World, Europe

Timeline: How tensions between Serbia and Kosovo escalated into deadly clashes over a year

Tensions have been escalating since last September and a clash between local Serbs and police led to a full-blown crisis

Talha Ozturk  | 26.09.2023 - Update : 26.09.2023
Timeline: How tensions between Serbia and Kosovo escalated into deadly clashes over a year Kosovo police stand guard after the day-long clashes with the armed Serb group in Banjska, Kosovo on September 25, 2023. ( Erkin Keci - Anadolu Agency )


Serbia and Kosovo have been embroiled in major political and diplomatic disputes over the past few decades in the Western Balkans and Europe.

Kosovo, Europe's youngest country, is facing serious challenges with Serbia, who views it as its territory and has blocked its efforts to join international organizations and obtain recognition from other states.

Meanwhile, Serbia, which for centuries considered Kosovo the cradle of its civilization, has been making efforts to protect its own people who are facing pressure from Kosovo’s authorities in Pristina and also claims the world is turning a blind eye to the issue, which is not much different than Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Most recently, on Sunday, people in the region woke up to the news that a clash between an armed group and Kosovo police broke out in the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo near the Serbian border.

A group of armed Serbs blocked a bridge leading to Banjska with two trucks lacking license plates.

A shootout erupted after the group opened fire on police, who went to the scene to investigate the issue.

A large number of security forces were dispatched to the region, and the Brnjak border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia was closed.

“There are at least 30 heavily armed persons, professional military or police forces, who have been surrounded by the Kosovo Police and whom I invite to surrender to our security authorities," Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said after meeting Sunday with the country’s Security Council.

A clash between the police and gunmen left one police officer dead and another injured.

Kosovo Force (KFOR), a NATO-led peacekeeping mission operating in Kosovo since June 1999, said it is closely monitoring the situation in the country’s north with its troops on the ground and is ready to respond.

At the end of the day, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic addressed the public and said the armed individuals who attacked Kosovo police were not from Serbia and are local Kosovo Serbs.

Kurti had claimed that organized criminal groups with political, financial and logistical support from Belgrade were behind Sunday’s attack.

Vucic condemned the killing of the Kosovo police officer and said that three ethnic Serbs were also killed in the clashes and that there is a possibility that one more may die.

He accused Kurti of trying to drag Serbia into a conflict with NATO.

According to Vucic, the Kosovo police officer was killed because NATO forces did not intervene.

The tension was de-escalated after three of the armed ethnic Serbs were killed and several others who were injured had been detained.

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani decided to declare Monday a national day of mourning for the slain officer and the one who was wounded.

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have persisted since Kosovo declared its independence in 2008.

Despite recognition of its independence by over 100 countries since then, Kosovo continues to lack UN membership due to a Russian veto.

Kosovo has a population of nearly 1.8 million people. Albanians constitute the vast majority, but it also includes various minority groups such as Turks, Bosniaks, Serbs, Goranis, Roma, Ashkalis and Egyptians.

The following is a timeline of major events that have culminated in the current crisis:

Summer 2022

In the summer of 2022, Kosovo narrowly averted a crisis over license plates and ID cards having to bear markings of Kosovo when a compromise was reached.

In July that year, Kosovo’s government declared that Serbian identity documents and vehicle license plates would no longer be valid on Kosovo territory through a new law set to come into effect, making it mandatory for everyone, including Serbs living in Kosovo, to have a Kosovo ID card and plate.

Russia called on Kosovo as well as the US and European Union to stop “provocations” and to respect the rights of Serbs in Kosovo.

Kosovo’s new rules on the reissuance of personal documents and license plates for local Serbs constituted another step toward their expulsion from Kosovo, said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Serbia’s Defense Ministry issued a statement alleging that the Kosovo government was spreading disinformation, including through fake social media accounts.

President Vucic begged international representatives to do everything possible to stop the tensions on the Kosovo border.

In August 2022, the Kosovo government reportedly decided to postpone its decision on the license plates and Serbian ID cards for a month after increased tensions.

