Tensions are rising in Kosovo’s restive Serb-majority north, as Pristina enforces its writ against the backdrop of continuing disputes with Belgrade. The parties and outside supporters should first work on defusing the short-term risk of violence and then look for ways to foster lasting stability.

What’s new? A clash between police and Serb paramilitaries has given Kosovo impetus to fully integrate its rebellious northern region, pushing out the remaining Serbian institutions on which the population relies. An EU-brokered deal to normalize relations between Pristina and Belgrade, while granting Kosovo Serbs a degree of self-government, is stalled.

Why does it matter? Kosovo’s heavy-handed campaign to assert its authority in the north risks provoking further violent resistance and setting back prospects for the resolution of its dispute with Serbia over its declaration of independence in 2008.

What should be done? Kosovo should cooperate with NATO peacekeepers to demilitarise the north. In line with past unfulfilled agreements, Pristina should take credible steps toward assuring self-rule for the northern Serb minority. New local elections should follow, along with an end to the northern Serbs’ boycott of government institutions.

Executive Summary

Kosovo is winning the battle for control of its rebellious, Serb-majority north, while hopes for normalization between Pristina and Belgrade are fading. The remaining Serbian institutions on Kosovo territory, which survived the war of 1999 and Kosovo’s independence in 2008, are being dismantled in the aftermath of a Serbian-supported paramilitary operation in September 2023. While limited violent resistance remains possible, northern Kosovo, which was hoping for autonomy or union with Serbia, is grudgingly submitting to Pristina’s authority. These are hard days for the Serb minority, whose future is vital for rapprochement between Belgrade and Pristina. To remain a community capable of self-government, they need continued access to Serbian institutions, notably in education and health care, plus financial support. They also need a sense of security, which can only come with the return of Serbs to the Kosovo police force, from which they resigned in protest in November 2022. Pristina should pull its special police back from the north, and Belgrade should help prevent further paramilitary activity. 

In 2021, Pristina started enforcing its authority in northern Kosovo with a large, militarised special police force that confronted a hostile local population. Its measures prompted a boycott and mass resignations by Serbs so that the police and public officials in this heavily Serb-majority area are now almost all Albanian. Several rounds of barricades put up by locals mobilized the population, many of whom are armed; Serbia also infiltrated several hundred troops to bolster resistance on two occasions in 2022. Police and Serb outlaws exchanged gunfire frequently. In May 2023, an enraged Serb mob trying to attack a special police unit clashed with NATO peacekeepers separating the two groups, and leaving many wounded on both sides. Months later, in September, police clashed with a paramilitary group armed with military-grade weapons; an officer was killed by a remotely detonated mine, while three Serbs died in the shootout.

International revulsion, and the group’s amateurish look, broke northern resistance to government authority. Pristina took advantage, moving quickly to cement its authority over the north. In December 2023, it struck a deal with Serbia for mutual recognition of license plates. In January 2024, the government banned the import and use of the Serbian dinar, cutting off financing to Serbia’s remaining institutions along with pensions and other benefits. In February, it began raiding and closing Serbian government offices in villages in southern Kosovo and confiscating dinars found in Serbian post offices. Pristina ignored U.S. and European demands to suspend these measures until a workable solution could be negotiated.

A reasonable solution is already on the table. In December 2022, the EU, which has been mediating the Belgrade-Pristina dispute since 2011, proposed a far-reaching normalization deal by which Serbia would not recognize Kosovo’s independence formally but would act as though it had. In return, Kosovo would give its Serb minority a self-governing unit comprising its ten Serb-majority municipalities (as it promised a decade ago but has not yet done). The deal was a compromise that gave all parties what they most urgently needed. Brussels reportedly cajoled Belgrade and Pristina into accepting it verbally but could neither get them to sign it nor agree to all-important details regarding how it was to be put in place. It remains unimplemented and may well be overtaken by events. 

One bone of contention is the planned Serb autonomous unit, which Kosovo calls an Association, and the Serbs a Community, of Serb-majority municipalities, the divergent names reflecting disagreement about its scope and powers. The two sides agreed to create it in a landmark 2013 deal, to balance major Serbian concessions to Pristina. Since then, disputes over the unit’s powers – and visceral Kosovar (Kosovo Albanian) opposition to autonomy – kept it on the drawing board. Serbia touted it as a state within a state modeled on Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, which was unrealistic for a rural region of scarcely 50,000 residents. Kosovo sought the opposite, a minimal body with a purely coordinating role for its member municipalities.

The other stumbling block is Serbian de facto recognition of Kosovo. The EU agreement is vague on this matter, but France, Germany, and Italy spelled it out in later statements, and Serbia flatly rejected the demand. De facto recognition means treating Kosovo like an independent state without a formal declaration and consenting to other countries and international bodies like the UN recognizing and accepting it as a member. Serbia is grudgingly willing to deal with Kosovo one-on-one but is determined to keep its status an open question. 

There is scant hope that the EU dialogue can get over these hurdles, and the Belgrade-Pristina relationship is likely to remain frozen. Against this backdrop, both the parties and outside actors that want calm in the Western Balkans should turn their attention first to defusing the short-term risk of violence and after that to achievable goals that can encourage political stability failing a breakthrough on the normalisation deal.

The top priority is demilitarisation. Kosovo should withdraw its special police units from Serb-majority regions.

The top priority is demilitarisation. Kosovo should withdraw its special police units from Serb-majority regions and, until it does, it should deploy them sparingly and only in coordination with NATO’s KFOR peacekeepers, who northerners see as more trustworthy given their commitment to neutrality. To increase Pristina’s sense of security, KFOR should help Kosovo control its border, prevent further smuggling of heavy weapons, and find caches brought in earlier. For its part, Serbia should cease supporting paramilitary activity and prosecute those involved in the killing of Kosovo police to the extent they are under its jurisdiction. Absent an overarching political settlement the burden will be on the EU, the U.S., and NATO to maintain the peace and ward off escalation until conditions for a negotiated deal are ripe. That will mean pressing both Pristina on special police withdrawal and Belgrade to take the above-referenced steps while retaining and, if need be, reinforcing the NATO peacekeeping presence. 

Another priority is securing the Kosovo Serb minority’s needs – with or without a formal framework for autonomy. The northerners depend on schools, universities, and healthcare facilities operated by Serbia. Most of the population works in jobs paid directly or indirectly by Belgrade, and many receive social security, all in Serbian dinars, through a network of post offices and banks Pristina wants to shutter. Ethnic discrimination and language barriers keep all but a few Kosovo Serbs from the regular job market. If they lose access to Serbian jobs and benefits, many will emigrate. The EU and the U.S. should urge Kosovo to guarantee that these core Serbian services will remain in place. They should also continue pressing Pristina to end its ban on food and medicine imports from Serbia, as on the use of the Serbian dinar. On all these items, Kosovo should follow the EU and U.S. lead.

Finally, the Serb minority needs a voice. It has lost faith in its political representatives, who were appointed by Serbia’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party and take their cues from its leaders. Many fear Pristina and feel betrayed by Belgrade while feeling ignored by Brussels and Washington. The EU called on Kosovo to set up sustainable participatory democratic institutions for its Serb minority, to no avail. Instead, Pristina is slow-walking new elections in the northern municipalities. Fresh polls should be held no later than the summer of 2024. 

