Will outdated license plates lead to another bloody European war?

Heavy vehicles parked by local Serbs block a road in the village of Rudare, after Kosovo officials called for drivers to scrap license plates issued prior to the country's 2008 independence.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he wants to send troops to protect ethnic Serbs in Kosovo who oppose the phaseout of Serbian license plates that are still being used in the independent country.

The NATO-led international peacekeepers in Kosovo (KFOR) and leaders of the breakaway republic don’t want them.

The international stand-off could forecast a new European land war after roads in the Kosovo village of Rudare were blocked by heavy vehicles parked by local Serbs to protest officials who called for drivers to scrap license plates issued prior to the country’s 2008 independence.

KFOR consists of approximately 3,700 troops provided by 27 NATO countries and commanded by Maj. Gen. Angelo Michele Ristuccia of the Italian Army with support from the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), and other international actors.

As part of a wider engagement of the region, the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) was launched in 2008, to help in the areas of policing, justice and customs. EULEX is supported by the EU member states, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States.

Roads were blocked with heavy vehicles and trucks by Serb protesters, who may also have been angered about the arrest of Dejan Pantic, a former Kosovo Serb police officer, whose lawyer told media that he does not know where his client is located even after 11 days.

“Are you aware what kind of drama the families of the arrested Serbs are going through? You can’t read anything about the arrested Serbs… What did Pantić do? It only shows the attitude towards the Serbs and Serbia. It is not absurd to deploy foreign troops, but it is absurd for the Serbian troops to be present,” saidd Vucic.

The policeman in question was part of a mass resignation of Serbs from the force in November after authorities in Kosovo’s capital Pristina said they would require drivers to scrap Serbian license plates dating to before the 1998-99 Kosovo War.

The Serbs are at the barricades in the north of Kosovo and Metohija for the 13th day and are not giving up on their demand for the release of Dejan Pantić and other Serbian citizens who were arrested without grounds by the Kosovo police in the previous days.

Kosovo has since gained diplomatic recognition as a sovereign state by 101 member states of the United Nations since the military conflict led it to unilaterally declare independence from Serbia in February 2008.

In recent years, the security situation has continued to improve steadily but the underlying hatred follows centuries and decades of ethnic strife.

Tensions between Kosovo’s communities of Albanian Muslims and Christian Serbs simmered through the 20th century and occasionally erupted into major violence, culminating in the Kosovo War of 1998 and 1999, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army, and the establishment of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.

The Ottoman Empire ruled the area for almost five centuries until 1912.

Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro joined Yugoslavia after World War I, and following a period of Yugoslav unitarianism in the Kingdom, the post-World War II Yugoslav constitution established the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija within the Yugoslav constituent republic of Serbia.

During World War II, after the Nazi invasion of the area, Marshal Josip Broz Tito led the resistance, and by the end of the war —with the support of the Soviet Union—he took power to maintain the peaceful coexistence among the federated nations of Yugoslavia until his death in May 1980.

The breakup of Yugoslavia occurred as a result of varied reasons ranging from the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 to the cultural, nationalist, and religious divisions among ethnic groups with memories of historic atrocities committed by all sides.

The situation escalated into violence, which was intractable and bitter.

The dispute over license plates has stoked tensions for almost two years between Serbia and Kosovo.

The European Union’s high representative, Josep Borrell, invited Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to Brussels for emergency talks in November but warned of “escalation and violence” after emergency talks failed to resolve their long-running dispute over car license plates used by the ethnic Serb minority in Kosovo.

Kosovo, Serbia and NATO military forces are bracing for a new wave of ethnic tensions as the local government moves to oblige ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo to accept Pristina’s authority in routine bureaucratic matters since winning independence in 2008 after a nearly 10-year uprising against Serbia’s repressive rule.

Kosovo, of which 92 percent of the 1.8 million population is ethnic Albanian, has sought to compel about 50,000 ethnic Serbs who do not recognize Pristina’s authority.

Hundreds of police officers, judges, prosecutors, and other state workers from the Serb minority in Kosovo quit their jobs after the government in Pristina ruled that local drivers must finally replace car plates issued by northern Kosovo Serb municipal authorities loyal to Belgrade, with Kosovo state ones.

Under the new regulations proposed by Pristina, all citizens will have to fill out provisional identity card documents rather than use their Serbian IDs while in Kosovo. In addition, vehicles with Serbian license plates must affix provisional Kosovar car tags upon entry.

The prime minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, explained the new rules as countermeasures to neighboring Serbia, which has not recognized Kosovan identity documents for several years. Upon entry to Serbia, Kosovan citizens receive a document similar to the one that Kosovo now wants to introduce for travelers with Serbian identity documents.

Gëzim Krasniqi, a lecturer in nationalism and political sociology at the University of Edinburgh, says Pristina’s plan is the same practice that Serbia has used with Kosovo document holders since 2011 as part of a European Union-mediated agreement on facilitating border crossing between the two countries.

NATO-led international peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR) is beefing up units deployed near the northern border with Serbia.

After ethnic Serbs had been protesting in the northern part of Kosovo for over a week, demanding the establishment of a Community of Serb Municipalities, KFOR said it has increased its presence in Jarinje, in the northern part of Kosovo at the border with Serbia, for preventive security reasons.

Tensions have been running high in the northern part of Kosovo after a new directive for vehicle owners to replace Serbian license plates with Kosovar ones came into force on November 1.

Earlier during the protests, a stun grenade was thrown at a reconnaissance patrol of the EULEX mission near Rudare, a village close to the border with Serbia, but no police officer was injured and no serious damage was caused in the attack.

On Thursday, Kosovo submitted its application to join the European Union.

Negotiations on a territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia have been proposed to potentially solve the current political status in the region but the current Prime Minister of Kosovo has rejected this idea.

Some experts argue that a land swap would not solve any of the real problems of the conflict and that it could resume ethnic and territorial conflicts both in and outside the Balkans.

Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom, as well as many of Kosovo’s and Serbia’s neighbors such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia have taken tough stances against a bilateral territorial swap of the Preševo Valley of Serbia, which has an ethnic Albanian majority, to Kosovo in exchange the majority ethnic Serb region of North Kosovo to Serbia.

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