Source: Global Times
Conflict between Serbia and Kosovo's local governments spills over to the World Cup – on November 28, some Serbian fans chanted "Kosovo belongs to Serbia" outside the stadium before Serbia's match against Cameroon; On November 24, the day after the Kosovo local government reached an agreement with Serbia over a dispute over vehicle licences, the Serbian team hoisted a flag in its locker room indicating "Kosovo is part of Serbia", and FIFA initiated disciplinary proceedings against the Football Federation. In fact, these two frictions are only an extension of the tense situation in Kosovo since this summer. There was even a fear that war would reignite in the Balkans. Some analysts believe that although 23 years have passed since the Kosovo War, the "fuse" left by it has not been removed; Against the background of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, some "invisible hands" deliberately incite regional conflicts and hope to put pressure on Russia with this.
The change of license plates displeased the Serbs
"Do not give in", the Serbian team hung on the flag in the dressing room, and wrote these words. It reflects the fierce confrontation between Serbs, a minority in Kosovo, and Kosovo's local government, behind this round of disputes over vehicle licence plates, as was the case with gunfire that echoed over Mitrovica this fall.
This city in northern Kosovo is bisected by the Ibar River, which runs through it. On the north side of the river live ethnic Serbs, to the south live ethnic Albanians, and in between them there are other ethnic groups.
In September, submachine gun fire was heard from time to time near the Ibar River, a reminder to the local population of how fragile peace is. In fact, since the summer, the situation in Mitrovica has been heating up. The local authorities in Kosovo requested that, from 1 August, cars bearing licence plates previously issued by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Serb Government be registered and replaced with licence plates issued by local authorities in Kosovo within two months. Violators will be fined €150 and their vehicles may also be impounded.
"If we lose this (license plate), then this is no longer Serbia and we will lose our identity," said Petrovic, a local Serb in Mitrovica. Kosovo is an autonomous province of the former Federal Republic of Serbia. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 90s of the last century, the Kosovo region, encouraged and supported by the West, sought autonomy and independence, and civil war broke out with the Serb central government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1999, NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, resulting in the death of more than 13,000 people. After the war, Kosovo was placed under United Nations trusteeship. In 2008, the region unilaterally declared independence. To date, 99 of the 193 member states of the United Nations have recognized their independent status. China has not yet recognized Kosovo's independence.
According to the BBC and other media, there are about 1.8 million people in Kosovo, of which 92% are ethnic Albanians and 6% are ethnic Serbs. In the north of the region, some 50,000 Serbs live, and the decision on license plates will affect about 10,000 local Serb owners. At the end of July, when the license plate replacement order originally requested by the Kosovo authorities was about to go into effect, Serb protesters in the region blocked the road from northern Kosovo to the rest of Serbia with heavy transport vehicles such as trucks and fuel tankers. The Kosovo Serb Police Chief was removed from office for refusing to carry out the order. Hundreds of Serbs working in Kosovo's local government organs, police and customs resigned en masse in support.
At the end of July, Serbian President Vučić warned Kosovo authorities to stop harassing local Serbs. In September, Serbia stated that "Serbia faces major security challenges" due to the movement of personnel and equipment in northern Kosovo. In early November, Vučić ordered the army to enter a "combat readiness". Serbian state media later said drones appeared around Kosovo to observe the Serbian army's barracks and positions. On 20 November, when the deadline for the Kosovo authorities to change the license plates was approaching, the President of Serbia stated that if the Kosovo authorities did not lift the relevant measures, the situation on the ground could deteriorate and turn into a "hell on earth".
Throughout the escalation, fears of renewed fighting in the Balkans have grown. The EU is said to have conducted several rounds of mediation, while NATO Secretary-General said at the end of July that if the situation deteriorates further, the group will increase its troop deployment in Kosovo, "We have a military presence of almost 4,000 people in Kosovo... If needed, we will move the troops and deploy them where they are needed."
Finally, under the compromise of the two sides, Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement on November 23 to prevent further escalation of the conflict. Under the agreement, Serbia will stop issuing vehicle licence plates bearing Kosovo city numbers, while the local government of Kosovo will cease further actions regarding the re-registration of vehicles.
It is noteworthy that in September last year, local authorities in Kosovo clashed with local Serbs over license plates. Some people believe that although 23 years have passed since the Kosovo war, the contradictions between different ethnic groups in Kosovo have not been resolved, and the "independence" of Kosovo has not been recognized by most countries. Against this background, the situation in the region seems to be "hair-triggered" from time to time.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict is the driving factor
The tense situation in Kosovo is first and foremost the result of the complex historical and political situation on the ground. Although Serbian troops withdrew from Kosovo after the Kosovo war, the conflict was never resolved for the local Albanians and Serbs, and the two peoples hated each other. BBC reporters have traveled to the Serbian town of Bujanovac, near Kosovo. Locals say Albanians and Serbs don't go to the same restaurants. If someone stumbles into the other person's restaurant, they will know the answer from the mobile network (Wi-Fi) password. These passwords are usually "Albanians (Serbs) are not welcome here". According to Russian media reports, in 2011, 2012, and 2018-2019, the complex situation in Kosovo has repeatedly led to the escalation of local violence and crises.
