovo issue, as neighboring Balkan states are following through on their EU agendas. Therefore, an internationally sanctioned referendum offered to northern Kosovo’s residents, supervised by various neutral intermediary bodies, would establish the public voice of which the residents feel they’ve been deprived. Therefore, revising the border lines in northern Kosovo, pending a northern Kosovo vote to stay within Serbian jurisdiction, would perhaps give the residents what they desire; additionally, it would pave the path to allow Serbia to accept an independent (southern) Kosovo needed for their EU agenda to stay on track.

Media and Nationalism: Stealth Actors in the Balkans

Tackling the issue of Serbian nationalism must also be addressed, especially given the fact that such nationalism are driving factors in the Kosovo conflict, issues in southern Serbia (particularly in the Sandžak and Preševo Valley regions), and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity. The recent captures of Serb war criminals General Ratko Mladić and (former leader of the Croatia’s Serb-controlled region of Kraijina) Goran Hadžić helped propel Serbia forward in terms of EU talks. However, the strength of Serbian nationalism could be seen, in the rather elevated levels of support for the two war criminals (as much as 70% of Serbs opposed of the Hague’s tribunals on the account that they believe the Hague operates unfairly and is biased against Serbians, while nearly 64% opposed Mladić’s arrest, according to an opinion poll commissioned by the OSCE). Such Serbian attitudes towards war criminals facing mounting evidence could also prove problematic in a pro-democracy and multi-ethnic EU. Many of the attitudes could also reflect the growing amount of nationalism given the hardship experienced by Serbian citizens that feel increasingly ignored on the domestic front, and growingly squeezed for change and reform by the international community. The nationalism that was driven into the Serbian public during the Milosevic era continues today in a modified form. Media has played a primary role in the fanning of nationalism flames that have been pointed out as key sources of past Balkan conflicts, and the monitoring and training of media sources within both Kosovo and Serbia needs to be a priority for the UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo). Far-right Serbian nationalists are also blamed for attacking a Belgrade gay pride parade in fall 2010. With another gay pride parade scheduled this fall, (3) time will tell if similar riots will arise and grab the European and American media headlines as they did last year. The same extreme nationalists are (allegedly) openly supporting the (former Libyan) Kaddafi regime, (4) which with Serbia enjoyed profitable arms trade.

Nationalism continues to be fueled when Serbian items (particularly those related to religion, like Serbian graveyards, relics, churches) in Kosovo are not protected by Kosovan authorities. This will need to be priority for Kosovo’s authorities to help lessen nationalism that has poisoned the region. Serbia also needs to be careful of being accused of destabilizing the region in its dealings with Kosovo. The Serbian Orthodox church has even gotten involved in the disputes over Kosovo, allegedly calling for a halt of all communication with all those entities that recognize Kosovo. The Serbian Orthodox church maintains many religious relics and holy sites in Kosovo, and still anchors a fairly strong position in Serbian public opinion. Bringing the Orthodox and Muslim leaders into negotiations as observers may need to be necessary in terms of their approval of negotiations and how they’ll affect public opinion in both entities. Also, assurances of civil protection (of ethnic Serbians, particularly) in Kosovo by the EU and international organizations will also need to be outlined to Serbia, in addition to legal protection of Serbian Orthodox churches and other historic sites located within Kosovo. Organizations like UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) should step up their financial pledges to assist Kosovan authorities in adequately protecting Serbian-origin World Heritage Sites located within Kosovo, all in the name of reducing tension and instilling faith within both conflicting parties.

Help Thy Neighbor: Importance of Strengthening Inter-Balkan Alliances

Greater cross-border allegiance will also need to be shown as well. The role of Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Turkey, and particularly Croatia in mediating the border skirmishes will play a part in the negotiations. Macedonia, Montenegro, Turkey, and Croatia are all EU candidate countries, and their efforts to help Serbia solve its internal conflicts will be critical in preventing unfortunate events like the 2004 unrest in Kosovo (where ethnic clashes between Serbian and Albanian mobs left scores dead and injured) to occur. Croatia, which is scheduled to join the EU in 2013, holds the unique position of having recognized Kosovo, yet maintaining close ties with Serbia. Croatia’s Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor has expressed her country’s interest in resolving the regional tension, (5) along with Croatian president Ivo Josipović’s frequent meetings with Serbian President Boris Tadić. In addition to countries serving advisory functions in the EU process, further cross-border cooperation between neighboring countries will ensure that resolutions to the Kosovo issue are homegrown (not foreign imposed policy) in the Balkans; also, should any conflict occur and spill over border lines (in terms of refugees, etc), then proper protocol would be in place to handle such matters.

Will The Hard Work Pay Off?

Serbia’s actions, or inactions, regarding Kosovo will show in the European arena on October 12th, when the European Commission decides on whether it will grant EU candidate status (6) to the troubled country. Serbia, reeling from an economic crisis, will proceed with caution regarding the Kosovo tensions in the short-term, and further examine how its present actions will affect its’ EU goal in the long-term. Either way, the recent tension in the region highlights the importance of addressing civil society issues as a means of conflict prevention (particularly in the Balkans). International communities and their representations in the region must also coordinate their political stances and efforts to ensure that Kosovo’s citizens, regardless of ethnic background, feel supported and safe given the present atmosphere. Solution-oriented actions addressing the concerns of northern Kosovo’s Serbs will currently be the driving factor in determining whether a ‘Serbia + Kosovo’ equation (as desired from Belgrade’s administration) is still a viable option to qualify Serbia as an EU candidate country within the next year. If Tadić manages to get Serbian EU candidacy in time for the Serbia’s spring elections next year, it will give him the necessary boost needed to continue and implement the EU-friendly reforms for another term. If he cannot achieve the candidacy status for Serbia, then Serbia and Kosovo’s growingly frustrated residents will assuredly need the guidance of neighboring actors and focused international organizations to help develop a new development strategy in order to keep regional negotiations and relative calm from collapsing. Not only is guidance needed for the sake of their local economies, but mainly for the sake of regional safety.


(1) Andric, Gordana. “Serbia Claims Countries Cancelling Their Kosovo Recognition.” Balkan Insight. September 9, 2011. http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/serbia-claims-two-nam-countries-revoking-kosovo-recognition.

(2) T.J. “More trouble in Kosovo: Roadblocks Ahead.” The Economist. September 14, 2011. http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2011/09/more-trouble-kosovo.

(3) “Belgrade Gay Pride Parade Planned for Oct. 2: Organizers Say.” AfP. August 26, 2011.

(4) Martinovic, Iva and Charles Recknagel. “Ultranationalist Serbs Organize Pro-Qaddafi Campaign.” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. March 24, 2011.

(5) “Croatia Willing to Help Revive Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue.” VOANews.com. The Sofia Echo. http://www.sofiaecho.com/2011/08/25/1144337_croatia-willing-to-help-revive-serbia-kosovo-dialogue.

(6) Sopinska, Joanna. “Recognition of Kosovo Not a Formal Condition, Füle Tells Belgrade.” Europolitics: the European Affairs Daily. September 2, 2011. http://www.europolitics.info/external-policies/recognition-of-kosovo-not-a-formal-condition-fuele-tells-belgrade-art311941-41.html.

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