A row over license plates in Kosovo threatens to erupt into open unrest and one of the most serious regional crises in years, as tensions between Serbia and its breakaway former province continue to mount.
The EU, US and NATO have 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 enter their Belgrade-issued license plates. to deliver.
Hours ahead of a 7am deadline when police were due to start handing out the €150 (£130) fines, Kosovo Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, said agreed early on Tuesday to wait another 48 hours, saying he was “happy to work with the US and EU” to find a solution.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said both sides had shown a “complete disrespect for their international obligations” and would “bear full responsibility for any escalation of violence that could take place on the ground in the coming days “.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price expressed Washington’s concern and called on both sides to “make concessions to ensure we don’t jeopardize decades of hard-won peace in an already fragile region.”
Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO – who still has 3,700 peacekeepers in Kosovo – said he was “disappointed it was not possible to resolve the license plate dispute” and urged “pragmatic solutions” to avoid escalation.
Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have flared in recent weeks as the license plate issue became the center of a long-running sovereignty dispute dating back to Kosovo’s formal declaration of independence in 2008.
While about 100 countries have recognized Kosovo, whose 1.8 million inhabitants are predominantly Albanian, and have been granted membership in several international institutions, Serbia and its main allies, Russia and China, refuse to do so.
Under the Serbian constitution, Kosovo is part of its national territory and many of the estimated 50,000 Serbs in the north of the former province remain fiercely loyal to Belgrade, which provides them with significant financial and political support.
Locals in a dozen Serb enclaves reject Pristina’s authority, fly the Serbian flag, use its currency – and an estimated 10,000 steadfastly refuse to exchange pre-independence Serb plates for new Republic of Kosovo plates.
Pristina began implementing her multi-step exchange plan — with warnings, fines and finally traffic bans — on Nov. 1, sparking heated resistance and the mass resignations of Serbian police officers, judges, prosecutors and other officials in Kosovo.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, accused by Kosovo of deliberately inflaming tensions, has warned of “hell on the ground” if Kosovo’s police try to impose fines or bans, warning 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 wider negotiations on normalizing relations, said that not.
The EU’s foreign policy chief said the situation sent “a very negative political signal” given that both sides have made it a target for the EU.
He urged Pristina to suspend all further steps related to re-registering vehicles in northern Kosovo, and on Serbia to stop issuing new number plates. Both sides needed “space and time to look for a lasting solution,” he said.