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Swiss keep an eye on tensions in Kosovo

Trucks block the road near a northern Kosovo border crossing in a row over license plates. Source: Anadolu Anadolu/Getty Images

Things are tense in northern Kosovo as a deadline approaches for Serbs to swap their Belgrade-issued number plates for local ones. A seemingly trivial request from Kosovo’s government has stoked discontent among ethnic Serbs. Swiss military personnel are among 3,600 NATO peacekeepers in the country, keeping watch.  

This content was published on October 25, 2022 - 09:00

Violent protests erupted in the north this summer after Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, issued his first deadline for the number plate switch. Serbs, who number about 70,000 in the north, set up roadblocks and fired shots at border crossings. To ease tensions, the deadline for swapping number plates was pushed back to the end of October. Serbs have refused to recognise Kosovar institutions and want to keep their number plates from Belgrade, which they consider to be their capital. 

Switzerland has been actively involved in helping to maintain peace in the troubled north, which also suffers from high unemployment and rising crime rates. SWISSCOY, short for Swiss company, has been part of the Kosovo Force (KFOR), an international peace support mission that has been active since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999. SWISSCOY has a staff of up to 195 voluntary military personnel.

David Olumese, Team Commander LMT (liaison and monitoring team), works in the divided city of Mitrovica, where Albanian and Serb settlements are separated by the river Ibar. His job is to talk to different communities and report back to KFOR headquarters when appropriate. He says there is a feeling of uncertainty among people there, as “they don’t know what’s coming”.

As East European correspondent for Swiss Public Television, SRF, it’s Peter Balzli’s job to report on developments in northern Kosovo. But he says his usually fearless Kosovar cameraman does not wish to travel to the Kosovar-Serbian border on October 31, in case simmering tensions in the area come to a head. The correspondent’s view is that the situation there is likely to remain tense because, from the Serbian perspective, Kosovo remains Serbian territory.

Serb media outlet Telegraf reported on October 19 that only 12 out of 9,000 cars with Serbian plates had been re-registered. The head of the European Union Office in Pristina, Tomas Suniog, recently told Radio Kosovo that he would like the car re-registration deadline to be pushed back.

Recognition and the Russian connection

Serbia and Kosovo committed to European Union-sponsored talks in 2013 to try and resolve outstanding differences between them. But little progress has been made. Swiss-based Kosovar Osman Osmani, a Social Democrat, trade unionist and Albanian diaspora spokesperson, blames the EU's stance on Kosovo's independence for its current problems. Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Cyprus have all refused to accept Kosovo's independence for fear of encouraging break-away movements in their own countries. In all, however, 117 countries, including Switzerland have recognised Kosovo’s statehood.

Russia and China also refuse to recognise Kosovo – Russia supports Serbia’s continuing claims on the Balkan territory. Serbia has offered visa-free entry to some countries if they cancel Kosovo's recognition. This has worked in individual cases. SRF’s Balzli reports that now, however, under EU pressure, Serbia has announced that it will revoke this visa-free regime for India, Tunisia and Burundi.

Serbia is traditionally considered Russia's closest ally in Europe, but all is not as it seems.

“Externally, Belgrade propagates the narrative of eternal Russian-Serbian brotherhood, but Serbia is almost entirely dependent on the West,” says Balzli. “Brussels has so far given Serbia €4 billion [CHF3.9 billion] in development aid, and the Serbian economy makes two-thirds of its exports to EU countries”.

The journalist points out that Serbia's policy of seesawing between allegiance to Russia and seeking closer ties with the EU is currently being questioned in Belgrade.

Osmani accuses Serbia of holding the Serbian minority hostage. “They are preventing the Serbs from integrating in a multi-ethnic state”, he says. He also questions the ability and willingness of both KFOR and the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) to keep the peace. 

Diaspora: Thousands of Kosovars fled to Switzerland during the 1999 war. In total, 114,755 Kosovar citizens are registered as living in Switzerland (2021 figures). Official statistics showed 3.2% of the Swiss population spoke Albanian in 2020. The diaspora continues to support their native land with remittances and participated in the last Kosovo elections, helping to bring prime minister Albin Kurti to power. 

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How can Kosovo move forward?

European integration could help to break the deadlock. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Serb and Kosovo leaders during a visit to Berlin in May that rapprochement between them was “enormously important” to their membership aspirations. Serbia’s EU accession negotiations are in progress and Kosovo has said it plans to formally apply to join the EU by the end of this year.

Talks between Kosovo and Serbia under the auspices of the EU and US envoys may have failed to solve the number plate issue, but Belgrade and Pristina recently reached a deal on the use of personal identity documents. Serbia agreed to abolish entry and exit documents for Kosovo ID holders. In exchange, Kosovo agreed not to introduce them for Serbian ID holders.

Balzli says Kosovo is making progress because Kurti’s government is serious about fighting rampant corruption and is supported in these efforts by the Swiss diaspora, among other Kosovars abroad. If corruption is effectively tackled, he believes Kosovo’s economy will grow. 

“If Kosovo, with an average income of €350-400 succeeds in raising its prosperity above Serbia’s level (where the average income is €770), then the cards between the two countries would be reshuffled,” he says.

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