Even as Brussels and Washington pursue these objectives, however, they should continue to explore with Pristina whether it might embrace the terms of the EU normalization deal on offer, including the creation of a Community/Association of Serb municipalities. This deal would be good for the northern Serbs but also Pristina: moving toward northern autonomy will surely be an essential part of any arrangement that brings Kosovo more fully into the international system, and Kosovo may never get a better offer than this one. Belgrade may baulk at acquiescing in Kosovo’s independence, but if Pristina takes such an important step, the pressure on it to reciprocate by accepting Brussels’ terms would almost surely mount. For Pristina, the political risk is manageable, and the potential upside is great. It should take the plunge.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 2 April 2024


Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have been a source of conflict and acrimony in the Western Balkans since the former Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s.1 That decade ended with full-fledged war between the parties, NATO intervention, and the separation of Kosovo (with its ethnic Albanian majority) from Serbia. The U.S. and most European Union member states supported Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. They have since tried to help it gain entry to international institutions but with only partial success. Belgrade and Pristina have never normalized their relations, and because of Kosovo’s unresolved political status, its access to membership in organizations like the EU and UN remains blocked. 

The Serbia-Kosovo relationship faces two main issues. One is Serbia’s persistent refusal to join over 100 other countries (including all but five EU member states) in recognizing Kosovo’s independence. The other is the question of how to integrate Kosovo’s minority Serb population into its government architecture, particularly in the four northernmost municipalities where Serbs form the majority.

The four Serb-majority municipalities of Leposavić, North Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, and Zvečan … play an outsized role in the Kosovo-Serbia dispute.

The four Serb-majority municipalities of Leposavić, North Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, and Zvečan, which this report will refer to as “the north”, play an outsized role in the Kosovo-Serbia dispute. Home to about half of Kosovo’s Serb minority, they are small and rural, with a total population of about 50,000 – about 90 percent Serb and the rest mostly Albanian – and a single urban area in the northern half of the divided town of Mitrovica. While Kosovo claims jurisdiction over the four municipalities, they are under Serbia’s partial control. Several times, most recently in 2018, Belgrade and Pristina discussed swapping most of the north for part of Serbia’s Albanian-majority Preševo valley, but the talks failed in part because of European discomfort with the idea of redrawing national borders as a mode of dispute resolution. Another potential compromise, which Crisis Group has recommended, would be for Pristina to devolve greater autonomy to the region while retaining sovereignty over it.2 The parties have committed to this approach, but implementation has foundered. 

The search for resolutions to the overlapping issues of Kosovo’s status and the north’s quest for self-governance has acquired greater urgency in the last several years, as hostilities have flared between Pristina and the Serb minority. Starting in 2021, a series of confrontations ratcheted up tensions, culminating in two serious incidents in 2023. That May, Pristina decided to install Kosovar mayors in local government, resulting in violence. Months later, in September, there was a deadly confrontation between Kosovo police and well-armed northern paramilitaries seemingly outfitted by Belgrade. Even against this backdrop, diplomacy has continued. An EU-led effort has produced the proposed contours of a political settlement. But the further the Kosovars go in consolidating control of the north, and the more Serbia correspondingly digs in against recognition as a result, the lower the chance that the negotiations can solve the long-running Serbia-Kosovo dispute.

Absent a political settlement, the situation is primed to get worse. Beyond its support for paramilitaries, Serbia has flirted with intervention by repeatedly moving its armed forces close to the border, most recently in September 2023, around the time of the clash between the paramilitaries and Kosovo police.3 According to reports, it has covertly sent troops into Kosovo at least twice, but so far these forces have refrained from action.4 Meanwhile, Kosovo is increasingly deploying special police – heavily armed, ethnic Albanian units equipped with armored personnel carriers – to the north, where armed elements are better equipped than before to resist them. As the potential for clashes grows, NATO’s KFOR peacekeepers and EULEX, a smaller EU police mission, are caught in the middle. EU- and U.S.-led efforts to broker a compromise on the key points of friction between the parties have produced apparent agreement but no meaningful policy change.

This report looks at the security situation in northern Kosovo amid efforts to resolve the broader Kosovo-Serbia dispute. Building on previous Crisis Group reporting, it explains the roots of the crisis, identifies risks of further escalation, and offers recommendations for easing tensions. It is based on dozens of interviews in Pristina, Belgrade, Brussels, and throughout northern Kosovo with government officials, civil society members, and international officials. An appendix offers background on the Kosovo-Serbia conflict from the 1990s through 2013.

II.Trouble in the North

Kosovo and Serbia both exercise sovereign powers in northern Kosovo in an uneasy equilibrium that has kept the peace but is now falling apart. Since September 2021, Pristina has upped the ante through a series of increasingly confrontational actions toward the Serb minority in the north. These have produced sometimes violent pushback, culminating in the clash between Kosovo law enforcement and paramilitaries near Banjska in September 2023. The crisis has arrested a decade of halting progress in reconciliation and Serb integration, and it threatens efforts to reach a political settlement between Belgrade and Pristina.

A.The North’s Double System

The four northern municipalities have bespoke governance arrangements, the product of unresolved disputes and tacit, ad hoc compromises, although that system is being dismantled under pressure from Pristina. Kosovo and Serbia both exercise sovereign powers in the north. In some fields, like municipal government, both countries have systems in place. Each municipality has two official websites, one for each system. Residents can get both Kosovo and Serbian personal documents; they can also register births, marriages and deaths, and apply for grants or jobs in either or both systems. The Kosovo and Serbia municipal governments share buildings everywhere outside North Mitrovica, the area’s main city, where they are separated. In some cases, staff from both systems sit side by side in the same office.5 Until late 2022 – when all resigned from their posts in the Kosovo system – some northern Serbs held senior positions simultaneously in both jurisdictions. In Zvečan, Ivan Todosijević was deputy mayor of the Kosovo municipality and president of the “temporary council” (in effect, mayor) of the Serbian one. 

Serbia has the bigger footprint in the north, and in most (but not all) cases its system is the most prominent, though in some areas there is redundancy, and in others, Kosovo is in control. Schools and health care, for example, are almost all within the Serbian system. Police and courts are in Kosovo. The financial system is divided – some banks dispense Serbian dinars and others euros, Kosovo’s official currency. Both the Serbian National Bank and its pension fund have offices in the region. Serbia also operates a district office (serving several municipalities) and cultural centers. The region’s two biggest employers are the University of Pristina-Kosovska Mitrovica (set up by Serb staff who fled Pristina in 1999) and the North Mitrovica hospital campus. Serbia’s municipalities publish no budgets, but estimates put them at up to five times the size of parallel Kosovo system budgets.6

The systems are legally invisible to each other. One can register an NGO in the Kosovo system and pay taxes on salaries in euros, and then cross the hallway to the Serbian unemployment office and register for benefits in dinars. (Unlike Kosovo, Serbia offers comprehensive health insurance.7

It is hard to live in Kosovo without at least some documentation issued by Pristina.

Most Kosovo Serbs need these links to both administrations. It is hard to live in Kosovo without at least some documentation issued by Pristina. Nine of ten local Serbs have at least one Kosovo-issued personal document.8 Property deeds, for example, can be challenged – and revoked – if not registered in the Kosovo system. Yet many Serbs, especially in the north, have business and family ties to Serbia proper and cannot readily do without Serbia-issued documents. Travel abroad is also much easier with a Serbian passport, even though Kosovo Serbs do not benefit from Serbia’s access to visa-free travel to the EU, which it enjoys through the bloc’s visa waiver program. Some northerners are getting Kosovo passports now that Pristina also joined the program in January, but non-EU countries still tend to require visas for Kosovo passports more than for Serbian ones.

Conflicting loyalties explain and drive the persistence of overlapping sovereignty: the Albanian population believes that the north is in the independent state of Kosovo, while their Serb neighbors hold that they are living in Serbia’s province of Kosovo. When residents decide which license plates to put on their cars and what documents to carry, they are expressing their identity as much as making practical accommodations or following the law. When Belgrade and Pristina squabble over the same issues, they are also fighting about Kosovo’s status.

