Should Americans care about a dispute between Serbs and Albanians over vehicle license plates in northern Kosovo? Actually, they should. What seems like a petty car tag issue risks escalating into a major source of instability in Europe, actively fomented by Vladimir Putin’s regime.
At the heart of the ongoing quarrel lies Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s 14-year-old institutions as legitimate. As a result, when Kosovo’s government started requiring its Serbian residents to switch their (Serbian) license plates to Kosovar ones last year, they were incensed.
Kosovo backtracked but sought to introduce the policy again this summer, alongside a system of entry permits for visitors from Serbia (a border arrangement that Serbia agreed to in 2011 and has in fact enforced on Kosovo nationals traveling to Serbia). Serbian-installed roadblocks suddenly appeared, and there were reports of violence and gunfire. Things seemingly calmed down after Pristina extended the deadline for replacing the tags until September 1. On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the alliance was ready to beef up its peacekeeping force in the country, currently at about 3,600 troops, and intervene if the situation worsens.
Unsurprisingly, the talks held on Thursday between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti brought no breakthroughs. For one, while the unresolved situation in Kosovo is a hindrance to Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union (EU), where it enjoys the status of a candidate country, for Vučić, it is also a convenient tool of political mobilization.