Fighting erupted after Kosovar special police units in armored cars – operating at night late last month – swept into two border control stations to assert a ban on Serb products. Now, European Union officials are calling for calm and NATO has reinforced its peacekeepers.
While the immediate issue appears to be foot-dragging by Serbia on trade reciprocity, for Kosovars the underlying issue is the existential question of whether Belgrade, Serbia's capital, is angling to gain control of the already-partitioned Serb-majority northern chunk of Kosovo.
The position in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, is that their independence is not viable without the borders recognized by 77 states, 22 of which are European Union members. Serbia views the Kosovo region north of the Ibar river, a stronghold of Serb hard-line enclaves, as irreconcilable with the Albanian-majority government of Pristina; it does not recognize Kosovo.
Serbia currently blocks Kosovo-stamped products from entering its borders, even as Serb products are sold throughout Kosovo.
A long-delayed trade meeting this June in which Belgrade was to discuss finalizing trade modalities was cancelled by Serbia at the last minute. Serbs delayed the talks a day after they announced the capture of Goran Hadzic, the last remaining indicted Serbian war crimes figure sought by the Hague. The trade meeting was pushed to September.
In the interim, Pristina's Hashim Thaci government wished to “call out” Serbia’s unfulfilled requirement to accept free trade and slapped its own ban on Serb products, until the issue is reconciled. On Tuesday, Mr. Thaci told the Associated Press that he would continue a push to exert authority in the north, which is now under EU police and KFOR (the NATO mission in Kosovo) security control.
Some 8,000 peacekeepers are currently in Kosovo. Troops have kept the peace since the NATO-led incursion in 1999 that followed former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's push to drive – or "ethnically cleanse" – Albanians from Kosovo, a historic heartland of Serb national identity.
The United States is a strong supporter of Kosovo, but American officials say they were unaware of Mr. Thaci’s plan to assume border point authority. This is unofficially disputed in Pristina. EU police refused to aid the Kosovar special forces during the border fight last month.
Serbia wishes to enter EU accession talks and does not want to upset its path to union membership. Belgrade is currently in a “good citizen” cooperative mode, having turned over the last two remaining war criminals from the 1990s, Ratko Mladic and Mr. Hadzic.
Pristina wishes to legitimize and normalize as quickly as possible its independent status which, in its view, vitally includes borders.
Serb militia have put up roadblocks in recent days that KFOR troops are tearing down; charges and countercharges are running thick between Serbian and Kosovo officials. It is doubtful the EU, whose members already complain about an ungainly 27-member grouping, will accept Serbia in its ranks with Kosovo’s status unresolved, say analysts.
In recent months, the Boris Tadic government in Belgrade has taken a different tone, seen in recent statements by the deputy prime minister Bozidar Djelic: “If we want to join the EU within which 22 members see Serbia's borderlines in a different manner, we have to find some kind of a solution. It is the same with Pristina which is not recognized by five EU states. The EU path is pushing both sides to a compromise.”
What has officials in Kosovo worried is that such a compromise would involve the partition of Kosovo, something deeply opposed by its public.