B.Two Years of Escalation

The system of informal dual sovereignty was enough to keep the peace in the north for more than a decade but in recent years it has begun to wear thin, as tensions have mounted and the possibility of renewed conflict has become increasingly real. A new government in Pristina set about asserting sole authority over the northern region, whose Serb population fought to hold on to Serbia’s institutions. The period of escalation began shortly after Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s election in 2021 with a dispute over license plates. Government pressure and Serb resistance built steadily over the next two years, with sporadic outbursts of violence. Kosovo relied heavily on its police force to impose its will, leveraging one of its few international advantages: because of several UN decisions, Pristina has a monopoly on police operations on its territory.9 Even non-recognising states like Russia and China accept as much.

The first confrontation came in September 2021, when a temporary agreement between Pristina and Belgrade on license plates expired. Under that agreement, cars with Serbian plates were welcome in Kosovo, but vehicles with Kosovo plates had to swap them for temporary Serbian plates while driving in Serbia. The Kurti government decided to treat Serbian plates the same way, affecting not only drivers from Serbia but also the large majority of northern Kosovo Serbs who used Serbian plates. Northern Serbs protested, erecting barricades at the border posts and elsewhere in the north. In response, Kosovo deployed armored special police units to the scene. Subsequently, police gunfire injured two northern Serbs, and unidentified assailants targeted vehicle registration centers in the northern towns of Zubin Potok and Zvečan. The episode ended with EU and U.S. mediation on 30 September 2021: Pristina withdrew the special police, the Serbs took the barricades down and each country allowed the other’s drivers to cross the border if they pasted stickers over the state symbols on the plates.

Two weeks later, a nationwide police anti-smuggling operation in Kosovo went badly wrong in North Mitrovica. Encountering mounting local opposition, police units from Pristina called for backup to restore order, after which four armored personnel carriers from the special police base in South Mitrovica arrived. The standoff intensified, progressing from a barrage of rocks, tear gas, and stun grenades in North Mitrovica to a prolonged exchange of gunfire in nearby Zvečan. The clash left ten Serbs injured, two seriously, along with six Kosovo police officers.

Kosovo Serbs called upon the Serbian government for protection, but Belgrade was loath to intervene. The resulting tensions broke into the open at a televised meeting held at a Serbian army base just across the border in October 2021.10 A series of agitated speakers demanded assurances of support while the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, sat in uncomfortable silence. Goran Rakić, leader of Serbian List, the overwhelmingly dominant Serb political party in Kosovo, warned that residents would meet further incursions with “general resistance” conducted “by all means at our disposal”. A woman asked Vučić if he wanted to see “us and our children [carried] out in coffins” before coming to the Kosovo Serbs’ defense.

Pristina kept the pressure on while Belgrade and the northern Serbs deliberated. Starting in the autumn of 2021, the police began blocking “alternative routes”, ie, the unauthorized roads traversing the northern border to Serbia used by smugglers bringing in alcohol, medications, food, and sometimes arms as well as by rural Serbs seeking shortcuts. High-profile raids targeted server farms for cryptocurrency mining (banned in Kosovo) and marijuana crops. Smugglers fought back, most seriously in a 17 July 2022 shootout that left five officers wounded. Police headquarters in Pristina increasingly shut the Serb-majority regional command in North Mitrovica out of these operations, citing a lack of trust.11 The border police also started deploying larger numbers of ethnic Albanian officers to the north’s two border posts with Serbia. The shift arguably fell afoul of Kosovo’s constitution, which mandates that police match the communities they serve in ethnic composition.

Pristina ratcheted up tensions in other ways as well. Breaking with established practice, the Kurti administration refused to allow voting in Serbian elections to take place on Kosovo territory, though the Serbs living in the north enjoy Serbian citizenship. Consequently, both the Serbian constitutional referendum of 16 January 2022 and the parliamentary election of 3 April went ahead without anyone in Kosovo casting a ballot. The Kosovo police deployed about ten armored vehicles in the north to enforce the prohibition.

Then, on 31 July 2022, a dispute over personal documents like passports and ID cards sparked another dangerous escalation. Serbia had long refused to recognize Kosovo’s documents and issued Kosovars a temporary transit permit at the border. Kurti announced that Kosovo would act reciprocally. The move alarmed northern Serbs, some of whom lacked Kosovo documents. They barricaded roads again. Belgrade inflamed the tensions by infiltrating heavily armed troops (estimated by international officials at between 50 and 300) into Kosovo.12 In uniform but without insignia, they joined hundreds of other Serbs, many of them armed, facing off against the police. Previous road blockages, which had become a regular feature of life in the north, had not involved such displays of armed force. Surprised and outgunned, Kosovo authorities backed down. 

The episode underscored the vulnerability of ethnic Albanian officers operating on hostile ground in the north. Kosovar officers, especially those stationed at or near the two border posts, were at risk of isolation when barricades went up. Evacuation routes to friendly territory were easily cut. In the past, when Serbs had set the border facilities on fire, Kosovo police had to withdraw through Serbia proper. 

To deal with these dangers, and to help ensure police would not be caught unprepared again, Pristina took a series of steps that northern Serbs found provocative. Pristina established four permanent, fortified bases staffed with special police – one near each border post and two more at strategic locations. Another three bases went up to monitor several of the more important “alternative routes” across the border. A new rapid intervention unit was formed for deployment in crises.13 The special police, recognizable by their dark blue uniforms, tactical gear, assault rifles, and armored vehicles, became a constant, unwelcome presence in the north.

By the fall of 2022, escalating cycles of protests and government responses had eroded the last vestiges of trust between the northern Serbs and Pristina.

By the fall of 2022, escalating cycles of protests and government responses had eroded the last vestiges of trust between the northern Serbs and Pristina, and the groups were clearly moving toward a major rupture. Integration had never been more than grudging, with many northern Serbs looking to break off cooperation. Since the protests began in September 2021, northern Serb leaders have been calling for mass resignations from official jobs. The tipping point came on 2 November when Nenad Djurić, commander of the Kosovo Police northern district, refused to order his officers to enforce a new round of measures against drivers with Serbia-issued plates, and Pristina immediately suspended him. 

Within a few tumultuous days of this action, a decade of hard-won progress in integrating northern Kosovo Serbs into the Kosovo state collapsed. From 5 to 9 November, virtually all northern Serbs left their Kosovo government jobs. The four mayors went first. The Serb judges and prosecutors of the multi-ethnic Mitrovica court walked out with their complete support staff. One young lawyer said the exodus was emotional, with some Albanian colleagues shedding tears as the Serbs filed out.14 All northern police officers turned in their sidearms and badges. A few days later, the ten Serbian List members of the Kosovo assembly resigned. The staff of the various government offices housed in the north followed soon thereafter.

Belgrade quickly offered the Serbs who had resigned temporary contracts of its own, to replace their salaries, and reactivated its municipal administrations, which had been partly dormant since the Kosovo municipal governments in the north were established in 2013.15 However reluctantly, the Serb officials had played a valuable moderating role as tensions mounted. Their sudden abandonment of that role after the mass resignation in early November left both sides without guardrails, and international peacekeepers were forced to step into the gap. When Pristina ordered its (now overwhelmingly Albanian) police to the northern borders to try enforcing the prohibition on Serbian plates again, KFOR warned them that if the action led to violence, they would “assume responsibility for security in the north”, that is, eject the police and maintain order themselves.16 The Kosovo government was furious, but saw no alternative but to back down and agree to another EU-mediated delay in the license plate dispute.17

EU mediation bought only about two weeks of quiet, a sign of the darkening atmosphere and frayed nerves on both sides. A series of arrests of northern Serbs on charges of attacking police and setting fire to government property, on 9 and 10 December, brought northerners to the barricades in the third and longest episode thus far. The barriers stayed up until 28 December, again with help from armed individuals infiltrated from Serbia. This time, Pristina and the Serbs repeatedly tried to outflank each other, with Kosovo police maneuvering to get around the roadblocks, coming at them from behind, and Serbs setting up barriers on more and more roads. Eventually, northern Kosovo was fully isolated, with no route open to the rest of the country and only a single old smugglers’ trail leading over the hills into Serbia.

