Kosovo pushes ahead with car licensing rule resisted by ethnic Serbs

By Thomson Reuters Aug 31, 2022 | 11:03 PM

PRISTINA/BELGRADE (Reuters) – Kosovo, Serbia and NATO peacekeepers were bracing for a new wave of ethnic tensions on Thursday, hours after Pristina announced that some 50,000 ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo would have a two-month window to switch over their car license plates.

Kosovo, which is predominantly ethnic Albanian, has sought to compel ethnic Serbs to accept Pristina’s authority in routine bureaucratic matters since winning independence in 2008 after nearly a decade-long uprising against Serbia’s repressive rule.

In announcing the Oct. 31 deadline for motorists to switch over Serbian license plates to those issued by Pristina, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti described the decision as “nothing more or less than an expression of the exercise of sovereignty.”

On Wednesday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he did not believe an agreement with Kosovo over the issue was possible. “From Sept. 1 (Kosovo) will … try to force Serbs to change plates, … I don’t think they will have a big success,” he told reporters.

A push last year to implement the car licensing was met with protests by the Serbs in the north, who are backed by Belgrade and live close to Kosovo’s border with Serbia. Tensions flared again last month after Pristina announced the rule would go into effect on Sept. 1, prompting ethnic Serbs to set up roadblocks.

Tensions eased after Kurti, under U.S. and EU pressure, agreed to postpone the switch. The roadblocks were removed under the watch of NATO, which has about 3,700 peacekeepers in Kosovo.

The defense ministry in Serbia, which refuses to recognise independent Kosovo and sees it as its integral part of Serbian territory, said on Wednesday it had stepped up training of some of its troops garrisoned near the border with Kosovo.

“The training is carried out in order to maintain a high degree of combat readiness of the engaged units and their ability to react quickly in case of need and ensure peace and security along the administrative line,” the ministry said.

But Major General Ferenc Kajari, commander of NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, sought to dispel fears of an imminent conflict as the peacekeepers fanned out across the area to pre-empt the possibility of violence.

“We don’t see any kind of indication even of a preparation for a war … Those who think responsibly they should not talk about war,” Kajari, a Hungarian, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

Talks between Kosovo and Serbia under the auspices of the European Union and U.S. envoys have so far failed to solve the issue, although Belgrade and Pristina last week reached a deal on the use of personal identity documents.

Serbs account for 5% of the 1.8 million people in Kosovo. Serbia accuses Kosovo of trampling on the rights of this ethnic minority, a charge denied by Pristina.

Kosovo is recognised by some 100 countries including the United States and all but five EU members, but not by a number of other states, notably Russia and China.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic and Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Paul Simao)