The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyzes developments in the Middle East, the Balkans and around the world. In light of the latest tensions that threaten to escalate into a new conflict, IFIMES made an analysis of the current situation in Kosovo. We bring the most important and interesting parts of the extensive analysis titled “2023 Kosovo: Implementation of Brussels and Washington agreements - Path to Enduring Peace and Long-term Stability”.
The latest developments at the north of Kosovo are reminiscent of the events from the nineties of the past century and threaten to escalate into conflict. Over the past several years there was a noticeable absence of EU- mediated dialogue between official Belgrade and Pristina. The responsibility does not rest just with the participants in the dialogue but also with the EU and the entire international community, which has proven to be inert and ineffective in Kosovo and the Western Balkans. The billions of euros/dollars of EU and US taxpayers’ money that were spent have yielded modest results.
The resulting situation in Kosovo has its history. The Republic of Serbia issued license plates to residents of municipalities on the territory of Kosovo as well and they valid until 14 September 2021. Kosovo authorities unilaterally introduced trial license plates for vehicles from Serbia invoking the principle of “reciprocity” regarding the abolition of license plates, because Kosovo authorities have intended to abolish license plates featuring insignia of Serb municipalities. Under EU mediation a one-year deadline was agreed for resolution of the problem, despite the initial agreement on freedom of movement, which Belgrade and Pristina had brokered in Brussels. The situation continued to escalate after Kosovo Serbs were not allowed to vote at the parliamentary and presidential elections in Serbia.
When the provisional agreement brokered under EU mediation on license plates expired, the Kosovo authorities begun to announce that they will sanction drivers driving vehicles with Serbian license plates and seize such vehicles. This triggered strong resistance among Serbs, particularly at the north of Kosovo. Serb representatives withdrew from Kosovo institutions and mayors of four municipalities at the north of Kosovo filed their resignations. Serb police officers withdrew from the Kosovo police force. Kosovo authorities tried to organize emergency local elections in four municipalities at the north with predominantly Serb population to elect new mayors and man the vacant mayor positions, which met with disapproval from the population and led to buildup of discontent with such activities.
The Kosovo Central Election Commission (CEC) attempted with the assistance of Kosovo special police force to organize preparations for the emergency local elections at the north of Kosovo but was physically prevented from doing so. The CEC continued its activities at the north of Kosovo, which caused strong revolt of the local Serb population and evolved into general uprising. Emergency local elections were therefore postponed until 23 April 2023 and the Serb parties will boycott them again if an environment for holding of elections is not created, that is if no political agreement is reached. Erection of barricades followed as a response to the arrest of three Serbs, and particularly of the until-recently member of the Kosovo police force Dejan Pantić. Some fifteen barricades were erected at different locations. The Pristina authorities threatened that the police will forcibly remove the barricades, but then requested from KFOR to remove the barricades.
Following the NATO intervention on Kosovo in 1999, peace was established through signing of the Military-Technical Agreement (Kumanovo Agreement), which after the withdrawal included return of an agreed number of Yugoslav and Serbian military and police personnel to Kosovo for the purposes of performance of duties in line with Annex 2. The then authorities in Serbia did not pursue this option. The UN Security Council adopted its Resolution 1244 (1999), which placed the territory of Kosovo under the mandate of the UN.
The Brussels Agreement was signed in 2013. It envisaged normalization of relations and was aimed to make life easier for Kosovo citizens. One item of the agreement was related to establishment of the Community of Serb Municipalities (ZSO), which has not been implemented despite all the objections by the Kosovo Constitutional Court contained in the decision on assessment of constitutionality of establishment of the ZSO. The Kosovo Assembly ratified the Brussels Agreement, and the Kosovo Constitutional Court ruled that the ZSO association/community should still be established. Gabriel Escobar, Special Envoy for the Western Balkans stated that from the US perspective establishment of the Community of Serb Municipalities was legally binding within the framework of the agreement brokered 10 years ago between Serbia, Kosovo and the EU. “We see it as an obligation, because we have supported the process and one political side cannot withdraw from it unilaterally. Therefore, we shall seek ways to realize that idea”. Although the Brussels Agreement had been signed, it has never been fully implemented, predominantly because of the obstructions by the Kosovo in the implementation of the Brussels Agreement, especially the parts related to missing persons (archives of the KLA /Kosovo Liberation Army/) and the establishment of the Community of Serb Municipalities (ZSO).
The agreements on “economic normalization” signed in Washington in September 2020 in no way bring into question the dialogue taking place between official Belgrade and Pristina under EU mediation.
The issue of property is one of the key disputes between official Belgrade and Pristina. The Washington Agreement envisages resolution of the issue of use and management of the Gazivoda Lake (Liqeni i Ujmanit), on which even a feasibility study has been made. It is also worth noting that dozens of thousands of citizens of Serb ethnicity have filed requests for return of private property.
The dispute also includes the issue of other property on Kosovo. The most frequently mentioned include the Trepča Mining and Metallurgical Complexand the property in the energy sector, which is estimated more than three billion euros.