The end of the barricades on 28 December, following further EU-mediated negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, was a crushing blow to northern Serb morale. When President Vučić announced the barricades had to come down in response to modest concessions by the Kosovo government related to better treatment for the handful of Serbs it had under arrest, and without withdrawing the hated special police, it plunged the community into a sullen depression that lasted late into the following spring. Many had hoped or believed that this time it was different, that Serbia – which had been slowly scaling back its presence in Kosovo – would “come back”, in the words of a resident.18 Their expectations were vague but included more Serbian support for northern defiance of Pristina and more integration into the Serbian system. 

In April 2023, Pristina held local elections to replace the Serbs who had resigned in November. Northern Serbs boycotted those elections. With only the small Albanian minority voting, turnout was in the low single digits and the result was a slate comprising exclusively ethnic Albanians. The Quint (a coordination body consisting of France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the U.S.) noted that the elections were “not a long-term political solution for these municipalities”.19 The Quint’s statement warned newly elected mayors and assemblies not to take actions that might heighten tensions, suggesting they need not work from the municipal office buildings and urging them to confine their activities to administrative functions. For many weeks, Pristina took this advice and refrained from trying to install the new officials. 

The Kosovo government changed course in late May, giving the mayor police escorts to the municipal office buildings and expelling the Serb staff who had been working there. In response, on 29 May, hundreds of northern Serbs gathered outside the buildings, guarded not only by Kosovo’s special police but also by an outer cordon of Hungarian and Italian KFOR peacekeepers in riot gear. Early in the day, a group of Serb women confronted the guards, demanding to be allowed into the municipal buildings so they could go to work. Later, groups of masked men, some in matching baseball caps, were more prominent. In Zvečan, the KFOR commander on the scene asked the crowd to allow the Kosovo police to remove two of their armored vehicles; the Serbs refused, demanding that all the police withdraw. Fighting broke out – it remains unclear how – and quickly exploded, with the Serbs hurling rocks and improvised explosives and swinging riot sticks and the KFOR troops firing rubber bullets and tear gas. By the time KFOR restored order, more than 50 Serbs and almost 100 peacekeepers were injured.

Kurti’s decision to take over the municipal buildings and keep the special police around them earned him unprecedented rebukes from Kosovo’s strongest supporters. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “strongly condemn[ed] the actions by the Government of Kosovo to access municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo by force, actions it took against the advice of the United States’” and warned it would have “consequences for our bilateral relations”.20 The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called on Kosovo to “suspend police operations focusing on the municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo, and the violent protesters to stand down”.21 On 30 May, the U.S. announced punitive measures against Kosovo, ejecting it from Defender 23, a large NATO-led exercise, suspending efforts to secure the country’s admission to international organizations, and pausing high-level visits.22

Kosovo Serb civil society members issued an “appeal for peace” on 3 June, calling on the Quint and the EU to pressure Pristina. They called for the special police to be pulled out and the land expropriated for their bases to be returned; for the (Albanian) officials elected in May to depart and for the staff of (Serbian) municipal administrations to be allowed to return to their offices pending new elections; for the formation of the Association of Serb Municipalities (a term that Kosovo uses to describe arrangements for greater northern autonomy, discussed further below) followed by new elections; and several other things, including a “stop to the demonization of the Serb community” by the president, prime minister and other senior officials.23 The government ignored the appeal.

But rather than fully demonstrating a commitment to de-escalation, the government took moves over the next several months to remind local Serbs of its authority over them. Most steps were small, but the cumulative impact is large. They include:

  • Banning goods and medicines imports from Serbia, leading to shortages in the north (early June).24
  • Stopping building work at nine sites in North Mitrovica, citing missing Kosovo documentation (late July).25
  • Revoking the operating license for MTS, the Kosovo-registered Serbian mobile phone provider (mid-August).26
  • Sending police to escort fishery officials checking licenses on Gazivode Lake, which is shared with Serbia (3 September).27
  • Ordering three Serbian administration services housed in a building occupied by Serbia’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija to move out and turn the building over to Kosovo’s Prosecutorial Council (late August).28
  • Sending tax inspectors to shops, bars, and other businesses in North Mitrovica to check if they are registered in the Kosovo system, as many are not (4 September).29

The EU said these actions were “not by the rule of law” and risked heightening tensions, while criticizing the Serb community for “continuous small-scale attacks by criminal groups and intimidation of newly recruited Kosovo Serb police cadets”.30

C.September 2023: The Banjska Incident

In the autumn of 2023, a clash between Pristina’s forces and northern paramilitaries underscored just how dangerous the situation in Kosovo had become. Early on 24 September, KFOR peacekeepers detected unusual movements near Banjska, a village in the Zvečan municipality, and alerted the Kosovo police. A patrol car found trucks barring the road and came under attack. One officer was killed by an improvised explosive device and others were wounded. Reinforcements found about 30 heavily armed Serb fighters (assumed to be primarily or perhaps exclusively from northern Kosovo) who had broken into a medieval monastery near the village. In the firefight, at least three Serbs died. A tense standoff ensued between the group and Kosovo special police surrounding them. Fearing a bloodbath, KFOR negotiated the group’s withdrawal into the surrounding woods, from which they melted away. Kosovo believes that up to 200 more fighters were hidden at the time in the thick forest between Banjska and the Serbian border.

The Kosovo authorities discovered that the Serbs had left a cache of enough weapons for a small paramilitary force to inflict heavy casualties on even the best-protected and armored special police unit. Valued by the authorities at around $5 million, the arms included M80 Zolya anti-tank rocket launchers, 60mm and 82mm mortars, an M93 automatic 30mm grenade launcher, machine guns, anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, drones, night-vision equipment, an armored vehicle, and 24 cars and SUVs. The group also had counterfeit KFOR markings for their vehicles. Kosovo determined that much of this equipment was recently manufactured or serviced in Serbia.31 Kosovo police had earlier caught Serbs smuggling in much smaller quantities of arms and ammunition.32 Kosovo investigators said they found evidence the group involved in the altercation had trained at Serbian army bases for a mission to wrest the north away from Kosovo so it could join Serbia.33 Pristina believes northern Serb civilians had supplied the group by radio with information on police movements and other intelligence.34

Pristina released drone footage that appeared to show Milan Radoičić, a prominent figure on the Kosovo Serb scene, leading the Banjska group. Radoičić was vice president of the Serbian List political party. A wealthy businessman with interests in Serbia and the region, he is widely seen as “the informal ruler of northern Kosovo”, in the words of an opposition-aligned Belgrade newspaper.35 A policy analyst described him as President Vučić’s trusted lieutenant in the north.36 In December 2021, the U.S. sanctioned Radoičić for being part of a criminal organization engaged in “trafficking of goods, money, narcotics, and weapons”.37

Soon after the Banjska shootout, Radoičić surfaced in Serbia, taking full responsibility for the incident and turning himself into Serbian prosecutors, who released him on bail.38 Kosovo then released a video showing the interior of a compound Radoičić owned by Gazivode Lake on the Serbia-Kosovo border, suggesting that he was more a mob boss used to a life of luxury than a guerrilla leader.39 International officials believe that he may still be overseeing operations in northern Kosovo even though he is unable to return in person.40

The incident gave Pristina a boost in several ways. It encouraged closer coordination between the Kosovo police and KFOR and EULEX while giving Kurti further arguments for Pristina’s muscular stance in the north. KFOR tightened its cooperation with the police, especially along the border, making it harder for Serbs to smuggle in replacement arms.41

The shootout in Banjska shifted the optics of the northern Kosovo situation in Pristina’s favor, at least in the eyes of Brussels and Washington.