Meanwhile, KFOR said it was prepared to intervene if stability was jeopardized in the northern municipalities of Kosovo after alleged conflicts at the Serbian border.

KFOR sent troops to patrol the streets as security measures were being taken around Mitrovica as air raid sirens continued to be heard in the city on the border with Serbia.

August 2022

Serbian President Vucic and Albanian Prime Minister Kurti met in Brussels on Aug. 18 at the headquarters of the EU diplomatic service but failed to reach an agreement.

Vucic later claimed that the government in Pristina was determined to drive away Kosovo Serbs from northern Kosovo as the impasse over planned border rules continued.

Serbia said that seven countries had withdrawn their recognition of Kosovo's independence amid the impasse over border rules with the Balkan country without naming them.

At the end of August, Serbia and Kosovo agreed on a new border policy under an EU-facilitated dialogue process.

According to the deal, Albanians from Kosovo will not be issued any accompanying documents to enter Serbia.

Meanwhile, the Kosovo side will not issue accompanying documents to Serbs from Kosovo who have identity cards of Serbia and they will be able to freely cross into central Serbia and return to the territory of Kosovo.

Türkiye said it would continue encouraging dialogue towards an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on vehicle plates and other issues.

Serbia said it was counting on Türkiye’s support for the continuation of talks to resolve lingering disputes with Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Serbia rejected a German-French proposal to speed up its EU entry in exchange for recognizing Kosovo.

License plates issue in November

As tensions remained high, Serbia's Defense Ministry at the beginning of November said the country's armed forces were on alert over the issue of car license plates.

Kosovo had tried many times during the year to make its Serb minority renew their car license plates.

The move resulted in violent clashes between police and local Serbs.

Serbia neutralized a commercial drone on the Kosovo border only a day after President Vucic ordered the military to shoot down enemy drones in the country’s airspace after unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were spotted over areas bordering Kosovo.

The drone was shot down near military facilities in the Raska garrison by applying electronic jamming measures.

Kosovo Serbs withdraw from country’s institutions in November

Kosovo Serbs withdrew from all central and local institutions in Kosovo because of recent developments concerning license plates and border crossings

Serbian representatives withdrew from the assembly, government and all institutions in Pristina and suspended their participation in the police and judiciary in protest against Pristina's decision to replace license plates issued to Serbs by Serbian authorities with plates from the Republic of Kosovo.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged Serbia and Kosovo to refrain from actions that would increase tensions.

Italy's Carabinieri Gendarmerie arrived in Kosovo to temporarily reinforce the police unit from the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, known as EULEX.

Kosovo's Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla and Prime Minister Kurti said 578 police officers in the north region had resigned.

The US expressed concern that Kosovo and Serbia had failed to resolve the dispute related to car license plates.

December 2022

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced in the beginning of December that Serbia and Kosovo had reached an agreement to avoid further escalation over the dispute related to car license plates after a series of meetings in Brussels.

Following the agreement, Kosovo began deploying more police units to the north of the country, resulting in more pressure on the local Serbs.

Serbia said that between 300 and 350 officers, including heavily armed special forces “in full war dress and with armored vehicles” entered the north of Kosovo.

The pressure on local Serbs in Kosovo caused Serbia to demand its armed forces return to Kosovo.

Elections, December 2022

Following the developments, Kosovo postponed local elections in four northern municipalities which had been due to take place in late November over security concerns.

President Osmani said the polls would now be held in April 2023.

Earlier in the same week, some election centers were damaged and shooting was heard in those areas, raising fears of escalation.

The move prompted Belgrade to officially ask KFOR to allow it to deploy Serbian army and police forces in Kosovo in accordance with a UN resolution.

Serbia has the right to deploy up to 1,000 members of its security forces in Kosovo based on Resolution 1244.

Kosovo police arrested former Serb police officer Dejan Pantic near the Jarinje border crossing for allegedly organizing an attack on the premises of election centers.

