On September 20, Prime Minister Albin Kurti implemented a decision requiring all vehicles with Serbian license plates entering Kosovo to purchase temporary plates bearing the letters RKS (Republic of Kosovo). In the first 24 hours following the decision 1,455 temporary plates were printed.
But temporary plates aren’t new. They were first implemented by Serbia as a result of the Brussels Agreement of 2011, part of the EU-facilitated dialogue for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Prishtina. Since 2011, cars with the official license plate of Kosovo wanting to enter Serbia have had to remove their plates and purchase temporary Serbian plates at the border because Serbia does not recognize the symbols of independent Kosovo.
Following the September 15, 2021 expiration of a limited-term addendum allowing KS license plates (UNMIK-era plates which were still occasionally issued until recently) to enter Serbia, Kurti’s government opted not to extend the addendum and instead instate reciprocity measures. The same rules Serbia applies to Kosovo cars entering Serbia will now apply to Serbian cars entering Kosovo.
This issue of the license plates became, yet again, the site for competing and conflicting narratives. For Kosovo, the license plates are about proving, or perhaps asserting, its sovereignty. For Serbia, it is about rejecting any signs of Kosovo’s agency as an independent state.
The issue has also shown the problematic way that the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations have been handled in the EU-facilitated dialogue. Throughout, Kosovo’s sovereignty has remained beyond reach while for Serbia, Kosovo’s sovereignty remains beyond repair. As the EU remains dangerously oblivious in the region today, real lives are at stake.
The dominant narrative in Kosovo is that reciprocity measures are a natural and just decision that assert the country’s equality and fosters its sovereignty. In the discourse of the current government, reciprocity measures are used as performative acts of sovereign power.
In his address to the Assembly, Prime Minister Kurti stated that he had been cornered into taking this decision. Kurti said he isn’t in favor of temporary license plates at all, yet, he continued, for as long as Serbia maintains its policy, Kosovo will have to resort to the same.
Given Kurti’s career — both as an activist and as a politician — his decision should not come as a surprise. Since the early 2000s, he has critiqued the paradoxes of Kosovo’s struggle for sovereignty, a sovereignty without substance as he would often call it.
By exposing the fallacies and hypocrisies of international intervention and statebuilding, as well as Serbia’s continuous obstructionist stance towards Kosovo’s existence, Kurti built a narrative, some would say a fetish, around the notion of self-determination.
Kurti is tied to a statist notion of sovereignty that is organized around borders, military force and other masculine aspects.
Kurti, in coalition with President Osmani’s Guxo List, won the February 2021 elections in an unprecedented landslide promising to help Kosovo claim its sovereignty and give substance to its statehood. A tit-for-tat response to Serbia’s years-long obstructive license plate policy is thus logical and just. Moreover, it is in line with his electoral promises and his ideological line.
Two decades of international intervention marked by neo-colonial practices, coupled with Serbia’s continuous obstruction towards Kosovo, have imbued notions of sovereignty and equality with heightened importance. To a large extent, Vetëvendosje and Albin Kurti are results of this.
In fact, Kurti is tied to a rather statist notion of sovereignty, one that is organized primarily around borders, military force and other masculine aspects. For example, the decision to send the special unit forces of Kosovo’s Police to the border to oversee the implementation of the new license plate regulations on the first day is quintessential of masculinized sovereignty.
And even though it is clear that the addressee of this performance of masculinized sovereignty is the government of Serbia, the question that needs to be asked is at whose expense is this performance taking place?
In the Serbian narrative, any attempt of Kosovo to assert its sovereignty is a direct attack on Serbia. Moreover, Kosovo’s bare existence or representation in any shape or form is interpreted as a direct threat to Serbia, from the inclusion of its football team in international tournaments, to winning Olympic gold medals.
In the current Serbian Constitution, Kosovo is defined as an integral part of Serbia. In Serbian public discourse, including in academia and media, Kosovo is generally referred to either as a province of Serbia or as “the so-called Republic of Kosovo.”
Shortly after the decision on the new license plates, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić called a meeting of the National Security Council of Serbia where he criticized Kurti’s decision as a breach of the Brussels Agreement.
On September 22, attending a debate in Budapest in the company of the leaders of Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and Republika Srpska, Vučić called Kurti a provocateur who wants to incite violence.