No less important was that the shootout in Banjska shifted the optics of the northern Kosovo situation in Pristina’s favor, at least in the eyes of Brussels and Washington. It created strong suspicion that Belgrade was arming and training a paramilitary group for lethal attacks on Kosovo police. Without a convincing alternative explanation, Serbia lost much of the international goodwill it had earned with its flexibility in the EU-mediated talks, discussed below, that have run parallel to the rising tensions. The U.S. and EU deemed the Kosovo policeman’s killing to be a form of terrorism and demanded Serbia cooperate in bringing those responsible to justice. As a practical matter, the seizure deprived the northern Serb paramilitary of a considerable amount of equipment. It also suggested that the paramilitaries’ training, morale, and numbers were insufficient to take on the police, at least while KFOR was present to back them up.

In Banjska’s aftermath, Pristina took advantage of changed circumstances to speed up integration of the north and to expel Serbia’s remaining institutions. From its perspective, the incident confirmed that the problem it faced in the north was criminals and terrorists supported by Belgrade rather than ordinary Serbs. It saw the perceived paramilitary threat as justifying its decision to deploy heavily armed police in the area. Across the border, Vučić’s position was further weakened by Serbia’s parliamentary elections of 17 December 2023, which bought his party another mandate in office. The OSCE observation mission immediately condemned the poll for “unjust conditions”, such as “bias in the media, pressure on public-sector employees and misuse of public resources” along with many others.42 The European Parliament followed up by calling for the deployment of an ad hoc EU fact-finding mission and a separate international expert investigation of the elections.43

With Vučić on the ropes, Pristina moved against Serbia’s presence in Kosovo by cutting off its financing. On 27 December 2023, the Kosovo Central Bank issued a regulation defining the euro as the sole currency valid for cash and electronic transactions inside Kosovo.44 The measure took effect on 1 February 2024. The next day, Kosovo authorities closed Serbia’s vestigial municipal offices for Peja, Istog, and Klina, seizing computers and records.45 On 7 February, police raided the Serbian post office and bank in Goraždevac (Peja municipality) and confiscated the Serbian dinars there, which were earmarked in part for pensions drawn by elderly Serbs in surrounding villages.46 Customs officials at the border turned back trucks carrying dinars.

Without money, the whole network of Serbian institutions is at risk, including schools and clinics. Kosovo has ignored blunt requests from the U.S. and its Quint partners to immediately suspend the dinar ban. Referring to this and other government steps, the award-winning journalist Tatjana Lazarević said Serbs in the north “are becoming foreigners on their own land, in their own towns”.47

III.What the Parties Want

As discussed in Section IV, outside mediators – in particular the EU and the U.S. – are working to defuse growing tensions between Pristina and Belgrade. Success in this endeavor will require compromises that can bridge the gaps among the demands of the key parties (ie, Kosovo, Serbia, and the northern Serbs), which can sometimes seem irreconcilable.

A.Pristina’s Objectives

Kosovo sees full international recognition of its independence and complete internal sovereignty as paramount goals. It wants to remove the remaining Serbian state institutions from its territory; ensure that all residents respect its authority; control its borders; and win recognition from as many countries and international organizations as possible. Non-recognising EU states, NATO, the UN, and the EU itself top the list.

Kosovo’s reluctance to make concessions to Serbia rests in part on its belief that Belgrade still covets its territory and intends to sabotage its independence.48 It believes Serbia is negotiating only to achieve greater autonomy for northern Serbs as a vehicle to sabotage Kosovo, deepen ethnic fault lines, and visit upon it the kinds of challenges that Bosnia faces. It also does not trust that Serbia will keep its word. It fears that Belgrade would ignore commitments made in negotiations or, at best, fulfill them as slowly as possible. Full of mistrust, Pristina has made clear that it will strenuously resist moving forward on Serb autonomy until after Belgrade has started taking steps that begin to meet its fundamental goals – accepting Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, respecting its sovereignty, and recognising its documents. 

It is not clear that Pristina will give the Serbs what they seek.

Even then it is not clear that Pristina will give the Serbs what they seek. Kurti has invested much credibility in implacably opposing Serb autonomy, which he describes as a catastrophe for Kosovo’s future.49 His vision for the north, which he calls “self-management”, is in effect the application of Kosovo’s existing laws for minority rights, with a collective body like the Association advocating for Serb interests but not exercising any authority.50 Kurti expects the statute spelling out the north’s status to refer explicitly to “the independence, unity of the institutional system [and] territorial integrity of the Republic” – a formula that many Kosovo Serbs reject. He has shown no interest in negotiating new powers or rights, or otherwise modifying Kosovo’s governance to make room for Serb autonomy. Indeed, he has moved in the other direction.51 While he has agreed to establish a formal self-governing body for the Kosovo Serbs, along the lines of the “Association” discussed below, his commitment to doing so remains in question.52

In addition to strengthening Pristina’s writ in the north, Kurti’s government is rooting out Serbia’s institutions, replacing them with Kosovo’s, and staffing local government with officials loyal to Pristina. Controlling the border with Serbia, including the mountainous backwoods or “green border” crisscrossed by dirt roads and smugglers’ tracks, is also a priority. The heavy-handed tactic of deploying greater numbers of ethnic Albanian police suggests that Kurti’s objective is showing northerners who is boss more than winning hearts and minds.

Kurti’s sovereignty campaign in the north and his defiance of Belgrade and the Quint have boosted his popularity at home, and he would have a good chance of expanding his party’s parliamentary majority if elections (expected in 2025) were to come early. His administration has few notable domestic successes to point to. He has invested much credibility in implacably opposing Serb autonomy, which he describes as a catastrophe for Kosovo’s future.53


For its part, Serbia wants to keep rejecting Kosovo’s independence despite international pressure, but it is also engaged in a balancing act. While supportive of the Kosovo Serbs’ demands, Belgrade also knows its help for them has limits and is expensive. Although it armed and trained the paramilitary group discovered in Banjska, it does not wholly oppose certain efforts to integrate northern Serbs into Kosovo’s institutions. For example, it has cooperated grudgingly with international efforts to bring the northern Serbs into Pristina’s legal system and to help Kosovo gain a footing (short of formal recognition) in the international system. Yet President Vučić has invested heavily in opposing recognition of Kosovo, and it will be hard for him to backpedal to the extent that will be required by any compromise that might realistically be acceptable to Pristina. 

Although it has lost ground in its advocacy for Kosovo Serbs since 2021, looking more broadly, Serbia has a stronger geopolitical hand than its former province. It is bigger, richer, and more fully integrated internationally (with links to a wide range of countries dating back to the Non-Aligned Movement, of which Yugoslavia was a member). Despite Serbia’s refusal to align fully with the EU against Russia, it has rarely enjoyed more favorable diplomatic treatment than today.54 Its standing with the West has likely improved because – despite outward gestures suggesting an affinity for Moscow – it has been supplying ammunition, and perhaps other forms of assistance, to Ukraine in coordination with the U.S. and its allies.55 Belgrade wants this honeymoon to continue, which means that it is unlikely to approve Kosovo Serb demands escalation unless it is convinced that blame can be easily shifted to Pristina.

Still, Belgrade’s views on Kosovo’s independence have hardly softened. Vučić told the 2023 UN General Assembly that the West was working at “cutting my country into pieces” by supporting Kosovo’s declaration of independence.56 He has accused the U.S., Germany, and others of hypocrisy for defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity (as Belgrade does) while undermining Serbia’s.