Analysts believe that Kumanovo, Brussels and Washington agreements have not been fully implemented because the signatories selectively assumed obligations in line with their respective unilateral interests, while the international community was either passive or absent in the implementation of the signed agreements. In fact, both sides are victims of the incapability of the EU to resolve European problems. Implementation of the Brussels and Washington agreements is the path to establishment of enduring peace and long-term stability, as well as preventive elimination of new incidents and situations such as the most recent one in the north of Kosovo. The narrative for transformation of the region is not a narrative of conflict. All need to demonstrate the will to device a solution 23 years after the Kosovo war, and the solution is implementation of the agreements signed so far. The main question to be asked is whether and in what way the region will be transformed, or will it continue to live in unfinished and frozen conflicts.
Kosovo authorities did not actively and seriously approach the reintegration of the Serb community into the Kosovo society and institutions. Regular generation of conflicts is not a path to reintegration and does not lead to creation of a sustainable society for all citizens.
The EU did not lose its credibility because the US administration got involved in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, but because individual member countries had delegated their special envoys and thus practically brought into question the authority of Brussels. Without a significant engagement of the US in the dialogue, and particularly in the phase of reaching a final and comprehensive legally-binding agreement, it is difficult to expect any major progress or its finalization.
Analysts remind that the return of Serbs to Kosovo institutions was a result of a broader agreement, which allowed Kosovo Serbs to vote in all elections in Serbia on the territory of Kosovo. This all was possible prior to the arrival of Albin Kurti (LVV) to power. A turning point in the relation of a part of international community towards Pristina authorities was the recently held joint session of the parliaments of Kosovo and Albania in Tirana, while on the other side Kosovo authorities regularly accuse Serbia of interfering in Kosovo. By making such a move Kosovo authorities lost credibility in their accusations against Serbia. Kosovo authorities would now need to invest all possible efforts to reintegrate Serbs in the Kosovo society and institutions in a peaceful and civilized way- just as Serbs have been reintegrated in Croatia in the Eastern Slavonia region under UN mediation. A similar example is the South Tyrol. Although such experiences are valuable, Pristina is evidently not interested in such an approach.
Serbia is surrounded with NATO member countries and is aware of its position. Drawing on its historical experience it does not want to be the first to start any new conflict and carry the burden and responsibility for starting a conflict. In terms of its modern history, economic development of Serbia is at its historical zenith with record foreign investments in 2022 totaling more than four billion euros. A part of Serbian opposition and Albanian political parties through Srpske liste (SL) /Serb List/ regularly attempt to settle accounts with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS). A possible new conflict on Kosovo would not be of local character and would spread rapidly. The question to be asked is are Kosovo political elites ready to postpone the future of Kosovo for the sake of their irresponsible policies.
Analysts believe that Serbia does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. A conflict could be started by some other parties, not just Serbia and Kosovo, that is Serbs and Albanians. The war in Ukraine has shown that there are opposing polycentric centers of power, which have an interest in escalation of conflicts in different parts of Europe. The Ukraine war should not be “copied” to the Balkans, which has still not healed its wounds from the previous wars. Unilateral moves can lead to escalation.
A point of concern is the information that a part of establishment in Washington is considering the option of withdrawal of US troops from Kosovo, as was done in Afghanistan and Iraq. Such a scenario would not be good for either Kosovo or South East Europe, because the US presence is a guarantor of relative peace and stability in that part of Europe. Kosovo and its citizens have a right to their future and the political structures should not gamble with it. The situation on Kosovo is best illustrated through the fact that Kosovo still has a visa-regime with EU member countries, even with Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is the real picture of Kosovo today. The most important thing at this moment is that the Serbs at erected barricades have responded to the appeal by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to remove the barricades, and the Kosovo judicial bodies have released from custody Dejan Pantić, whose arrest was the cause for erection of barricades. Finally, achievement of any progress would require putting an end to regular generation of crises on Kosovo.
Establishment of the Community of Serb Municipalities (ZSO) is the condition set by the Serb List (SL) for return of Serbs to Kosovo institutions, the condition for removal of barricades is withdrawal of Special Units of the Kosovo Police Force from the North and release of the three Serbs who had been arrested. The Kosovo authorities gave guarantees to the EU and US that there will be no arrests of Serbs for participation in the protests and erection of barricades, which paved the way for removal of barricades. While the barricades have been removed, tensions and mistrusts have remained.
Analysts believe that the incidents on Kosovo should be understood extremely seriously and that all necessary measures should be undertaken to ensure that they do not happen again, because the current situation in the region and Europe, in the context of the Ukraine crisis, is a real security challenge and threat. Such a method of resolution of generated crises only postpones a conflict, which is becoming increasingly certain.
Ljubljana/Washington/Brussels/Pristina, 5 January 2023
 IFIMES – The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018.
 UNMIK, Resolution UN 1244, link: https://unmik.unmissions.org/united-nations-resolution-1244
 NATO: “NATO-led KFOR mission dismantles last barricades in northern Kosovo”, link: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_210449.htm
 The process of peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium was initiated on 15 January 1996 with the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1037 and establishment of UNTAES. It was finalized two years lated, on 15 January 1998, with reintegration of the area of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium into the constitutional organization of the Republic of Croatia.