December 28, 2022 - 11:00am

War is far from over this Christmas. While fighting continues to ravage Ukraine, road blockades erected by Serbs in north Kosovo are raising the prospect of new conflict stemming from an old and never resolved dispute.  

Serbia’s strongman President Aleksandar Vučić, who served as the country’s Minister of Information during the Kosovo War in the late 90s, put the Serbian armed forces on their highest alert level on Tuesday. Before Christmas, he requested permission from NATO peacekeepers for Serbian forces to enter Kosovo to protect the Kosovo Serb population from alleged aggression; unsurprisingly, the request was not granted. 

New tensions began with a row over vehicle registration and travel documents for Serbs in Kosovo this summer. The situation was temporarily defused but never fully resolved, and in early November Kosovo Serb representatives announced their withdrawal from local institutions. The current road blockades are being portrayed as a popular revolt against the arrest of an ethnic Serb former police officer, but many, including the Kosovo authorities, believe they are the work of paramilitary groups with links to the Serbian state.  

Worryingly, there is a growing tendency for both sides to view NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) as not up to the job of keeping the peace. Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti said national forces would be called upon to remove the blockades if KFOR doesn’t act, raising the possibility of direct conflict between local Serbs and Kosovan officers. But a delicate balancing act is required in NATO operations. A heavy-handed response would be seen as confirmation of the status quo breaking down, giving those hostile to peace more reason to cause trouble. 

Yet the status quo does not, in any case, appear capable of holding tensions in check. Serbia claims the provisions of negotiated agreements with Kosovo are not being adhered to, pointing out Pristina’s failure to establish a so-called Association of Serb Municipalities, which would grant a degree of autonomy to Serb-majority areas.  

The creation of this association was agreed in 2013 but later deemed by Kosovo to violate its constitution. Western opinion on the issue is now split; the U.S. envoy to the Western Balkans is urging Kosovo to set up the association, but some analysts argue that doing so would only give power to the Serb groups responsible for the road blockades — groups described as “criminal and connected to the Serbian secret services.” 

Meanwhile, Kosovan authorities point out the inherent difficulties of negotiating with Serbia. Serbian President Vučić has an unhelpful habit of appearing to be constructive in negotiations mediated by the West, before presenting the outcome to domestic audiences in tones of bitter, undying resentment. Such an attitude has led Kurti to warn the West that “generosity towards Belgrade is not worth it.” 

There are many questions in this powder keg of a region to which the West does not have answers. The cultural and religious significance of Kosovo, for example, has been underlined by the central position of the Serbian Orthodox Church in current arguments, with Kosovo blocking entry for its Patriarch this Christmas. And from Kosovo’s storied past to failed diplomatic settlements of the present, new tensions show that old problems have never gone away.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of