Kosovo's PM took a wait-and-see line after Serbia announced on Monday that drivers with Kosovo licence plates can enter Serbian territory from January 1 – seemingly ending a years-long dispute that at times has turned violent.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, on Wednesday said Kosovo will wait to see the implementation of Serbia’s decision to allow use of Kosovo licence plates in Serbia before his government approves similar measures on Serbian vehicle plates.
Kurti spoke three days after Serbia’s government decided to allow Kosovo official “RKS” licence plates in Serbian territory from January 1, 2024, putting an end to a long dispute over the issue, which often stirred tensions in the Kosovo’s volatile Serb-majority north.
“We will take our equivalent decision as a matter of inter-state relations as soon as our border police documents and verifies that Serbia is implementing its decision in full,” Kurti said on Wednesday.
“In 2021, Kosovo licence plates were used [by Serbia] to threatten Kosovo, even with MIG-29s … this year they are using them to lower Western pressure on Serbia over its irregular and non-democratic elections,” he added referring to Serbia’s refusal in September 2021 to recognise Kosovo licence plates, and when local Serbs in northern Kosovo municipalities erected barricades in protest against Kosovo’s move to impose its own licence plates.
“During all this time, our position has been principled and in the spirit of reciprocity. We will continue to be principled and constructive,” Kurti added.
The director of Serbia’s office for Kosovo, Petar Petkovic, on Monday said the Serbian government had decided to allow free movement for drivers with RKS licence plates, starting January 1.
This effectively means RKS car drivers will not have to use stickers to cover Kosovo state symbols when entering Serbia.
Before Serbia’s government issued its latest decision, more than Serbs from northern Kosovo municipalities had switched more than 4,000 vehicles to using RKS plates, respecting a December 15 deadline set by Kosovo’s government to change them free of charge.
EU Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the EU welcomed Serbia’s decision to “formally recognise the Kosovo-issued RKS license plates” as a “positive step in the implementation of the Agreement on the Path to Normalisation”, referring to the February 27 deal between Kosovo’s Prime Minister and Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic.
Stano added that this decision “demonstrates that making progress in the process of normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia is possible”.
Serbia has, however, made it clear that recognition of RKS license plates is not a step towards recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.
As with Kosovo IDs, on the border crossings with Kosovo a disclaimer will be put, saying: “Allowing all vehicles registered by the temporary institutions of self-government in Pristina to participate in traffic on the roads is done exclusively for practical reasons, to facilitate the position of individuals and enable their freedom of movement.
“[It] cannot be interpreted as recognition of the unilaterally declared independence of the so-called Kosovo, it does not prejudice determining the final status [of Kosovo] and cannot be interpreted as Belgrade’s consent to deviate from the rights guaranteed by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244.”
Dispute that triggered a political earthquake
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia does not recognise it as independent and most Serbs living in Kosovo remain citizens of Serbia.
After losing control over Kosovo in 1999, Serbia continued to operate a parallel state system for Kosovo Serbs, with police departments, courts and municipal offices relocated to towns in the Serb-majority north.
Serbia’s parallel system issued Serbian vehicle licence plates for Kosovo cities, with acronyms of Kosovo towns, such as KM, PR, PZ, UR and GL.
In 2011, Kosovo and Serbia reached an agreement under which Kosovo authorities would issue licence plates marked “RKS” for Republic of Kosovo and, in a concession to Serbia’s refusal to recognise its former province as a state, “KS”, denoting simply “Kosovo”.
The move was aimed at encouraging Serbs in the north of Kosovo to start using Kosovo-issued plates. In 2016, Kosovo extended the validity of the KS plates for another five years, and made Serbian-issued licence plates for Kosovo cities illegal.
Stickers were supposed to be used to cover state symbols in both countries. However, this agreement was never implemented and expired in September 2021. Thousands of Serbs in the north of Kosovo are still using Serbian-issued plates.
When the measure expired, Kosovo’s government, led by Prime Minister Kurti, decided against extending it, and Serbian-issued licence plates for cities in the north of Kosovo started to be confiscated.
The Kosovo government said the move reflected what Serbia has been doing for two decades – requiring drivers with Kosovo-issued plates to use temporary plates when they enter Serbia.
But the change sparked anger among Serbs in the north, who launched blockades of two border crossings. The dispute was “solved” in September 2021 with a temporary sticker system solution. But no final solution was found. A new crisis erupted in August 2022, this time in an atmosphere polluted with echoes of the war in Ukraine. A new deal was made in November 2022, but both sides interpret it differently.
Some 20 days before this deal, Serbs withdrew en masse from all Kosovo institutions, two days after the regional director of the Kosovo Police for the Serb-majority north, Nenad Djuric, was suspended on suspicion of calling for resistance.
Djuric previously said police in the north of Kosovo would not implement the government’s decision to issue reprimands to drivers of vehicles with licence plates issued by Serbia, now considered illegal by the authorities. A day later, he declared he would not return to the Kosovo Police.
To establish new local authorities in the north, Kosovo announced local elections there for December 18, 2022 but, after a series of violent incidents and pressure from the international community, it postponed them. Arrests after these incidents prompted another series of Serb barricades in Kosovo.
The new election day was April 23, 2023. But Serbs largely boycotted these elections in the municipalities of Mitrovica North, Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok, which led to mayors from ethnic Albanian parties being elected on tiny turnouts of between 3 and 5 per cent.
When the authorities attempted to install these newly elected mayors in their offices at the end of May, they faced stormy protests from local Serbs, demanding that they not work from municipality facilities and also demanding that Kosovo special police units be withdrawn.
It is still unknown how this political problem will be solved.
28 December 2023 - 10:16
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