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Following the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorised the establishment of an interim administration and the deployment of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) to keep the peace. The interim administration had the objective of promoting self-government in Kosovo pending a final settlement. After UN-led talks involving leaders from Serbia and Kosovo reached an impasse, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in February 2008.

The NATO intervention followed the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy, a growing independence movement in Kosovo and a brutal crackdown by Serbia in the 1990s. Although Kosovo is largely ethnic-Albanian with a small Serbian minority, Kosovo is a territory of cultural and historical significance for Serbia. Serbia was unwilling to countenance Kosovo’s independence in the 1990s, amidst the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and has refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence since its unilateral declaration in 2008.

Kosovo and Serbia after the declaration of independence

After declaring independence, Kosovo adopted a new constitution but initially remained under international supervision. An International Steering Group, involving the USA, UK and other states that had recognised its independence supervised an International Civilian Office (ICO). The period of supervised independence ended in September 2012, with the closure of the International Civilian Office. However, KFOR remained in Kosovo and the UN Interim Administration Mission continued to operate.

Tensions between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, involving violent clashes, and between Kosovo and Serbia itself have continued since the NATO intervention. Kosovo Serbs, concentrated in the north of Kosovo, have continued to maintain parallel institutions with direct links to the Serbian authorities in Belgrade.

Steps towards normalisation of relations

Steps towards normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia have been taken since 2011, with talks facilitated by the EU. An agreement on principles governing the normalisation of relations was reached in 2013. This integrated the Kosovo Serb community into Kosovo state structures, including the police force and judicial system. The agreement also provided for an Association/Community of Serb Municipalities, involving limited autonomy and an assembly for Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo.

A 2015 agreement outlined a legal framework and structure for the Association/Community. However, this led to mass protests among Kosovo Albanians and a referral to the constitutional court. The court ruled that elements of the 2015 framework were not in compliance with the constitution but said that the Association/ Community should be implemented in line with the 2013 agreement. Kosovo has subsequently not implemented the Association/Community and this has remained a key stumbling block in Kosovo-Serbia relations.

In 2018, the two countries presidents indicated they were considering a proposed land swap involving an exchange of Serb-majority areas in Kosovo for an Albanian-majority area in Serbia, but this met with opposition within Kosovo and internationally. The plan did receive some encouragement from the Trump administration in the USA, which also brokered talks leading to an economic normalisation agreement in 2020.

Deteriorating relations and renewed EU-brokered talks since 2021

In the summer of 2021, tensions escalated after drivers of vehicles with Serbian licence plates were told that they had to replace them with temporary Kosovo plates and protestors from the Serb community blockaded the border with Serbia. The Kosovo government sent special forces to keep the border open, leading the Serbian government to in turn send military jets and tanks to the scene. After an EU-mediated agreement helped to cool tensions, the dispute flared up again in 2022 after the Kosovo government said it would impose fines on those refusing to replace their license plates. This led to a mass resignation of ethnic Serbs from all of Kosovo’s national institutions in November 2022. President Vučić of Serbia said he would “take all measures to protect our people”.

Following pressure from the EU and the USA, new talks resulted in an agreement on normalisation of relations in February 2023. This would involve mutual recognition of documents and national symbols, including passports, diplomas and licence plates, protection of Serbian religious and cultural heritage sites in Kosovo, and “an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo”. An implementation annex to the agreement was announced by the EU in March 2023. However, Vučić then said some further points needed to be agreed and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti complained that the Serbian side would not sign the agreement. 

Tensions escalated again in April 2023, when ethnic Serbs boycotted local elections and the Kosovo authorities then sought to install ethnic Albanian mayors in Serb areas elected on a turnout of 3.7%. This led to violent clashes between ethnic Serbs and Kosovo police, with KFOR troops also injured. The EU and the Quint (the USA, UK, France, Germany and Italy) condemned the actions of the Kosovo authorities, as well as the attacks on KFOR troops.

In September 2023, there was a clash between an armed group of Kosovo Serbs and the Kosovo police, with the Serbs barricading themselves in a monastery and a police officer being killed. Serbia and Russia blamed Kurti for provoking the incident. The incidents in 2023 led to KFOR being reinforced, with 200 British troops among the reinforcements deployed in October 2023. This brought the KFOR contingent up to around 4500. 

EU attempts to revive peace talks have not been fruitful. An EU statement in March 2024 stated it was “regrettable” that despite extensive efforts by the EU and the broader international community, there had been “very limited progress by both Kosovo and Serbia” in implementing the 2023 agreement. It said this threatened the integration of both countries with the EU.

A decision by the Kosovo Central Bank in January 2024 to make the euro the only valid currency for cash transactions in Kosovo was also criticised by the EU and the Quint. Kosovo adopted the euro as its currency in 2002, but the Serbian dinar remains in circulation in Serb areas. Vučić described the decision as an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” Kosovo Serbs. A Quint statement said the decision would have a “direct impact on the everyday lives of the overwhelming majority of Kosovo Serbs who receive payments/ financial assistance from Serbia”.  The Kosovo government later said it would allow a transitional period for the decision to take effect.

International recognition

Kosovo’s independence has been recognised by 90 countries, including the UK, USA and all other G7 countries and most EU Member States. It has not been recognised by 78 countries, including Russia (which backs Serbia’s position), China, five EU Member States and most Asian, Latin American and African countries. A small number of states that recognised Kosovo subsequently derecognised it after lobbying from Serbia.

Kosovo is not a member of the United Nations, accession to which would be opposed by Security Council members Russia and China. Kosovo has applied to join the Council of Europe and obtained the necessary support of two-thirds of member states to initiate the accession process in 2023. It has also applied to join the EU but has not been granted candidate status.

In March 2022, shortly after Russia’ invasion of Ukraine, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that Kosovo would like to join NATO as soon as possible. He referred to Russian influence over Serbia and suggested this might be used to provoke a proxy conflict in the Western Balkans.

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