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A dispute over license plates between the Balkan nations of Kosovo and Serbia, from which Kosovo split 14 years ago, sparked protests and gunfire on Sunday evening, raising fears of an escalation in the violence as Western countries focus on the war in Ukraine.
Amid protesters who built barricades, unknown gunmen fired on Kosovo police officers along the troubled northern border with Serbia on the eve of a new law requiring ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo to cross Serbian number plates to Kosovar plates within the next two months. Many Kosovo Serbs still use Serb-issued plates, which the government considers illegal.
The Kosovo government also said that from Monday all holders of Serbian identity cards and passports must obtain an additional document to enter Kosovo, just like Kosovars must do to enter Serbia.
No one was hurt by the gunfire, but in response to the violence, Kosovo police closed two northern border crossings.
“The coming hours, days and weeks could be difficult and problematic,” Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in a video posted on his social media.
Similar license plate protests erupted a year ago, but observers say tensions are higher this time around as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine focuses the attention of the most important ally. of Kosovo, the United States, as well as that of the European Union.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian forces out of the former province. Serbia – along with its main allies Russia and China – still refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence and insists on protecting its ethnic Serb relatives, who make up around 5% of the country’s 1.8 million population. Kosovo.
Just under half of Kosovo’s Serb population lives in four northern municipalities bordering Serbia and many have been reluctant to recognize authorities in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, preferring to live as if they are still part of Serbia.
The European Union has mediated negotiations between the two governments since 2011 and slowly the police, courts and municipalities came under Pristina’s control. But, encouraged by the political leaders of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, the Serbian nationalists protest against each new attempt at integration.
“We will pray for peace and seek peace, but there will be no surrender and Serbia will win,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Sunday at a press conference. “If they dare to persecute, mistreat and kill Serbs, Serbia will win,” he continued, adding later, “We have never been in such a difficult and complicated situation as today.”
Mr Vucic, who convened a high-level meeting of security and military officials on Sunday evening, said the Kosovo government was trying to portray him in the same light as President Vladimir V. Putin by blaming the unrest Serbia’s close relations with Russia. , another Slavic and Orthodox Christian nation.
Kosovo’s leader, Mr Vucic said at Sunday’s press conference, was trying to take advantage of the global mood by projecting that “big Putin gave orders to little Putin, so the new Zelensky, in the form of Albin Kurti, will be a savior and fight against the great Serbian hegemony.
Vladimir Djukanovic, a Serbian MP from Mr Vucic’s ruling party, also linked the border to the war in Ukraine, tweeting: “It seems to me that Serbia will be forced to start the denazification of the Balkans”, an ominous reference to La Russia’s justification for invading Ukraine.
Serbia, a candidate for European Union membership, has maintained close ties with Moscow and has not joined Western sanctions against Russia, despite voting in favor of a United Nations resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Belgrade and Moscow share animosity towards the NATO military alliance over its bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, when Mr Vucic was spokesman for Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
NATO still maintains a peacekeeping presence in Kosovo, with a force of around 3,700 soldiers. In a press release, NATO said its force on the ground was “ready to intervene if stability is threatened”.
After a meeting with the American ambassador on Sunday evening, the Kosovo government announced that it would delay the implementation of the license plate and identification decisions for a month.
Russia weighed in quickly on Sunday, calling the license plate and identification laws “a new step in driving the Serbian population out of Kosovo”, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“We call on Pristina and the United States and the European Union that support it to stop provocations and to respect the rights of Serbs in Kosovo,” said Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Kosovo’s northern border with Serbia has been a hub of violence in the past. In 2011, when Kosovo police sought to take full control of the area, one Kosovo policeman was killed and 25 others were injured.