SIM Report: Southern Europe, Issue 4

KOSOVO & SERBIA: Renewed political instability in Kosovo threatens to undermine recent normalisation in relations

On 1 April, the US government criticised Kosovo’s decision to introduce travel restrictions on nationals and vehicles from Serbia. Temporary licence plates will be required for trucks and cars registered in Serbia, while Serbian nationals will need a special permit. After intense pressure from both the EU and US, which halted USD50 million in aid, Kosovo announced the withdrawal of tariffs on Serbian goods from 1 April.

The restrictions are reciprocal measures already applied in Serbia to travellers from Kosovo. The seemingly contradictory move of withdrawing the tariffs while imposing new restrictions on Serb nationals is reflective of heightened political instability in Kosovo. It also sends mixed signals to Belgrade and international stakeholders. Lack of consensus over the tariffs and distrust between the ruling parties prompted the government in Kosovo to collapse on 25 March after  Prime Minister Albin Kurti lost a confidence vote in parliament. Early elections are highly unlikely due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic but a process is underway to form a new government based on the current composition of parliament. Kurti continues to serve as prime minister in a caretaker capacity.

Another development threatening to destabilise Serbia-Kosovo relations is the increasing number of new COVID-19 infections in northern Kosovo, where a majority of ethnic Serbs live. President Hashim Thaçi on 4 April accused Kurti’s government of ‘negligence and irresponsibility’ regarding the situation in the northern municipalities. Further complicating the effective response to COVID-19 is the fact that many public healthcare facilities are controlled by Serbian authorities, with little collaboration between institutions in the two countries. This leaves considerable scope for the mismanagement of the outbreak there.

Despite this, the overall trajectory in Kosovo-Serbia relations remains one moving towards normalisation through constructive dialogue. For political leaders in Kosovo the incentives for this approach far outweigh the costs of maintaining a confrontational, non-compromising stance towards Belgrade. While the removal of tariffs, which were introduced in November 2018, has the potential to greatly improve bilateral trade, any attendant economic benefits will likely materialise once the COVID-19 outbreak subsides. 

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