Serbia pulls tanks to the Kosovo border. What’s happening?

Alexey Gryazev

Tension has been growing between Serbia and Kosovo all week: the sides are putting their forces on alert, Belgrade is deploying heavy equipment near the border. Experts on the region told Gazeta.Ru what are the reasons for the outbreak of the conflict and whether the license plates will become a pretext for starting a new war in the Balkans.

Latest news from the Balkans

On Saturday, the Serbian media spread information about the activity of military aircraft near the administrative line with Kosovo. Military aircraft and helicopters of the Serbian army, namely the MiG-29 and Mi-35 purchased from Russia, patrolled the airspace over the Yarine checkpoint three times at about noon.

Serbia’s National Television, covering these maneuvers, published a video of glee and applause from Serbs living in Kosovo towards aviation.

Soon, the information about the activity of aviation was confirmed by the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Serbia and ex-Minister of Defense Alexander Vulin .

According to him, the Serbian security forces and the army are ready for escalation from Kosovo, although they themselves do not intend to unleash a conflict.

On the same day, videos of military vehicles, including tanks, moving along the roads, began to be actively disseminated on Serbian social networks. Presumably, among them are the upgraded T-72MS transferred by Russia last year.

According to the Serbian media, the equipment is being pulled to the city of Raska, located just 10 kilometers from the administrative line with Kosovo. At the same time, according to their data, the movement of equipment has been observed for several days.

There are no official comments on these movements, but they are not needed to confirm military activity: since Thursday, units of the Serbian army in the south of the country have been put on high alert.
“Our weapons and equipment are in the hands of professionals. Nobody dares to humiliate and trample on us. Serbia is much stronger today than it was a decade earlier, and we are ready to protect our people at any time by order of the President, ”- declared the Minister of Defense of Serbia Nebojsa Stefanovic upon arrival in Novi Pazar – another border town, where reinforcements were also sent.

How did it all start?

The flywheel of the conflict was launched on Monday, when the authorities of the self-proclaimed republic of Kosovo banned the use of Serbian registration plates in the territory under their control. Serbian state plates were forcibly removed from cars, replacing them with temporary Kosovo ones. At the same time, car owners are charged a fee of € 5 for such a “service”.

To enforce the new rules, the Kosovar authorities have deployed hundreds of police officers and snipers at the Yarine and Brnjak checkpoints.

However, this did not help prevent an escalation: the Serbs living in Ibar Kolasin (northern Kosovo) staged a riot.

On Monday, the Serbs in more than 400 vehicles moved to the checkpoints and, blocking their work, began a peaceful protest.

Pristina’s reaction was uncompromising: additional forces were pulled into northern Kosovo – this time the police were equipped with heavy equipment and automatic weapons and arrived in armored vehicles. They began to use special means, including tear gas, against the protesters.

The fourth day of clashes between Kosovo police and Serb protesters was marked by a dramatic incident.

Three Serbian citizens crossing the Brnjak checkpoint were stopped by a Kosovo special forces unit. The security forces took the Serbs out of the car and began to beat them severely. According to the victims, they had nothing to do with the protests and crossed the checkpoint to participate in seasonal logging.

“They were shouting something in Albanian, I did not understand, they threw me on the asphalt, hit me in the back, in the face, they broke my tooth. There was blood there, I asked for water, but no one wanted to give it to me, ”said Dragisha Vlashkovich, one of the beaten.

This incident caused a sharp reaction from Belgra-de – it was after it that the army in southern Serbia was put on high alert.

Even before that, the Serbian side did not seem inclined to compromise. Even before the incident with the beating of its citizens, President Aleksandar Vucic, in an ultimatum, demanded from Pristina a unilateral withdrawal from the administrative line of all detachments of the Kosovo security forces.

“Our solution is to withdraw all units from the north of Kosovo and Metohija, return to the previous state, and after that – negotiations in Brussels,” he said.

What will happen next?

The Kosovo authorities are fully responsible for the conflict, says Sergei Artemov , chairman of the Balkan Club of the Center for Eastern European Studies at MGIMO .

“Throughout the summer, attacks on the Serbs returning to the region could be observed in Kosovo. They were indeed systematic: people who have every right to return to their homes were created terrible living conditions. In addition, Pristina has been moving away from its international obligations for a long time, ”says the expert.

At the same time, Artyomov considers the current aggravation to be quite serious, as evidenced by the military mobilization of each of the parties.

Georgy Engelhardt, an expert at the Institute of Sl-avic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, adheres to a different point of view – he notes that relations between Kosovo and Serbia are exacerbated on a regular basis.

“Such conflicts take place about once a year. This is quite typical for the region. And their scenario is always quite typical: Pristina makes another step either towards asserting its power in northern Kosovo, or towards strengthening control at the border. In response, Belgrade makes a lot of public declarations and gradually everything goes down on the brakes, ”he says.

“Until now, the Kosovar authorities in this way, step by step, by centimeter, by half a meter, have expanded their sphere of control. And with each such incident, Belgrade moved further and further away from its goals of control over Kosovo, ”says Engelhardt.

Sergei Artyomov, for his part, notes: even if this time the Serbian authorities agree to the principle and do not allow Kosovo to establish the rules for the treatment of Serbian license plates, Pristina will still try to benefit from this situation.

“For them, this is one of the parts of their political game. Break of the blockade. Pristina is bullish because he understands that the train is slowly leaving her, the expert emphasizes. “In a situation where Serbia is developing positively relations with Albania and North Macedonia, and integration processes are actively bypassing Kosovo in the Western Balkans, this conflict is an opportunity for Pristina to draw attention to itself and bargain some conditions at the all-Balkan level.” …

Experts do not believe that the current conflict may turn into a stage of direct armed conflict.

“The current situation is unlikely to lead to war. There are no prerequisites for this – after all, the situation there is not like in 1999. What is happening should be perceived as an act of demonstration of force, both from the Serbian and Kosovo sides,” sums up Sergei Artyomov.

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