The website of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US think tank, said that in this year's round of escalation, the approach of local authorities in Kosovo is a contributing factor. Kosovo's regional leader, Kurti, is stubborn in tightening his grip on Serb-populated areas in the north of the region, regardless of how Serbia's central government will react. Russia's "Izvestia" quoted the analysis of the country's scholar Guskova as saying that the local authorities in Kosovo continue to pursue the previous strategy, raising the stakes, pushing the situation to a critical point, and trying to force Serbia to make concessions.
Some Serbian politicians see the United States and NATO as behind the recent escalation of tensions between local authorities in Serbia and Kosovo. According to Russia Today TV, the United States has recently strengthened cooperation with Kosovo in the political, military and other fields. Washington helped Kosovo's local government train its troops and provided funding to the latter. Russian experts believe that the United States hopes to increase pressure on Serbia to urge it to recognize Kosovo's independence.
Cui Hongjian, director of the Institute of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said in an interview with the Global Times that the Kosovo war launched by NATO has led to long-term contradictions between Serbia and Kosovo on ethnic, religious and other issues, which is the basic background for the escalation of the conflict between the two sides since this summer. In addition, Serbia and NATO have a deep contradiction, so when other political forces in the Balkans want to put pressure on Serbia, they will take advantage of this contradiction, which can easily make the situation in the region tense. Cui Hongjian stressed that as more and more Balkan countries join NATO, there is a security paradox in the region, that is, the security of each country seems to be guaranteed, but the uncertainty of regional security is increasing.
Some Western and Russian analysts believe that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is also the driving factor behind the tension in Kosovo, but the views of the two sides are diametrically opposed. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace quoted some Western experts as speculating that Russia is "pushing" the chaos in northern Kosovo and intends to open a second front against the West in Europe's "soft underbelly". Bondarenko, editor-in-chief of the Russian "Balkanists" project, said that the chaos in Kosovo is a means of disguised pressure from the West to Serbia, and Europe and the United States hope to force Belgrade to join sanctions against Russia. Although Serbia supports the statement of the General Assembly condemning Russia's attack on Ukraine, it is reluctant to join the West in imposing sanctions on Russia. In the face of Western pressure, Serbian President Vučić said that once Belgrade agrees to impose sanctions on Russia, the West will demand that the Serbian government recognize the self-declared independent "Republic of Kosovo".
A mysterious document
The West is pushing hard for the "normalization of relations" between Serbia and Kosovo. On November 24, the day after Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement on license plates, Italy's foreign minister said relations between Serbia and Kosovo "need to be fully normalized." Italy currently commands NATO's Kosovo Force. On November 23, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Borrell said Serbia and Kosovo had agreed to focus on proposals for "normalization of relations." Kosovo's regional leader Kurti also claimed on the same day that they would reach a final agreement with the Serbian government on "full normalization of relations" in March 2023.
The media in Kosovo are also hyping the "normalization of relations" between the region and Serbia. Not long ago, the website of the Albanian Post newspaper in the Kosovo region reported on a mysterious document that was neither confirmed nor denied. According to the plan in the document, Serbia will accept Kosovo's independence without formally recognizing it. In return, Serbia will receive some economic benefits, a greater probability of becoming a member of the European Union, and will be recognized as a "regional power".
Serbia's former minister in charge of regional affairs for Kosovo, Samardzic, said the document was a means of putting pressure on Belgrade. Serbian analyst Jan Geć said the plan mentioned in the document was in line with the U.S. government's way of working. If this document is not accepted, Washington will implement a "plan B", in which the United States will create instability in the Kosovo region and then impose the "solution" developed by Washington.
The EU said it did not comment on the so-called documents published by the media. U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Hill said the United States supports the role of the European Union in the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. European Dynamic News Network said that Serbian President Vučić recently stressed that during his term of office, Serbia will not recognize Kosovo's independence. On 24 November, Petković, head of the Serbian Government's Office for Kosovo and Metohija, categorically denied that Belgrade would start negotiations on "normalization of relations" with local authorities in Kosovo.
The West has been pressuring Serbia and Kosovo to "normalize relations," and has demanded that the Serbian government sanction Russia, threatening not to allow Belgrade to join the European Union. However, a poll conducted by Ipsos showed that for the first time in 20 years, the proportion of Serbs opposed to joining the EU (44%) exceeded the proportion of those who wanted to join the EU (35%), Euronews reported in April. Cui Hongjian said that there are several reasons for this phenomenon, including the EU's selfish approach of reluctance to provide assistance in the face of the new crown pneumonia epidemic in Serbia, which has dampened the enthusiasm of these countries to join the EU; Serbia and the EU have a large gap in positions on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The Global Times reporter learned that Serbian middle-aged and elderly people are relatively less interested in joining the EU, because their working life has been stable and will not be greatly improved by joining the EU. Young Serbians prefer that the country join the European Union so that they can "break in" in EU countries.
【Global Times special correspondent in Serbia and Italy Zhang Lei, Xie Yahong, Global Times reporter Chen Zishuai, Global Times special correspondent Yiwen Liu Zhi】