Border tensions along the disputed Kosovo-Serbia boundary escalated over the weekend after ethnic Serbs set fire to a government office and threw hand grenades at another government building.
The group was protesting a new ban on cars with Serbian license plates entering Kosovo. Drivers from Serbia are now required to use temporary printed registration details, which are valid for only 60 days upon entry to Kosovo.
The populist Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic described the decision by Kosovo to bar Serbian car license plates as a “criminal action,” and demanded that special police from Kosovo withdraw from the Serb-dominated north.
While Kosovo’s new measure is a minor annoyance for drivers, it carries a significant symbolic impact for Serbia. A similar program has been carried out by Serbian police for years, who have long been removing registration plates from Kosovo-registered cars entering Serbia. Drivers must then pay 5 euros for a temporary license plate.
Serbia doesn’t recognize the former province of Kosovo as a separate nation state, and considers the border as a merely “administrative” and temporary boundary. Border tensions have been a common occurrence after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
In response to the new measures, hundreds of Kosovo Serbs drove to the border in their cars and trucks last week, blocking roads leading to crossing points. Small groups of Serbs have since camped out in the area, maintaining the blockade despite Kosovo police firing tear gas on protesters earlier in the week.
Igor Simic, a Kosovo Serb official, described the protest as ”a democratic protest” by Kosovo’s Serbs. “They are just trying to save their human rights of free movement,” he said.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti met with Western ambassadors from the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy and the EU amid the renewed border tensions, defending the new license plate measures against accusations of provocation or discrimination.
“On this reciprocity of the temporary number plates for the cars, either both Kosovo and Serbia are right or they are wrong. Thus they will either keep number plates of both countries or take them away,” Kurti said.
The EU and US urged both Kosovo and Serbia to “immediately, without any delay” exercise restraint amid border tensions, and refrain from any further unilateral actions.
A 1998-1999 crackdown by Serbian troops against Kosovo Albanian separatists left thousands dead and more than one million homeless. The war only ended after NATO intervention, and Kosovo has been recognised as an independent state by the US and other Western nations since 2008.