When Kosovo attempts to act as an equal, Serbia sees an act of provocation.
Despite this rabble rousing, in the otherwise vague points of the Brussels Agreement of 2011 nowhere is it explicitly stated what the conditions for Serbian vehicles entering Kosovo should be. In fact, the Agreement states that Kosovo has the right, after consultations with the EU, to institute temporary license plates for vehicles from Serbia.
Vučić is aware that despite the continuous de-recognition campaign from Serbia, the independence of Kosovo, however incomplete in the Westphalian sense, cannot be reversed.
To that end, by prolonging a fragile status quo — not actively fueling ethnic conflicts while still not working to suppress them — the government of Serbia maintains Kosovo as an ongoing security threat for Serbia.
Being in staunch opposition to Kosovo’s independence, Vučić’s response was predictable. However the stance from Serbian authorities shows yet again that when Kosovo attempts to act as an equal — be that when it respects its own Constitution or when it implements what has been agreed upon in Brussels — Serbia sees an act of provocation.
In that light, Kurti’s statement from earlier in September that “there cannot be equality without reciprocity” in relations with Serbia is something that challenges the Serbian metaphysics, one which holds that the supposedly inferior Albanian-run state can only exist as subordinate to Serbia, crippled through parallel structures or as a vassal of other great powers. Albanian-run Kosovo must never be allowed to act under its own agency and subjectivity.
Unsurprisingly, on September 25, Serbia sent military vehicles and jets to the edge of the border it does not recognize. In the north of Kosovo, a government vehicle registration office in Zubin Potok was set ablaze, while a similar office in Zvečan was hit by two grenades that did not explode.
Many Serbs in Kosovo, especially in the northern municipalities, have been using vehicles with Serbian license plates, which can be seen as an everyday challenge to Kosovo’s independence.
In fact, one can find plenty of examples of everyday rejections of Kosovo’s statehood in Serbian-inhabited areas, such as educational and medical facilities that the Serbian state directly finances and runs. Even from within Kurti’s government, Goran Rakić, the minister for Communities and Returns, called the decision of his superior “an act against the Serbian people.”
It remains to be seen how this new constellation will affect the stance of Kosovo Serbs towards the government and the state of Kosovo.
The European Union
In the official narrative of the EU, since 1999 Kosovo was the pretext to engineer a multi-ethnic and democratic society based on the “highest international standards.” Since then, Kosovo has acted as an experimental site to try out new forms of liberal statebuilding, all without ever being fully acknowledged as a state by the EU itself.
This conception of Kosovo as some sort of a postmodern structure emulating EU fantasies seems to be in contradiction to Kosovo’s decision to give substance to sovereignty in a very classical sense.
Since 2011, Kosovo and Serbia have been negotiating a normalization of relations through the EU-facilitated dialogue. More than 30 agreements have been reached, though many have been plagued by problems of transparency and partial implementation. The Agreement on the Freedom of Movement which references the license plates is also a result of this dialogue.
On September 25 Charles Michel, the head of the European Council, declared that it was “time for both Serbia and Kosovo … to step back and to deescalate including withdrawal of Special Police Units and barricades and to continue negotiations on the proposal of the [EU Special Representative].”
The dialogue has been a performance primarily about the EU itself and the image it wants to portray to the world.
Similarly, following Prime Minister Kurti’s decision on the license plates, the EU Special Representative leading the dialogue, Miroslav Lajčák, stated that he is concerned with the situation in the north of Kosovo and called for “immediate de-escalation.”
“It is important to reduce tensions, restore a peaceful atmosphere and allow for freedom of movement. We stand ready to facilitate talks on all open issues in the dialogue,” said Lajčák.
The paradox here is that Lajčák is concerned with the fact that the Kosovo government enforced an agreement that was facilitated by the EU itself, which raises questions as to whether the EU is aware of its own involvement in the process and whether it has any institutional memory of the agreements that have been signed.
Less paradoxically though, the EU’s stance — via Lajčák and Michel — shows yet again that the EU-facilitated dialogue has not been about the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Instead, it has been a performance primarily about the EU itself and the self-image it wants to portray to the rest of the world: an actor that has solved its own issues with ethnic and national frictions and is now able to normalize even the most abnormal conflicts.
Feature image: K2.0.