Is Kosovo in NATO? KFOR situation explained as tensions escalate in Serbia

Even fourteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, tensions between the two countries are so high that NATO is now “ready to intervene” to avoid another war in the middle of Europe.

At midnight on Monday, new rules were due to come into force, requiring people in the majority ethnic Serb regions in Kosovo to swap Serbian-issued car license plates for Kosovan-issued ones—the one currently already in place by Serbia. Vehicles entering the country from Kosovo as opposed to essentials only.

But the implementation of these new laws was postponed for a month after ethnic Serbs in the country’s north blocked roads and opened fire in clashes with Kosovan authorities. The protests prompted Kosovo to close its Bernajac and Zarinje border crossings with Serbia.

On Monday, Kosovo’s government accused Serbia of trying to destabilize the country by sending protesters to its borders.

A NATO peacekeeping mission has been established in Kosovo in June 1999. In this photo, NATO soldiers patrol near the border between Kosovo and Serbia in Zarinje on October 2, 2021 as Serbs remove trucks and cars that blocked the border with Kosovo.
Armand Nimani/AFP via Getty Images

Why is there tension between Kosovo and Serbia?

There is an age-old dispute between the two countries.

Once part of the Ottoman Empire, Kosovo was ceded to Serbia and Montenegro after the Ottomans were defeated in the Balkan Wars in the early 20th century. While Serbia (then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) saw Kosovo as an important part of its national identity, the ethnic Muslim Albanian majority living in the region saw Orthodox Serbs as occupiers.

In February 1998, ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo launched an armed rebellion to free themselves from Serbian rule, culminating in a war that lasted more than a year and ended in June 1999.

The brutal reaction of the Serbs to the Albanian uprising in Kosovo triggered NATO intervention in March 1999, which forced Yugoslav troops to withdraw from Kosovo.

In 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia—but Serbia declared the declaration illegal. Although Kosovo’s independence was declared legal by the International Court of Justice in accordance with international law, Serbia overruled the decision.

Kosovo’s independence has been recognized by more than 100 countries around the world, but some—including Serbia, Russia and China—still deny it full recognition. Because of its partially recognized status, Kosovo is not part of the United Nations—or NATO.

Why is NATO involved?

The fragile peace achieved after the NATO bombing forced Yugoslav troops out of Kosovo in 1999 thanks to the NATO mission, which has since kept an eye on the two neighboring countries.

Since June 1999, NATO has placed a mission of 3,770 troops provided by 28 Allied and partner countries in Kosovo to maintain peace between the country and Serbia and to stabilize the region known as KFOR.

According to NATO, “Over time, as the security situation has improved, NATO is gradually adjusting the force posture of the KFOR towards a smaller and more flexible force with less stable actions.”

But now the NATO-led peacekeeping mission said it was closely monitoring the “tense” situation in northern Kosovo and “ready to intervene if stability is at risk.”

KFOR said it would “take the necessary measures to maintain a safe and secure environment in Kosovo at all times, in line with its mandate of the United Nations.”

The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia is complicated by Moscow’s support of its ally Belgrade.

On Sunday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called on Kosovo, the US and the European Union to stop “provocations” and respect the rights of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.

“Such a development of events is further evidence of the failure of the EU mediation mission. It is also an example of what Serbia has been drawn to in the EU by actually presenting Belgrade with the lack of rights of its compatriots,” she said.

Observers fear that Moscow may see an opportunity to push the US and NATO missions out of Kosovo in the current tensions between the two countries.

Kosovo Serbia Dispute
Tensions rose between Pristina and Belgrade on Sunday over the introduction of new laws requiring ethnic Serbs to replace their Serbian-issued license plates issued by Kosovans. In this photo, Kosovo Liberation Army veterans protest in the garden of the Kosovo Parliament on June 16, 2022 in Pristina, Kosovo.
Ferdi Limani/Getty Images

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