Belgrade, Sep 28 (EFE).- A feud over vehicle license plates has raised tensions between Serbia and Kosovo to the point where both the European Union and NATO have issued appeals for calm and restraint.
The crisis threatens to undo the little progress made over the last decade in negotiations aimed at creating the conditions for Serbia to recognize the sovereignty of its former province, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008.
Beginning Sept. 20, Kosovo banned vehicles with Serbian plates from entering its territory and deployed heavily armed police at the two main crossings on the border with Serbia.
Under the new regulation, motorists with Serbian plates must replace them with 60-day temporary Kosovo plates.
Usually, a measure of this kind would have its main impact on international travelers, but the issue in this case is more complicated because Serbs in northern Kosovo – who reject the government in Pristina – regard having to use a “Republic of Kosovo” license plate as a humiliation.
The Kosovo Serbs say that the regulation impinges on their freedom of movement, disrupting economic life and the provision of health care.
Hundreds of Serbs blocked roads in northern Kosovo on the day the rule took effect and Belgrade, the self-proclaimed protector of the Serbian minority, called Pristina’s decision to send police equipped with assault rifles and armored vehicles a provocation.
Last Sunday, Serbian helicopters and fighter jets were seen in the skies over the border.
Belgrade accuses Pristina of acting unilaterally in violation of the protocols of the EU-sponsored normalization talks and complains that Brussels has tolerated other ostensible violations by Kosovo.
The Kosovo government, however, insists that it’s new regulation is “reciprocity” for an earlier decision by Belgrade to bar Kosovar license plates in Serbia.
The EU and NATO have called for the withdrawal of the special Kosovar police units and an end to the protests by the Serbs in Kosovo.
“Serbia and Kosovo need to unconditionally de-escalate the situation on the ground,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. “Any further provocations, unilateral or uncoordinated actions are unacceptable.”
On Monday, the NATO peacekeeping force that has been in Kosovo since 1999 increased the number and duration of its patrols to better “monitor the situation” and fulfill its mandate to “ensure a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities living in Kosovo.”
Representatives of Serbia and Kosovo are set to meet Wednesday in in Brussels for talks mediated by the EU. EFE