Vladimir Putin could benefit if a row between Serbia and Kosovo over license plates spills over into another European conflict

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Driving a faded blue taxi, Vojislav Miljkovic drives around the north side of the bridge in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, looking for fares near the busy main square.

The radio plays Serbian ballads as he passes Serbian signs and advertisements. His car has license plates issued by the Serbian government.

Although Mr. Miljkovic lives and works in the divided city of Mitrovica in Kosovo, he may also live in Serbia.

Like many ethnic Serbs in the region, he does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country, viewing it instead as Serbian territory.

“I feel like a citizen of Serbia,” he said one afternoon in his taxi.

“It’s that simple.”

Serbian taxi driver Vojislav Miljkovic has been driving people around Mitrovica for years.(ABC News: Tom Joyner)

He is one of approximately 50,000 ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo who still use license plates and documents issued by Serbian authorities – a practice considered illegal under Kosovo law.

Particularly in northern Kosovo, the license plate issue has highlighted further tensions with Serbia and has threatened in recent months to escalate into all-out fighting.

With Russia a traditional ally of Serbia, the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year heightened fears of a military conflict, said Kosovo-based analyst Donika Emini.

“Playing with fire is dangerous,” she said.

“Since February 24, all we talked about was another war in Kosovo.”

A tense and fragile peace

Across the bridge in Mitrovica is where the ethnic Albanians of the city live.

There, pastries and coffee are sold for euros and groups of teenagers laugh and chat in Albanian.

For years the Albanians, who represent more than 90% of the country’s populationand Serbs lived separate lives in northern Kosovo, speaking different languages ​​and praying to different gods.

Kosovo and Serbia have had strained relations since the former’s independence struggle led to a bloody war in the 1990s that ended with a permanent NATO presence established in the country.

“We didn’t end the war,” Ms Emini said, referring to the 1998 conflict that killed thousands on both sides.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 – and has been recognized as an independent state by more than 100 countries – but Serbia still considers it part of its territory.

Tensions reached their highest level in years last month when Kosovo proposed new rules requiring ethnic Serbs in the north of the country to adopt Kosovar identity documents and license plates from August 1. .

Multicolored buildings line a street strewn with rubbish.
Many ethnic Serbs do not recognize Kosovo as an independent country.(ABC News: Tom Joyner)

Serbia has a similar ID document rule for Kosovars visiting Serbia.

The proposed measures led to protesters barricading roads and firing near the border, as the two governments exchanged barbed rhetoric.

Amid protests in the streets and apparent pressure from the West, Prime Minister Albin Kurti postponed the new rules by a month until September 1.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ms Emini said.

“These tensions have been caused by IDs and car license plates, but it’s not about that.

“This is the long-open dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, which has not been properly resolved.”

Men in dark clothing hold assault rifles as they stand guard near a wall.
Kosovo’s security forces are on high alert in the face of escalating tensions in recent months.(ABC News: Tom Joyner)

For months, some Western countries have feared that Russia would encourage Serbia into armed intervention in northern Kosovo that would further destabilize the Balkans.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and another conflict on Europe’s doorstep would almost certainly divert at least some of the world’s and NATO’s attention away from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

As the deadline for implementing the new laws approaches, the nearly 4,000-strong NATO force stationed in Kosovo remains on high alert for signs of escalation.

Could another conflict be brewing?

Known as KFOR, or Kosovo Force, NATO soldiers are commonplace in the country, instantly recognizable by their blue and white insignia on their arm.

Near a border checkpoint in the north one morning, a group of US NATO soldiers stood guard beside a highway overlooking a wide valley.

A line of cars comes to a halt on a road near a border post.
Some passing drivers expressed anger at NATO forces as they headed towards the Kosovo-Serbia border crossing.(ABC News: Tom Joyner)

As cars passed, some motorists waved and honked their horns, while others made rude gestures with their middle fingers.

This weekend, the European Union announced that the two countries had reached a partial settlement, agreeing that they would both abolish identity documents, but leaving the issue of license plates open.

“Citizens of our Republic can now freely travel to Serbia on an equal footing,” Kurti tweeted.

But this in no way excludes the possibility of a future confrontation between Kosovo and Serbia.

Just last year, Serbian warplanes flew near the Kosovo border, prompting the Kosovo government to deploy special police forces.

“Unless we have an EU-facilitated agreement that settles all open issues between Kosovo and Serbia, Kosovo cannot prosper,” Emini said.

The two sides have been committed to a dialogue, sponsored by the EU, since 2013, but so far very little progress has been made.

Back in Mitrovica, graffiti reading “Go home NATO” is stenciled on several walls and next to zebra crossings in the center of town.

Elsewhere, the large black letter “Z” is inscribed in alleys and on the sides of buildings, a nod to the logo adorning Russian military forces fighting in Ukraine.

The letter Z is graffitied on a wall in a deserted street.
In parts of Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, anti-NATO and pro-Russia graffiti can be spotted on the walls.(ABC News: Tom Joyner)
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