Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti met twice this week in Brussels. For the first time in more than a year, the Balkan leaders came to the EU capital at the request of the European Union to try to put an end to the so-called tuition fee crisis over border tensions. However, the first contact has not borne fruit. There is still no agreement on the resolution of a legal dispute which, unless further postponed, will come into force in less than two weeks.
The umpteenth outbreak of the Balkan crisis began in early August, when the Kosovo authorities decided to issue identity documents valid for a period of 30 days to all Serbian citizens crossing the border. In return, they had to hand over their Serbian documents. The measure included the approximately 60,000 Kosovo Serbs who do not have local identity documents. They do not recognise the independence of the Kosovar state, a former Serb province with an Albanian majority.
The authorities in Pristina also planned to require the replacement of Serbian-issued number plates with Kosovar ones. But these measures, taken in reciprocity with Belgrade, generated an angry response from the Serb population of northern Kosovo, who see such details as recognition of their independence. The enclave of Mitrovica, one of the ethnically divided towns with a large Serb population, was the main focus of discontent.
In retaliation, dozens of tankers and heavy machinery blocked the border crossings at Brnjak and Jarinje, and Merdare in northern Kosovo. The escalation of tensions set off alarm bells in KFOR (Kosovo Force), NATO's mission in the area, which stood ready to act in the event of a security threat. Peacekeepers were tasked with checking that the return to normality along the border was being enforced. There were no disturbances beyond the usual clashes between demonstrators and police.
Diplomatic pressure from Washington and Brussels convinced the Kosovar premier to postpone the entry into force of the measures. Kurti extended the deadline to 30 days, until 1 September. He set a one-month countdown to resolve the dispute, and set a date to meet with the Serbian leader in Brussels.
"Although the situation on the ground has improved, it is the responsibility of all parties, especially officials in Belgrade and Pristina, to prevent further escalation," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday, reiterating the Alliance's commitment to act if necessary. The Norwegian diplomat took the opportunity to meet separately with Vučić and Kurti in Brussels ahead of their meeting on EU premises.
A contingent of more than 3,700 NATO troops is deployed in Kosovo. It is tasked with maintaining security, although it is not the first Security Force to intervene in the event of conflict, but a last resort. The transatlantic organisation's involvement in the region was marked in 1999 with its intervention in Serbia to stop the offensive against Kosovar Albanians fighting for autonomy. Today, its presence is limited to intervening in the event of a serious deterioration in security.
After the meeting at NATO headquarters, Kurti made it known that he expects KFOR to prevent at all costs "the recurrence of such blockades, which impede freedom of movement, but also the security of our police forces and citizens". Vučić, for his part, hopes that the Atlantic Alliance contingent will help "preserve peace and stability".
The hopes placed on KFOR by the Serbian president and Kosovar prime minister are similar, but their diagnosis of the situation is radically opposed. Vučić, nicknamed the Serbian Putin because of his ties to the Kremlin and Serbia's economic dependence on Russia, and Kurti, a charismatic, anti-establishment, pan-Albanian exactivist, hold opposing views on the region's problems. One accuses Pristina of mistreating the Serb minority; the other singles out Belgrade for continued harassment of its sovereignty. Reconciliation looks complicated.
The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, tried on Thursday to bring the parties closer together. He was unsuccessful. After a series of trilateral meetings, Belgrade and Pristina proved unable to find a mutually acceptable solution to the tuition crisis.
The head of European diplomacy apportioned blame for a possible escalation among his interlocutors, but a channel of communication remains open: Miroslav Lajčák, the Slovak diplomat who has served as president of the UN General Assembly and is now the EU's special envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue, will take over the reins of the talks before Kurti's deadline.