War over car number plates? Kosovo, Serbia on military alert
Serbia said Tuesday it has placed its troops on the border with Kosovo on a heightened state of alert over a row about car license plates that has threatened to further escalate tensions between the two Balkan foes.
Earlier, authorities warned members of the ethnic Serbian minority living in Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, to replace their vehicle registration plates with Kosovar ones.
The warnings came despite calls from the US and the European Union to postpone any such requirement.
In response to Kosovo's move, Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said that President Aleksandar Vucic, who is the supreme commander of Serbia's armed forces, placed the military on a state of “readiness."
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“We are not getting ready for a war, but we must not be unprepared," Vucevic said. “We are ready to continue our dialogue with Pristina."
It was not clear what the state of readiness meant practically. The populist Serbian president has been prone to saber rattling when tensions get high with Kosovo, whose independence Belgrade does not recognize.
Serbian state-controlled media reported later that unmarked drones appeared on the Kosovo-Serbia border “observing the barracks and the positions" of the Serbian army.
The reports said Serbian fighter jets were scrambled under Vucic's "command," but the drones left the Serbian airspace before the warplanes reached their targets. The reports could not be independently verified.
The EU has told Kosovo and Serbia that they must normalize ties if they want to advance toward membership in the 27-nation bloc. Brussels and Washington recently have stepped up mediation efforts, fearing uncertainties over the war in Ukraine and Serbia’s close ties with Russia could aggravate matters.
Trouble started brewing in the summer over Serbia’s and Kosovo’s refusal to recognize each other’s identity documents as well as car license plates. Kosovo Serbs living in the north erected roadblocks, sounded air raid sirens and fired guns into the air in protest of the move.
In June Kosovo passed a law requiring vehicles with Serbian number plates to replace them with Kosovo ones. But following pressure from the United States and the EU and the tension in the Serb-populated north, it agreed to postpone implementation until November 1.
As the measure came into effect Tuesday, Kosovo authorities said enforcement would be gradual. For the first three weeks in November, drivers who fail to comply will receive warnings. After that they will be fined and from late January only vehicles with new temporary plates will be allowed to circulate until April 21, the final date after which no old license plates will be allowed and drivers risk the impounding of their vehicles.
Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla urged ethnic Serbs Tuesday to comply, and not remain “pawns to political interests." Last week Svecla said only 20 Serbs had changed plates and at least one of their cars was torched.
Kosovo’s 2008 independence has been recognized by Washington and most EU countries, while Serbia has relied on support from Moscow and China for its bid to retain the former province. Belgrade lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after NATO bombed the country to stop its brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatist rebels.
NATO has a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, and any Serbian military intervention would risk reviving widespread tensions that plunged the Balkans into a series of wars in the 1990s.