Serbia’s move to place its troops on the border with Kosovo in “the full state of combat readiness” Tuesday marked the latest escalation in tensions between the two Balkan nations, and led to further worries that eastern Europe could be on the brink of another armed international conflict.
“The tensions on the ground are on a higher level than we’ve seen in more than a decade,” Damir Marusic, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, told Semafor. “It’s a tinderbox, and a spark could set it off.”
Here’s what you need to know about the situation.
Kosovo won independence from Serbia in 2008. Today, ethnic Serbs account for around 5% of the country’s 1.8 million population. Ethnic Albanians make up the majority.
Serbia still considers Kosovo to be an integral part of its territory, and ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo do not recognize the authority of its institutions.
Kosovo has called for the ethnic Serb minority to switch out their old Serbian license plates for Kosovo-issued ones. Tensions flared up earlier this year when Pristina announced a two-month window for drivers to make the change, triggering protests. The government later pushed the implementation date to next year.
Serbs in northern Kosovo have put up barricades on major roads in a sign of pushback against the Kosovan government.
A NATO peacekeeping group in Kosovo said Monday it was investigating a shooting incident in a town near the Serbian border where barricades are common. The group said there were no injuries or material damage reported.
Serbian Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic then said he “ordered the full combat readiness” of police and other security units so that ”all measures be taken to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo,” the Associated Press reported.
In some ways, we’ve been here before, Marusic of the Atlantic Council told Semafor. Serbia had also readied its troops near the Kosovo border last year and in 2019, before tensions subsided in the short term.
“It may just be that this is yet another move by both sides to escalate to try to get some sort of mediation to come in,” he said.
But the standoff over the license plates, and heightened level of distrust between the two nations, “means that any kind of inadvertent spark could really set this off at this point,” Marusic said.
For the European Union, the possibility of another war is “an unwelcome headache,” especially given speculation that the conflict could benefit Russia, he said. For the actors in the Kosovo-Serbia conflict, Marusic said, the war in Ukraine is “in the back of everyone’s mind.”
NATO and EU have called for the two countries to calm the tensions. Kosovo’s government has asked NATO to remove the Serb roadblocks, while Serbia’s military leaders held a top-level meeting near the border Sunday, according to the AP.
Kosovan Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said Tuesday that he believes Serbia is under the influence of Russia and is trying to destabilize Kosovo by supporting the Serb minority, Reuters reported.
Serbia denied the accusation, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic saying that the country would ”continue to fight for peace and seek compromise solutions.”