| 25 May 2024, Saturday |

Kosovo Albanian-Serb tensions simmer on independence anniversary

15 years after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, tensions between the two countries remain high since Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo as a separate entity. The West is pressuring the two sides to normalize relations because the conflict in Ukraine is casting a shadow over the historically unstable Balkans, increasing the likelihood that unrest would reemerge in the larger region.

The major changes and occasions in Serbia-Kosovo relations since the late 1990s are listed in the timeline below.

February 1998 – Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas launch an uprising against Serbia’s repressive rule in its restive southern province, whose population is 90% ethnic Albanian.

June 1999 – After a 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbian military targets to halt killings of ethnic Albanian civilians by Belgrade’s counter-insurgency forces, rump Yugoslavia comprising Serbia and Montenegro signs a deal to withdraw troops and police from Kosovo. Transitional authority passes to a new United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and 50,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR).

November 2001 – First parliamentary election, supervised by Europe’s main security and rights watchdog, the OSCE, leads to formation of an all-party governing coalition.

February 2007 – U.N. Special Envoy Marti Ahtisaari presents a U.S.- and European-backed plan for “supervised independence”, but Russian objections – backing Serbia’s refusal to cede sovereignty over Kosovo – block U.N. Security Council approval.

Feb. 17, 2008 – After U.N.-mediated negotiations break down, Kosovo, backed by the United States and most EU member countries, declares independence. Tens of thousands of Serbs protest in Belgrade and a small number set the empty U.S. Embassy on fire, leaving one person dead.

Over 100 countries eventually recognise Kosovo statehood, but not Serbia, its close ally Russia, or China, among others. Given Russia’s veto in the U.N. Security Council, Kosovo is barred from becoming a member state of the United Nations.

June 2008 – Launch of the EU’s EULEX mission, mandated to crack down on endemic corruption and organised crime in Kosovo, train a Kosovo police force and independent judiciary, and investigate war crimes cases dating to the 1990s conflict and seen as too sensitive to be handled by local judges.

February 2009 – The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicts five senior Serbian officials including the army chief of staff and former head of Kosovo’s police of war crimes including expulsions, deportations and murder of Kosovo Albanians during the 1999 NATO bombing.

July 2010 – The International Court of Justice rules in an advisory opinion that Kosovo’s independence declaration did not violate general international law.

July 2011 – Minority Serbs in north Kosovo burn border crossings with Serbia after Kosovo Albanian police act to take control of the defiant area and implement a government decision to ban imports from Serbia. The ban responds to Serbia’s ban on all Kosovo goods manufactured after independence was declared.

September 2012 – International supervision of Kosovo’s fledgling democracy ends. EULEX mission continues, given persistent lawlessness, reducing to monitoring role from 2018.

April 2013 – Pristina and Belgrade sign a deal committing to an EU-mediated dialogue to resolve outstanding issues. Pristina agrees to grant semi-autonomy to Kosovo Serbs – who complain of discrimination – under an association of Serb-majority municipalities. But this key move is stalled by Kosovo high court objections that parts of it are unconstitutional.

August 2015 – Kosovo lawmakers approve a special court to try war crimes cases. Due to local sensitivities, including possible intimidation of witnesses, the court is comprised of international judges and based in The Hague in the Netherlands.

2017 – Hardline Kosovo Albanian opposition parties repeatedly release tear gas in parliament in a months-long campaign to foil any deal on normalisation with Serbia and another with Montenegro on border demarcation.

December 2018 – Kosovo forms its own armed forces, drawing protests from Belgrade.

November 2020 – After he is indicted by the Kosovo war crimes court, President Hashim Thaci, the former top KLA commander revered by many compatriots, resigns and is extradited to The Hague for trial.

2021-22 – Tensions flare over Pristina government attempts to enforce the adoption of Kosovo car license plates by Serbs in the north, replacing Serbian registration. Serbs erect protest barricades and exchange fire with police.

NATO, which retains 3,700 troops in Kosovo, says it’s ready to intervene if the stand-off escalates into outright conflict. Roadblocks are removed and tensions ease after EU mediation yields a Pristina government decision not to enforce the license plate rule until late 2023.

January 2023 – After years of inconclusive EU-mediated negotiations, U.S. and European envoys meet Serbian and Kosovo leaders to prod them to sign an 11-point normalisation plan first presented in mid-2022.

It calls for implementation of past deals, including an association of semi-autonomous Serb municipalities as outlined in 2013. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti objects on grounds this would create a mini-state and effectively split Kosovo along ethnic lines. Western mediators dismiss such concerns.

Feb. 2, 2023 – Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic warns parliament that if Belgrade does not accept the EU plan, its EU membership talks will be derailed and access to pre-accession funds and investments denied. Opposition nationalist lawmakers cry “betrayal” and scuffle with ruling party deputies.

In Pristina, Kurti says no introduction of formal self-governance for Serbs is possible unless, among other things, “illegal structures are dismantled and all illegal weapons handed over”.

Feb. 6, 2023 – Kurti says yes to the EU plan, with caveats. He calls it “a good basis for further discussion and solid platform for moving forward”, provided concerns such as “international guarantees” are tackled – flagging possible conditions for local Serb self-governance.

  • Reuters