Why ethnic tensions flare up again in northern Kosovo

Protesting Serbs in the ethnically divided northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica erected new barricades on Tuesday, hours after Serbia said it had put its army on full combat readiness after weeks of escalating tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.

Serbia’s Defense Ministry said that given recent events in the region and Belgrade’s belief that Kosovo was preparing to attack Serbs and forcibly remove the barricades, President Aleksandar Vucic had ordered the Serbian army and police to be put on high alert .

Kosovo’s government called on NATO peacekeepers to remove the barricades but said it had the capacity and willingness to act.

Kosovo and Serbia intend to join the European Union and have agreed to resolve their outstanding issues and build good neighborly relations as part of the accession process.

Here are some facts about distancing:

Kosovo gained independence from Serbia in 2008, nearly a decade after a guerrilla insurgency against Belgrade’s repressive rule.

However, Serbia still regards Kosovo as an integral part of its territory and rejects suggestions it fuels tension and conflict within its neighbour’s borders. Belgrade accuses Pristina of trampling on the rights of the Serb minority.

Ethnic Serbs, who do not recognize the Pristina government or Kosovo’s state institutions, make up 5% of Kosovo’s 1.8 million population, with ethnic Albanians making up about 90%. Serbs have vented their hostility, for example by refusing to pay Kosovo’s electricity supplier for the electricity they use and frequently attacking police officers who attempt to make arrests.

Fresh ethnic tensions have erupted since December 10, when Serbs set up several roadblocks and exchanged fire with police after the arrest of a former Serbian police officer who allegedly assaulted police officers on duty at a previous protest.

The Merdare border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia was closed by Pristina this month after protesters on the Serb side blocked it in support of Serbs in Kosovo who refuse to recognize the country's independence.

The standoff comes after months of trouble over the issue of license plates. Kosovo has for years demanded that the roughly 50,000 Serbs in the north switch their Serb license plates to those issued by Pristina, as part of the government’s desire to assert authority over its territory.

On July 31, Pristina announced a two-month window for changing license plates, sparking protests, but later agreed to postpone the implementation date to next year.

Ethnic Serb mayors in northern municipalities, along with local judges and some 600 police officers, resigned in November in protest at the impending change.

The Serbs in Kosovo want to establish an association of Serb-majority communities that would operate with greater autonomy. Serbia and Kosovo have made little progress on this and other issues since they committed to the EU-sponsored dialogue in 2013.

NATO peacekeepers guard a roadblock in Rudare, near the northern part of Mitrovica.

NATO has about 3,700 troops stationed in Kosovo to keep the peace. The alliance said it would intervene under its mandate if stability in the region was threatened. The European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), which arrived in 2008, still has around 200 special police officers there.

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