Serbia and Kosovo avert threat of violence with deal on car plates

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Serbia and Kosovo reached a deal late on Wednesday to defuse a dispute over the boycotting of car number plates by ethnic-Serb citizens of the smaller state, neutralising for now tensions that had threatened to lead to violence and destabilise the Balkans.

“We have a deal,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who has acted as the lead arbiter in the talks between Belgrade and Pristina, tweeted. “Very pleased to announce that Chief Negotiators of Kosovo and Serbia . . . have agreed on measures to avoid further escalation.”

He wrote: “Serbia will stop issuing licence plates with Kosovo cities’ denominations and Kosovo will cease further actions related to re-registration of vehicles,” adding that the two sides will now “fully concentrate on the proposal on normalisation of their relations”. 

The technical but highly symbolic issue of who can issue number plates for vehicles of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo cuts to the heart of the stand-off between Serbia and its former province, which unilaterally broke away in 2008. There is also the matter of whether Pristina can enforce its own rules on all of its citizens, Serbs as well as Albanians, and whether Belgrade will accept that.

Until the last minute, Kosovo premier Albin Kurti had refused to bow to pressure from the US and the EU on a deal on the narrow issue of car plates. He was also insisting on a move toward a final agreement on the status of Kosovo, meaning at least some level of recognition from Serbia.

“We have the goal, attitude, reasons and arguments to reach a legally binding agreement [with Serbia], but this should also be the goal of the [EU] mediators,” Kurti told his government.

A summit on Monday in Brussels between Kurti and Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić had ended without a compromise. A deadline on imposing fines to enforce Kosovo’s car licensing rules on Serbs was extended at the last minute until Thursday morning to allow time for more talks.

Borrell put most of the blame for that failure on Pristina, saying the rejection of several compromise proposals had derailed a plan. Kurti on Wednesday shot back, saying the EU lost credibility when it dropped the ball on its own earlier proposal for a move on sovereignty for Kosovo.

Belgrade, which was bombed by Nato in 1999 in a brief war over the future of Kosovo, has said it will never recognise its former province as a sovereign country — but for the better part of the week it has been seen as the more constructive of the two sides in Brussels.

Kosovo president Vjosa Osmani praised the deal but also added that it would not have been possible without the involvement of the US, which pushed for the deadline extension on Monday night.

“I want to thank US Ambassador to Kosovo, Jeff Hovenier, and the U.S. Government for their active engagement in reaching today’s deal in Brussels,” Osmani tweeted. “Their support for the dialogue process between Kosovo and Serbia is indispensable. Kosovo is grateful.”

Tensions grew in recent weeks as Kosovo began to threaten action against drivers who refused to switch from old number plates issued by Serbia to new ones printed locally. Thousands of drivers refused to comply and in a sign of growing hostility, large numbers of public workers in northern Kosovo, where there is an ethnic-Serb majority, resigned in protest at the crackdown.

Although the chance of violence has now receded significantly, tensions remain and the damage caused by the animosity of recent months will be difficult to undo, said Milos Damjanovic, a researcher at the Belgrade-based BIRN consultancy.

“The most explosive problem in north Kosovo has been defused, for the time being,” Damjanovic said. “The problem still remains that Kosovo Serbs in the north have walked out of Kosovo institutions and do not wish to return, so there is a long way to go to ‘normalise’ the situation back to where it was just a few weeks ago.

“Zooming out of this crisis, I am sceptical that either Belgrade or Pristina want to normalise relations,” he added. “Pristina does not want to give Serbs in Kosovo any kind of autonomy, and Belgrade does not want to sign up to a legally binding treaty on normalising relations.”

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