Europe

Serbia, Kosovo reach deal after license plate dispute enters 2nd week

Kosovo’s refusal to allow cars with Serbian license plates to enter its territory further escalated tensions in region

Mustafa Talha Öztürk   | 01.10.2021
Serbia, Kosovo reach deal after license plate dispute enters 2nd week

BELGRADE, Serbia

The European Union announced Thursday that Serbia and Kosovo had reached a deal to deescalate border tensions over a dispute involving license plates which had entered its second week. 

The agreement followed two days of talks between Serbian and Kosovar officials mediated by the EU, according to Miroslav Lajcak, the EU's Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue.

“After two days of intense negotiations, an agreement on de-escalation and the way forward has just been reached,'' said Lajcak. 

According to the text of the three-point agreement shared by Lajcak on social media, Kosovar special police units that were deployed to the Jarinje and Bernjak border crossings will be withdrawn simultaneously beginning Oct. 2.

Prior to the withdrawal, the NATO-led international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, known as KFOR, will be deployed at the two border crossings. KFOR will be stationed there for about two weeks to ensure a safe environment and movement.

In addition, from Oct. 4, stickers will be placed over each country’s insignia on number plates at border crossings to cover them up as a temporary measure until a permanent solution is found.

In order to find a permanent solution to the license plate issue in line with EU standards and practices, a working group will be formed under the EU presidency involving Kosovar and Serbian officials.

The working group will hold its first meeting in Brussels on Oct. 21 and present its initial findings for a permanent solution in a report within six months.

The dispute arose on Sept. 20, when authorities in Kosovo began barring vehicles with Serbian license plates from entering its territory.

Since then, authorities had been requiring the owners of the vehicles to obtain temporary Kosovo plates.

Kosovo’s Interior Ministry pointed out that a free traffic circulation agreement signed between the two countries in 2016 had expired on Sept. 15.

Under the new regulation, motorists with Serbian plates were required to pay five euros (around $6) for temporary printed license plates which were valid for 60 days.

The temporary plates were placed on the windshields and rear windows of the vehicles, while the original license plates were covered.

Serbs in northern Kosovo reject the government in Pristina and opposed having to use a “Republic of Kosovo” license plate.

Meanwhile, Kosovo Serbs protesting and blocking roads leading to the Jarinje and Bernjak border crossings escalated the already ongoing tensions in the region.

Kosovo then deployed its special police units to the border, while Serbia flew fighter planes in the area in a show of strength.

The tense relations have grown worse since the ethnic Albanian-led government in Kosovo dispatched police units to an area mainly populated by minority ethnic Serbs.

The EU and NATO also called for de-escalation regarding the latest crisis.

Kosovo's "license plate" decision

Following the Kosovar Interior Ministry’s decision on Sept. 20 on the issuance of the temporary Kosovo plates, the ministry reported that on Sept. 25, the vehicle registration center in Zubin Potok in the north of the country was set on fire by unknown individuals.

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti targeted Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic over the incident.

A visit by the Russian Ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, to Serbian military units on the Kosovo border the next day also received attention in Kosovo.

Serbia reacted very harshly to Kosovo's license plate decision.

Deploying the country's army on the border with Kosovo, President Vucic pointed out that the army did not enter Kosovo and were only in the region to be prepared.

"We will not enter with our troops. We do not want to harm peace in any way. Peace is what we need most,'' he said.

Protest by Kosovo Serbs

The road to the Jarinje and Bernjak border crossings on the Serbian border in northern Kosovo continued to be blocked by barricades set up by Kosovo Serb protesters.

The stationing of Kosovo special police units and the Serbian army at the borders also continued.

The situation remained calm at the border crossings guarded by Kosovo police as KFOR increased the duration and number of patrols in the region.

NATO and EU call for de-escalation

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who met with the leaders of the two countries, said the tensions in the north of Kosovo should be reduced.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who visited Kosovo, also said that it is very important to reduce the tensions.

Dialogue with Serbia

In 2011, the EU initiated a dialogue process to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. However, the process was interrupted by tensions over the last few years.

The former Serbian province of Kosovo declared independence on Feb. 17, 2008 and is recognized by more than 100 countries, including the US, the UK, France, Germany and Turkey.

Belgrade continues to see Kosovo as its own territory.

Serbia, Russia and China are among the countries which have yet to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

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