C.The Northern Kosovo Serbs

Short of Serbia returning in force to eject Kosovo’s state presence, many northern Serbs dream of KFOR ejecting the Kosovo police – or at least the hated special forces – and looking after their security. NATO’s role in separating them from what they consider their motherland still rankles, but the alliance’s status-neutral mandate (ie, its institutional posture of not taking a position on Kosovo’s independence) and reputation for impartiality makes its peacekeepers a more appealing alternative than relying on Pristina for security. Failing that, they hope for a return to the situation before Kurti became prime minister in 2021 or, for the more radical among them, before Belgrade pushed them to begin integrating in 2011. That is, ideally, they would have only Serbian institutions (as before 2011), and if they must have Kosovo ones, these should be staffed by local Serbs rather than bureaucrats loyal to Pristina. 

Notwithstanding their negative feelings toward Pristina, northern Serbs have an ambivalent relationship with Belgrade as well. They hold fiercely to Serbian identity, and to the benefits that flow from the Serbian state, but they know Belgrade’s interests sometimes diverge from theirs. The Serbian government is attuned to its electorate, which is focused on issues like jobs and investments, which are in turn partly dependent on EU favor. The Kosovo Serbs fear European pressure will force Belgrade to sell them out.

Support from the north’s political leadership is key to the most plausible solutions to disputes relating to the area.

Support from the north’s political leadership is key to the most plausible solutions to disputes relating to the area. This leadership is made up of a small group of notables from the Serbian List party, more or less the North’s exclusive political party, who were selected by Belgrade to help meet its obligations under the landmark 2013 Brussels Agreement. That agreement contemplated the creation of a northern Serb autonomous unit – never actually established – which Kosovo calls an Association, and Serbs a Community, of Serb-majority municipalities.57

The leaders’ authority derives from control of the tap through which Serbian benefits flow – including employment, social security, education, and health care – and whatever popularity they enjoy comes in large part from their role in coordinating resistance to Pristina, especially when tensions flare. When List leaders defy Pristina, they have strong support. Yet when Belgrade instructs them to cooperate with Kosovo authorities and take down barricades, for example, locals resent it. Kosovo Serbs especially detest leaders with a reputation for colluding with organized crime; some have been designated by the U.S. government for offering kingpins impunity in return for the muscle to enforce unpopular policies and for personal enrichment.58

As for the Kurti administration, it has lost support even among the most integrationist Serbs. The prime minister’s political adviser Petar Miletić – himself a northern Serb – resigned in September 2023, denouncing his former boss for “hypocrisy, insolence and arrogance” and for irreparably damaging ties with the Serb community.59 Miletić had helped found the Independent Liberal Party, which advocated participating in Kosovo institutions immediately after independence, a stance for which he was shot (though not fatally) in North Mitrovica in 2010.60

IV.The Diplomatic Track

Against this backdrop, the EU has spearheaded diplomatic efforts intended to bring the long-running dispute between Serbia and Kosovo to an end and, as needed, to tamp down tensions in the north. Much of this effort has been under the umbrella of a diplomatic initiative Brussels launched in August 2022, in hopes of bringing the parties together in a deal that could break the Serbia-Kosovo impasse. 

The Normalisation Deal: Brussels Tries to Break the Impasse

On paper, the EU’s effort has achieved some success. In February 2023, the EU announced that the two parties had reached an “[a]greement on the path to normalization between Kosovo and Serbia”.61 (As discussed below, there is some dispute about whether the document ever became binding.) The agreement was inspired by the 1972 Grundlagenvertrag or Basic Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (West and East Germany).62 The Grundlagenvertrag had paved the way for third parties to open relations with both Germanies, though neither formally recognized the other. It had also allowed both to join the UN. The “path to normalization” agreement copied extensively, at times verbatim, from the German treaty and similarly aims to permit the five EU member states that do not recognize Kosovo’s independence (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain) to change their positions, without demanding the same of Serbia.63 

While short on specifics, the February 2023 deal included certain notable commitments. Kosovo repeated past promises to establish “an appropriate level of self-management” for its Serb population and to “formalize” the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church. For its part, Serbia pledged not to block Kosovo’s membership in “any international organization”, which should have paved the way for Kosovo to join the Council of Europe – the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights – and eventually (subject to greater political and bureaucratic hurdles) other bodies including the UN and the EU. Having already accepted Pristina’s authority within Kosovo’s borders in earlier EU-mediated talks, Belgrade was now asked to consent to its sovereignty in international affairs.64 Serbia also agreed to recognize Kosovo’s passports, diplomas, license plates, and customs stamps (Kosovo already accepts Serbia’s documents in practice).

In some respects, the February 2023 agreement builds on a foundation of past commitments. One is of particular importance. Kosovo’s promise to give its Serb minority “an appropriate level of self-management” echoes and to an extent affirms an earlier commitment by both parties to establish a framework for Serb-majority municipalities to exercise autonomy in the above-referenced 2013 Brussels Agreement.65 This pledge concerning northern autonomy was given in return for an agreement that allowed Pristina to hold municipal elections in northern Kosovo for the first time, while also integrating Serbs into the police and judiciary. 

But this autonomous entity has yet to come into being. It was meant to be a vehicle for Serb self-government within Kosovo, letting northern Serbs integrate more fully into Kosovo’s civic and political life while keeping their identity and links to Serbia. Yet, as noted above, Belgrade and Pristina could not even agree on its name. Serbia preferred “Community” because it suggested a high level of cohesion and autonomy. Kosovo advocated for “Association” because it did not.

Serbs want a Community with a high level of autonomy that serves to guarantee Serbia’s involvement in their areas.

Serbs want a Community with a high level of autonomy that serves to guarantee Serbia’s involvement in their areas. They want assurances that the Serbian educational and health systems will remain in place, that Serbian jobs will continue, and that the local economy will be integrated with Serbia’s. By contrast, Kosovo sees the Association as merely a coordinating body for its member municipalities, with no additional powers or responsibilities. At most, the Association could offer advice and training to municipal officials and lobby the governments in Pristina and Belgrade. 

The distance between these visions accounts for the lack of progress in implementing the 2013 pledge more than ten years later. Hostility to northern autonomy runs deep in Kosovar politics. Pristina has long feared that, in the leadup to independence, it had already gone as far as it could in offering self-government to the Serb minority without risking the state’s viability and integrity. Kosovar leaders frequently point to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a cautionary tale of paralysis and dysfunction caused by excessive autonomy. Kurti has argued that a Community of Serb Municipalities would be “a state of Serbia within the Republic of Kosovo”.66 He may be marginally more negative than his predecessors, but he is hardly an outlier. Kurti wants something like Croatia’s model, where the Serb community (of similar size to Kosovo’s) has limited powers in culture and education. He proposed a “vision” for a non-territorial entity that offers such services under existing legislation governing the non-profit sector. He wants it to recognize Kosovo’s “constitutional character” including its independence, single administrative system, and territorial integrity. 

Multiple draft statutes for an autonomous entity have been floated, by Kosovo Serb leaders, NGOs, the government of Albania, and the EU, though none has yet satisfied both Belgrade and Pristina. The U.S. had a hand in writing the Albanian and EU drafts but preferred to let others take the credit.67 A May 2023 draft prepared in Belgrade by a team of Kosovo Serb representatives trampled over several Kosovar red lines, by claiming enforcement powers, creating a “service for maintaining order” or parallel police force, and duplicating many central state responsibilities, while coyly referring to “the central authorities” instead of the Kosovo government.68 Other drafts, especially the EU’s, hew closely to existing Kosovo legislation on associations and partnerships between municipalities.69

B.Off the Rails

The proverbial ink was hardly dry on the February 2023 agreement when it went off the rails. Serbia’s president refused to sign it, but the EU said he had already agreed to it, so it had gone into effect.70 Kosovars immediately doubted whether a deal had been struck.71 Brussels’ assurances that the accord was binding in international law despite being unsigned failed to assure them.72 As if to put a fine point on its non-acquiescence to the deal’s provisions, Serbia voted against Kosovo’s application to join the Council of Europe on 24 April 2023 and has not fulfilled other terms.

