What's In Blue

Posted Thu 14 Oct 2021

Kosovo Briefing

Tomorrow (15 October), the Security Council will convene for its second regular briefing this year on the situation in Kosovo. Special Representative and head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) Zahir Tanin is expected to brief on the Secretary-General’s latest report on UNMIK, which was issued on 8 October. Kosovo and Serbia are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Tanin is expected to describe key political and security developments in Kosovo during the reporting period of the Secretary-General’s report, which covers 16 March to 15 September. After the Movement for Self-Determination (Vetёvendosje) secured a parliamentary majority during the 14 February legislative elections, the Kosovo Assembly elected Albin Kurti as Prime Minister of Kosovo and Vjosa Osmani as President of Kosovo, on 22 March and 4 April, respectively. On 17 May, Kurti presented his governing programme to the Kosovo Assembly, listing as the government’s top priorities the tackling of the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery from its adverse social and economic effects, as well as justice reform. On 11 August, the government approved a strategy and action plan for strengthening the rule of law for the period 2021-2016. Some Council members are expected to welcome the new government’s stated commitment to strengthening the justice system and combating corruption.

The resumption of the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia is a likely focus of tomorrow’s meeting. Shortly after the formation of the new government in Kosovo, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell expressed the EU’s willingness to work with Belgrade and Pristina to bring the dialogue process to a “successful close”. On 15 June, after a nine-month hiatus, Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić met in Brussels to resume the high-level talks. In a press conference following the meeting, Kurti told reporters that he had made four proposals to the Serbian delegation, none of which were accepted.

During the second meeting, held in Brussels on 19 July, the sides discussed several proposals, including a six-article joint peace declaration presented by Kurti in which both sides would refrain from the threat or use of force and act in good faith to achieve a legally binding agreement for the sustainable normalisation of relations. Following the meeting, Kurti told reporters that the proposal was rejected by the Serbian delegation due to its reference to “dealing with the past” as a requisite condition for the dialogue process.

Although the EU-facilitated dialogue has apparently made little progress, Council members are likely to welcome the renewed dialogue and call on both sides to engage constructively and refrain from counterproductive rhetoric. Russia is likely to emphasise the need for Pristina to fulfil its obligation to establish the Community/Association of Kosovo Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo. The establishment of such municipalities was stipulated in the 2013 First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalisation of Relations, with a subsequent agreement reached in 2015 outlining the formation steps. However, the 2015 agreement was not adopted by the Kosovo Assembly due to objections from the opposition. The case was eventually brought to Kosovo’s constitutional court, which approved the agreement but determined that several of its aspects violated the spirit of Kosovo’s constitution.

The recent increase in tensions in northern Kosovo and along the Kosovo-Serbia border is also expected to be discussed at tomorrow’s meeting. In September, frictions on the Kosovo-Serbia border escalated as Pristina officials began enforcing a policy prohibiting the entry of vehicles with Serbian license plates. Since 2011, Kosovo and Serbia have had an arrangement under which Kosovo admits vehicles displaying KS (Kosovo) licence plates, which are acceptable to Serbia, or RKS (Republic of Kosovo) plates, which are not. During technical-level talks between Belgrade and Pristina held in Brussels on 7 and 8 September, Kosovo warned that it may not extend the interim agreement on licence plates, which expires on 15 September, instead opting for a policy of “reciprocity”. On 20 September, Kosovo began implementing a new policy requiring all vehicles crossing the border to display the RKS licence plate. According to media reports, Kosovo special police forces were deployed to the border as hundreds of Kosovo Serbs gathered to protest the new policy. Addressing members of parliament at a 20 September session of the Kosovo Assembly, Kurti claimed that the policy was “not aimed to infringe the right of Serb citizens for free movement or provoke any destabilisation” but is a reciprocal measure against Belgrade for not permitting vehicles with RKS plates to cross into Serbia.

On 30 September, after two days of EU-facilitated negotiations in Brussels, the sides reached an agreement under which Kosovo police units would be replaced by the Kosovo Force (KFOR)—NATO’s peace-support operation in Kosovo—for a period of two weeks to “maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement”. Furthermore, both parties agreed to replace national symbols on vehicle licence plates with special stickers, and a working group consisting of representatives of Serbia, Kosovo, and the EU was established to seek a more permanent solution to the issue. At tomorrow’s meeting, some Council members are likely to argue that the swift EU-brokered resolution of this dispute demonstrates the potential of the EU dialogue process to mitigate disagreements and advance the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Others will likely urge Kosovo to refrain from taking unilateral decisions that endanger stability in its Serbian-populated northern territories.

On 13 October, tensions between Pristina and Belgrade erupted after Kosovo police forces clashed with Kosovo Serbs during a police operation against the smuggling of illicit commodities. Raids were carried out in four areas, including in the northern city of Mitrovica. According to media reports, twenty people were injured during the clashes, including ten officers and ten Kosovo Serb civilians. Kurti warned in a 13 October tweet that Serbian news outlets may seek to politicise the issue by framing standard police activity as an ethnic issue. Responding to the incident in a press statement the same day, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić called for a swift response from the international community and KFOR to restore order and prevent “wider chaos”. She added that “if KFOR can’t react and protect the Serb people, there are those who can”.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are expected to condemn the recent surge in violence, discourage further unilateral actions, call for the de-escalation of tensions, and encourage both parties to address ongoing issues through dialogue. Some Council members, including the UK and the US, are likely to argue that the recent events are isolated episodes in an otherwise stable environment. As such, they may raise the need to review the role of UNMIK and call for the mission’s downsizing. Russia is expected to maintain that the recent incidents are indicative of broader instability in Kosovo and demonstrate that UNMIK’s presence is necessary to maintain order.