On September 21, Serbian military units were reportedly placed on alert and headed to the border with Kosovo. Days later, Serbian tanks were spotted being transported to the border, while Serbian air force jets and attack helicopters flew near the border.
The purported cause of the flare-up in tensions?
Serbia, unlike roughly half of United Nations member states, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence (it was a part of Serbia until 1999 and declared independence in 2008) and has long restricted entry to its territory for cars bearing Kosovo-issued plates.
On September 20, Kosovo police began enforcing a new law aimed at “reciprocity” with Serbia. The law requires cars entering from Serbia to have temporary plates installed at the border. The temporary plates reportedly cost roughly 5 euros.
Kosovo sent special police units to the border to enforce the new law. They were met by protests from ethnic Serbs, who reside mostly in the northern Kosovo along the Serbian border. Despite a tense standoff between Kosovo police and Serbian protesters blocking road crossings into the territory, there were no credible reports of violence.
Yet as Serbian military units headed to the border, Russia’s Foreign Ministry blamed the Kosovar authorities for causing a crisis.
"We find very worrisome the worsening situation in the northern areas of the Serbian Autonomous Province of Kosovo,” Russia’s TASS state news agency quoted the ministry as saying in a September 22 statement.
“Since September 20 Pristina's police, with the international missions [sic] connivance, have been creating hindrances to traffic across the administrative borer [sic] with the central part of Serbia on far-fetched pretexts and using force against civilians. In fact, this is an attempt by local Albanians to seize the Serbian enclaves of the province and put them under control. We regard these actions as provocations, further ethnic cleansing and attempts to force Serbs out of Kosovo."
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s claims are misleading.
As noted, Kosovar police were moving to enforce a law similar to one that Serbia had already implemented on its territory. More importantly, the basis for these license plate laws was an international agreement signed by Kosovo and Serbia in 2016.
On September 14, 2016, Serbia and Kosovo concluded a deal on reciprocal policies regarding license plates that finalized a 2011 agreement between the countries on freedom of movement. The agreement, mediated by the European Union, aimed at ending the Serbian practice of putting temporary “probation” plates on vehicles registered in Kosovo.
On September 9, Kosovo announced it would not renew the 2011 agreement. That decision was understandable given that, despite the 2016 agreement, Serbian authorities had continued to deny entry to vehicles with Republic of Kosovo plates while Kosovar authorities did not restrict entry to vehicles with Serbian plates.
Moreover, there is no evidence for the Russian Foreign Ministry’s claim that Kosovo acted with the international “connivance.”
Reacting to the Serbian protests, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti called for Serbia and Kosovo to simply begin recognizing each other’s license plates.
On September 25, a license plate registration center in Kosovo was burned in an apparent arson attack. Hand grenades were thrown through the windows of another license plate registration center but failed to explode. No arrests have been made in connection with the attacks.
Although Serbia possesses a large, modern military force, Kosovo is protected by the Kosovo Security Force, consisting of approximately 5,000 personnel equipped mainly with small arms. Additional security is provided by NATO member states, and, since the start of Serbia’s military buildup along the Serbia-Kosovo border, NATO forces have increased patrols on the Kosovar side of that border.
Russia, a longtime ally of Serbia, has never recognized Kosovo’s independence. On September 26, Russia’s ambassador to Serbia reportedly accompanied Serbia’s defense minister on a visit to two Serbian military bases near the border with Kosovo.