Brussels tried again to bring the parties on board with an “implementation annex” meant to provide much-needed detail and a timeline for when each provision would come into effect. Yet the parties baulked. The EU then lost patience, with Brussels pushing both sides to agree to an annex stripped of most of its draft provisions and timetable.73 The annex, baptized the Ohrid Agreement because it was negotiated in Ohrid, a city in Macedonia, offered little beyond the earlier February deal.74 The only tangible achievements have been setting up a “joint monitoring committee” on 18 April and agreeing to a declaration on missing persons on 2 May.

Since then, Brussels has been largely unable to nudge Belgrade and Pristina toward carrying out the terms of the February agreement. Both Brussels and Washington believe Pristina should make the first move. A U.S. official said implementation of the February 2023 agreement “begins with” the Community/Association of Serb municipalities because “normalization is centered on the rights of minorities, particularly Serb minorities, in Kosovo”.75 The U.S. wants the Community/Association of Serb-majority Municipalities settled irreversibly, clearing both the Assembly of Kosovo and the constitutional court.76 “We demand that we move forward on this”, the official added.77 With clear progress toward Serb autonomy, it would be easier to push Belgrade toward fresh concessions.

Kosovo only agreed to the normalization plan in expectation of improving its international position, especially with non-recognizing EU states.

Yet Pristina shows no sign of budging. Kosovo only agreed to the normalization plan in expectation of improving its international position, especially with non-recognizing EU states.78 Without that, Pristina refuses to move ahead with self-government for the northern Serbs. Talks reached a dead end in September 2023 when Kurti rejected EU compromise proposals and denounced the mediators as biased.79 For his part, EU foreign policy chief Borrell said Kurti had “insisted on formalizing de facto recognition as the first step”, while Vučić had accepted the EU plan, in which normalization and Serb autonomy “ran in parallel”.80 Borrell said the EU and the U.S. saw this “parallel” approach as the only realistic one since both sides would need “guarantees that their actions are rewarded by counter-actions by the other party”.81 Kurti lashed out, accusing EU mediator Miroslav Lajčák of conspiring with Serbia.82

In October 2023, European leaders sweetened the deal for Kosovo, pressing Serbia to “deliver on de facto recognition”, while again urging Kosovo to set up the Community/Association.83 It was the first time they had made the former demand explicit, even if it was an implied goal. The European approach had earlier been to win Belgrade over to steps that, individually, it could not object to but over time would amount to accepting Kosovo’s statehood. The reason for moving gradually was to optimize chances for overcoming Belgrade’s resistance. Recognition appears to be the brightest of red lines for Serbia, and Vučić has repeatedly vowed “never” to recognize an independent Kosovo, formally or de facto.84

The EU’s October 2023 pitch included what they called a new “modern European” draft statute for the Community/Association, which reportedly features explicit references to Kosovo as an independent republic.85 These references make the draft more acceptable to Kurti, who at least at one point appeared to be mulling the option of moving forward with establishing the Community/Association on this basis, with or without Serbia’s cooperation.86 In that scenario, the Kosovo Assembly would pass legislation creating the Community/Association and invite the Serbs to join it. In the unlikely event that Kurti takes this step, the ball will be squarely in Belgrade’s court. It is hard to imagine that a Community/Association that fails to offer Serbian services in schooling, health care, or employment – which can only be afforded with Belgrade’s cooperation – would win popular acceptance.

Some Hard Truths and a Way Forward

A.Hard Truths

The EU’s normalization agreement with its latest proposed timeline is a good plan. It is an updated version of the bargain Crisis Group has recommended since 2010: recognition by Serbia in exchange for expanded autonomy for Kosovo Serbs, with sweeteners from the EU in the form of expedited accession talks and financial aid. It would benefit both parties, neither of which has a better alternative. The agreement is nevertheless at high risk of collapse.

For its own sake, Serbia should accept Kosovo’s independence, formally or de facto. It permanently lost the right to govern Kosovo through UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999), which notes that Serbian authorities had to withdraw “all military, police and paramilitary forces” while turning civil administration over to a UN mission.87 Even were it possible, it shows no interest in re-incorporating Kosovo into its state framework, and its past proposals to this end (such as offering “more than autonomy, less than independence”) were delaying tactics.88 Given that Brussels has linked the resolution of this issue to joining the EU, Serbia’s leaders understand that realistically they face a choice between the prospect of taking a big step toward accession and a quixotic campaign to win back a long-lost Kosovo.

But President Vučić probably will resist recognizing Kosovo nonetheless. He has vowed never to do so on so many occasions that it will be hard for him to reverse himself now, even in the face-saving and limited de facto form entailed by the EU’s plan. Recognition, whether de facto or de jure, is also the most valuable card Serbia holds in its game with the Quint, and Vučić wants to save it to trade for something big, whether that is partition of Kosovo (in which Serbia would get the north) or major EU concessions on enlargement and financial aid or both.89 Finally, he cannot emerge from the dialogue looking like Kurti has beaten him – as the appearance of weakness is one of the few things that could threaten his hold on Serbia.

[Kosovo] should honor prior commitments and establish a robust Community/Association of Serb-majority municipalities.

As for Kosovo, it should honor prior commitments and establish a robust Community/Association of Serb-majority municipalities, even though Serbia may well not keep all its promises in the normalization agreement. By doing so, Pristina would shift international pressure to compromise onto Belgrade. Well-regulated autonomy is a sound approach to integrating culturally distinct and territorially compact minorities, one with a long track record in Europe.90 Kosovo’s political leadership points with trepidation to Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, which has set its cap on secession. But the comparison is far from apt, as the Community/Association is a different and far more modest thing. Unlike Republika Srpska, the Community/Association would not have its constitution, judicial system, police forces, or directly elected parliament. 

Establishing the Community/Association would also be the right thing to do for Kosovo’s citizens living in the north. To the Serb minority, Serbia means jobs, health care, schooling, and security. Kosovo cannot provide those vital things to the Serbs today, and until it can, it should welcome Serbia’s assistance. It has every right to expect Serbian services to be delivered in a transparent way that respects Pristina’s laws, instead of through Serbian parallel institutions. But the Community/Association can help achieve this end – incorporating Serbian services into Kosovo’s legal order and thereby strengthening rather than weakening the role of the state. 

Kurti will almost certainly be loath to take this step. His motives for continuing to resist establishing the Community/Association are as strong as Serbia’s vis-à-vis recognition. As noted, he and other Kosovar leaders have described autonomy in general and the Community specifically in apocalyptic language that is hard to walk back. Providing the north with autonomy is Kosovo’s strongest card in its game with Serbia, and Kurti wants to hold on to it until it can be traded for recognition. Rejection has also done wonders for Kurti’s domestic popularity. Changing course could make him look like he lost and Vučić won.

Reasoning along these lines has led Pristina to play hardball with the northern municipalities over the past two-plus years, seeking to consolidate its territorial control while letting the chips fall where they may in terms of the impact on its long-running dispute with Serbia. Kurti’s calculation seems to be that these tangible gains outweigh the risk of a major conflict erupting or (more likely) freezing contentious relations with Belgrade for the long haul. He also appears to think that working to improve its situation on the ground does not preclude Kosovo from negotiating for ever better terms within the framework of the EU initiative. 

