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Recent Serbia-Kosovo flare-up not a real conflict, says expert

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As tensions flared up in the Balkans after last month’s standoff over license plates in Kosovo, questions arose over the possibility of a renewed conflict in Europe’s southeast.

The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo met in Brussels on Thursday for another EU-mediated attempt to resolve lingering issues between the two states that have spiked tensions in the Balkans.

Kosovo is a former province of Serbia, which has refused to recognise the country’s 2008 declaration of independence. 

That came after a NATO intervention in 1999 put a stop to Belgrade’s bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanians in the country of 2 million, led by former president and strongman Slobodan Milošević.

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After the withdrawal of Serbian forces in 1999 and the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement, Kosovo became a UN protectorate, with a large international peacekeeping mission in place since.

Florian Bieber, Professor for Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz, told Euronews that large-scale fighting probably won’t come to pass.

“There is a NATO mission in place since 1999. Serbia has no interest in an armed confrontation… Both sides like to sometimes play with fire and bring up that threat of conflict rather than being interested in a real one.”

And the continuing tensions between the two sides are hampering both nations’ EU accession hopes.

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“Neither of them can join the EU until that relationship is settled. Kosovo is not recognised by five EU member states,” Bieber said, “and Serbia cannot really join without recognising Kosovo one way or another.”

Serbia and Russia have long maintained close relations, and the Balkan country has refused to join western sanctions against Moscow over the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February. This led to further questions as to where exactly Serbia sees its future in the international community. 

“It’s also doubtful whether the current Serbian government actually wants to join the EU,” Bieber added. “It likes to talk about it but it’s not quite clear whether it’s committed.”

And Russia’s blocking of Kosovo’s accession to global institutions like the UN and Interpol forms the basis of its warm relations with Serbia. 

“Russia has sometimes said that, if the west were to recognise Crimea or some of the breakaway territories of Georgia under Russian control, then it might reciprocate by recognising Kosovo. So from that point of view, Russia benefits from this frozen conflict in a certain way,” Bieber illustrated.

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, the frozen conflict in Kosovo may become more important, as Russia seeks to keep friendly nations on its side.

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