Serbs had been standing guard at barricades they set up at border crossings since Dec. 10 to protest Pantic’s arrest.

As 2023 approached, authorities in Kosovo decided to ban Serbian Patriarch Porfirije from entering the country ahead of Orthodox Christmas with the celebration lasting three days.

Vucic ordered combat readiness for the armed forces and security services at the highest level with the aim of protecting the territorial integrity of Serbia.

Serbian police arrested an Albanian national who was suspected of terrorism with a large number of weapons including 10 rifles, a sniper rifle with a silencer and one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of explosives as well as a large amount of ammunition.

Vucic on Dec 28. called on Serbs to remove barricades erected in northern Kosovo after being assured by the US and EU that there will be no arrests.

Kosovo Serbs responded to Vucic's call and removed the barricades.

In another move, Kosovo’s government granted permission to Serbian Patriarch Porfirije to enter the country ahead of Orthodox Christmas celebrations.

Serbians shot in Kosovo on Orthodox Christmas Eve in January

A Serbian boy and a young man were shot and wounded on Jan. 6 in southern Kosovo by Albanian extremists on Orthodox Christmas Eve.

Meanwhile, NATO peacekeepers refused Serbia's formal request to deploy its security forces to Kosovo.

Thousands of Serbs gathered in demonstrations in Kosovo to express their security concerns.

The West African nation of Togo decided to withdraw its decision to recognize Kosovo's independence.

At the end of January, members of Kosovo's special police unit (ROSU) opened fire on a vehicle carrying two Serbs.

The conflicts caused the roads to be closed with barricades by Serbs.

Barricades are usually erected in response to operations carried out by Kosovo police in the north and decisions by the Kosovo government.

Kosovo officials argued that the barricades were organized by Serbia, but Serbia denied the allegations.

Ohrid Agreement in February

Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement on Feb. 27 to sign a proposal to normalize ties after a meeting in Brussels.

The agreement came after 12 hours of talks between Albanian Prime Minister Kurti, Serbian President Vucic and EU officials.

The parties later agreed on how to implement the deal in the last round of talks on March 18 in North Macedonia.

The 11-point agreement demanded that the sides maintain good neighborly relations and recognize each other’s documents such as passports and license plates.

Kosovo Serbs boycott extraordinary elections in April for four municipalities in the country’s north

Kosovo Serbs boycotted extraordinary elections in April for four municipalities in the north of the country.

Voting ended with only a 3.47% turnout.

A total of 11 candidates ran for mayor in North Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Leposavic and Zvecan and 60 candidates for the city councils of Zvecan and Leposavic.

The EU said that the low turnout in Kosovo's local elections did not offer municipalities long-term political solutions.

May 2023

Serbia once again at the end of May ordered its army to advance to the administrative border with Kosovo and called on NATO to urgently stop violence against local Serbs in Kosovo after tensions mounted in Kosovo as local Serbs in Zvecan clashed with police outside an administration building.

Tensions gripped Kosovo as Serb protesters attempted to bar newly elected Albanian mayors from entering three municipal buildings, forcing police to fire tear gas shells to disperse them.

Kosovo President Osmani claimed that the police action was legitimate after tensions mounted in northern municipalities as local Serbs in Zvecan clashed with police outside the administration building.

At least 30 KFOR soldiers were injured in clashes with protesting Serbs.

Serbia urged the West to guarantee the safety of Serbs in Kosovo.

EU foreign policy chief Borrell called for holding new local elections in northern Kosovo with the participation of Serbs.

Also, the EU urged Kosovo to suspend police operations in the ethnic Serb-dominated north.

June 2023

NATO announced the deployment of an additional 700 troops in Kosovo due to the ongoing tensions.

With the region in a state of unrest due to the tensions, new local elections in northern Kosovo and general elections for Pristina and Belgrade are highly possible.

Meanwhile, Western countries such as the US and European Union member states are insisting that the parties agree on the normalization of relations and align their policies with the bloc.

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