The harsh truth, however, is that Kosovo has much more to lose from letting the dispute persist. It is in a weaker position, facing a bigger, richer state with more to offer potential allies, especially concerning Ukraine. It is also trying to gain from negotiations while refusing to honor its main promise in earlier talks. Its support among its most important allies in Europe and the U.S. is thus rapidly eroding.91 Time may not be on its side. An isolated Kosovo would also find it more difficult to thwart Serbia’s goal of cutting the number of recognized states to 96 or fewer in the UN General Assembly (half its membership). Should Serbia succeed, Kosovo would be unable to attain UN observer status and the right to join UN-related treaties. 

B.Another Way Forward

Absent a settlement that defuses tensions between Pristina and Belgrade, it will be essential for Kosovo’s outside partners to work with it and Belgrade to find other ways to address immediate conflict risks and longer-term issues relating to the north. 

The most urgent task in defusing immediate conflict risk in northern Kosovo is to pursue demilitarisation. In light of the Banjska incident, the clear priority must be to remove as many heavy weapons as possible from the area. With KFOR’s cooperation, the Kosovo police are making progress in monitoring the border and searching for arms caches. That work should continue. The other half of demilitarisation is removing Kosovo’s special police from the lives of a community where their presence undermines rather than provides security. Pristina has moved to reduce its visibility in urban areas but should go further. Their deployments should be limited to levels needed to secure the border and track down arms caches, both tasks officers should carry out in coordination with KFOR and EULEX, the EU’s rule of law mission. As security returns, their bases should be dismantled – and the land used for them returned or paid for – and they should withdraw entirely. 

Another priority is to protect the Kosovo Serb minority, even if a formal autonomy arrangement remains elusive. With the Brussels dialogue stagnant, Kosovo and its allies will have to develop a workable model of self-government for the north without much input from Belgrade. Absent an agreement on the Community/Association, the status quo in which two states exercise their sovereign powers over the same patch of land is likely to continue winding down. The transition to Kosovo’s sole authority must therefore be done in a way that ensures the needs of the Serb minority are fully met. Fortunately, most of the Serb minority’s needs can be met just as easily outside the framework of any Association or Community as within it.

The priority for the Serb minority is probably feeling safer in their neighborhoods.

The priority for the Serb minority is probably feeling safer in their neighborhoods.92 In conversations with Crisis Group, Serbs across northern Kosovo testify to a pervasive sense of insecurity that has gotten worse since Kurti launched his pressure campaign on the area in 2021. The Kosovo police contribute to their unease: many officers are ethnic Albanians who speak hardly a word of Serbian. Like the rest of Kosovo and the Western Balkans, the Serb-majority areas have little violent crime. Their policing needs are modest. Yet they are barely being met. Instead, the Kosovo police busy themselves with combating victimless crimes like smuggling milk and other dairy products from Serbia and taking over Serbian-built buildings.93 In their heavily fortified special police bases, the officers look to Serbs like an occupying force rather than public servants. Kosovo should bring back regular police for the Serb areas who are Serbian-speaking, to the extent possible. These police should redouble their efforts at community outreach, and the internal affairs ministry should ensure that police in Serb areas offer the services citizens need.

Jobs are the next thing to tackle. Many, perhaps most, Kosovo Serbs are on the Serbian government’s payroll, often in the health and education sectors. Their jobs are strictly speaking illegal: they are paid in Serbian dinars and their employer pays no Kosovo taxes. Few ethnic Serbs have much prospect of finding legal work in Albanian-majority parts of Kosovo because of language barriers, disputes over the validity of Serbian qualifications, and ethnic discrimination. Pristina should assure the Serbs that they can keep their current jobs, regardless of questionable legal status, until comparable positions are available in the Kosovan economy. For its part, Serbia should agree to register its institutions in Kosovo’s system.

Alongside jobs come schools. Almost all Kosovo Serb children attend public schools illegally operated by Serbia on Kosovo territory, with Pristina’s tacit acquiescence. These are the only games in town because Kosovo offers no Serbian-language education to speak of. Children in Serbian schools can transfer seamlessly to schools or universities in Serbia if their families move, and their degrees are recognized in Serbia – but not in Kosovo. Although Pristina has tolerated Serbia’s schools and universities on its territory, that might not last. The best solution is simply to register Serbian schools in Kosovo and to issue dual degrees. In theory, Serb-majority municipalities have the right to operate schools already, but they cannot do so, and it is easy for the central government to get this right by using its authority to regulate the curriculum (ie, insisting on Pristina’s take on relations with Serbia, which would go down poorly with residents). 

Health care is a further big piece of the puzzle. As with schools, most Serbs use clinics and hospitals operated illegally by Serbia, where doctors prescribe medications licensed by Belgrade and often spirited in across the border, notwithstanding Pristina’s ban on the practice. Kosovo police raid Serb-run pharmacies and confiscate their stores. There is nothing wrong with medicine brought in from Serbia, and Pristina’s efforts to block it do little but create friction with the Serb population. As with schools, Serb-majority municipalities have the right to operate their healthcare facilities, but what the people need is the existing Serbian system operating without undue interference from Kosovo authorities. The EU’s draft statute allows the Community/Association to operate the Serbian facilities for an interim period of five years, which merely shifts the problem from the municipalities to a new institution. Pristina should instead allow Serbian medical facilities to keep operating indefinitely while respecting Kosovo law.

Northern Kosovo needs a local government that represents the population, but Pristina is slow-walking initiatives to that end.

Elections are another area where Pristina needs to make progress. Northern Kosovo needs a local government that represents the population, but Pristina is slow-walking initiatives to that end. The government set out an onerous process for recalling the mayors elected during the Serb boycott discussed above. In January, Serbs completed the first step, turning in petitions to the Central Election Commission, which has thus far failed to process them.94 The next step is a recall referendum with a high threshold for success, followed by new elections. Kurti may want to cement his authority over the northern municipalities before allowing Serbs back into government.95 The delay contributes to Serbs’ negative perception of central government institutions and deprives them of a voice. Pristina should hold free and fair elections in the northern municipalities as soon as possible, ideally by the summer of 2024.

At the same time, if the objective is for the north to enjoy truly representative local government, the EU and U.S. should push Belgrade not to micromanage Kosovo’s Serb politics. Serbia should stop insisting on a single party under the control of its own ruling Serbian Progressive Party and should instead endorse political pluralism. It should also allow Kosovo Serb party leaders to emerge organically, instead of hand-picking them in Belgrade. If Serbia cannot be persuaded to let Kosovo Serbs choose their leaders, it should at least select a diverse slate of candidates with strong local reputations. Representatives should not be simply an appendage of Serbia’s ruling party.


Since the Banjska incident in the fall of 2023, the Kosovo government has set about rapidly dismantling Serbian institutions in its northern municipalities, potentially putting prospects for a political settlement to its long-running disputes with Serbia further out of reach. There is a settlement on the table – a deal that the EU put forward in December 2022 that the parties appeared to agree to, at least in principle – but neither side seems serious about pursuing it. They should give it another look: it remains the best vehicle for Serbia to advance the interests of Kosovo’s northern Serb minority and for Kosovo to achieve the international status and recognition it seeks. But failing that, the parties and their outside partners will need to develop other arrangements to demilitarise Kosovo’s north, provide its residents with the services they require, and move forward with local elections so that they have political representation.

Whether it takes these measures within the framework of a formal grant of autonomy, or on an ad hoc basis, Kosovo needs to pivot to a more supportive posture toward its northern Serb communities. Further strong-arming risks continued instability, strained relations with its partners in Europe and the U.S., and even worse ones with its neighbor, Serbia. Pristina may well find that in achieving an immediate objective – consolidating control of its territory – it has pushed the overarching objective of normalization even further beyond reach. That is an outcome it both can and should avoid.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 2 April 2024

Appendix A: Map of Northern Kosovo