Why tensions have boiled over in Kosovo and why Novak Djokovic weighed in

Long-simmering tensions in Kosovo have recently erupted. The conflict origins have deep historical roots but also include recent developments involving licence plates and local elections. Serbian tennis legend Novak Djokovic, not known to shy away from contentious topics, has weighed in publicly.

Dozens of NATO troops, protesters injured Monday in Serb-populated northern Kosovo

More NATO troops headed to Kosovo as ethnic clashes surge

4 months ago
Duration 2:04
More NATO troops are on their way to keep the peace in Kosovo as tensions between ethnic Serbs and Albanians heat up. Recent clashes have raised fears of a return to the violence of the late 1990s.

Serbian tennis legend Novak Djokovic stirred up political controversy at the French Open on Monday, after writing a message about Kosovo on a camera lens following his first-round victory.

"Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence," Djokovic wrote in Serbian.

Here's more on the rising tensions between Serbia and Kosovo that Djokovic was referring to.

What's the latest on the ground?

Dozens of NATO troops secured a municipal building in the Kosovo town of Zvečan on Tuesday, after 30 NATO soldiers and 52 Serb protesters were injured in clashes the previous day.

NATO retains 3,700 peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, the remainder of an original 50,000-strong force deployed in 1999. NATO said Tuesday 700 more are on their way.

Police said in a statement that the situation is "fragile, but calm," though Serbian protesters smashed two cars belonging to journalists in the Kosovar town of Leposavic on Tuesday.

A burnt out vehicle is shown with flames near it as in the distance troops with shields stand by.
More clashes are seen Monday near the municipal building in Zvecan, northern Kosovo. NATO said Tuesday more troops will be sent to Kosovo to help restore order. (AFP/Getty Images)

The situation is fuelling fears of a renewal of the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo, which claimed more than 10,000 lives and left more than one million homeless.

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said criminal gangs, supported by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, aim to destabilize Kosovo and the entire region. Vucic blames Kosovo authorities for causing problems by installing new mayors despite the non-participation of the masses.

Is there a deeper conflict?

The dispute over Kosovo is centuries-old. Serbia cherishes the region as the heart of its statehood, pointing to a 1389 battle with Ottoman Turks. Also, numerous medieval Serb Orthodox Christian monasteries are in Kosovo. 

Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians view Kosovo as their country and accuse Serbia of occupation and repression. Ethnic Albanian fighters launched a rebellion in 1998 to end Serbian rule. Belgrade's brutal response prompted NATO to intervene, and Serbia withdrew, with international peacekeepers deployed.

Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, recognized by well over 100 countries, but not Russia or China.

Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 per cent of the Kosovo population. Ethnic Serbs account for just five per cent of its 1.8 million people, but are heavily concentrated in the north near Serbia and have long demanded the implementation of an EU-brokered 2013 deal for the creation of an association of autonomous municipalities in their area.

Some 50,000 minority Serbs refuse to recognize Kosovar state institutions, receive their pay and benefits from Serbia's budget and pay no taxes either to Pristina or Belgrade.

Why now?

Tensions had been ticking upward for months in a dispute that began over car licence plates.

Kosovo has for years wanted Serbs in the north to switch their Serbian licence plates to ones issued by the Kosovar government in the capital, Pristina. Last July, Pristina announced a two-month window for the plates to be switched over, triggering unrest. After EU crisis mediation, the government later agreed to push the implementation date back to the end of 2023.

Ethnic Serb mayors in northern municipalities, along with local judges and 600 police officers, resigned in November in protest of the looming switch.

In April elections that most Serbs boycotted, ethnic Albanian candidates won the mayoralties in four Serb-majority municipalities — Leposavic, North Mitrovica, Zubin Potok and Zvečan — with just 3.5 per cent turnout overall.

What's the reaction outside the Western Balkans?

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Tuesday urged Kosovo and Serbian leaders to engage in dialogue.

"We have too much violence already in Europe today, we cannot afford another conflict," Borrell said in Brussels.

A man lifts his arms while sitting atop a metal barricade as troops with helmets and shields look on.
A Kosovo Serb reacts as NATO soldiers stand guard in front of the municipality in the town of Leposavic on Monday. (Valdrin Xhemaj/Reuters)

Russia, which has blocked Kosovo's United Nations bid, said Tuesday "decisive steps" were needed to de-escalate tensions.

"We call on the West to finally silence its false propaganda and stop blaming incidents in Kosovo on Serbs driven to despair, who are peaceful, unarmed, trying to defend their legitimate rights and freedoms," Russia's foreign ministry said.

The U.S., along with France, Italy, Germany and Britain, have called on both sides to de-escalate tensions but also jointly noted with concern "Serbia's decision to raise the level of readiness of its Armed Forces at the border with Kosovo."

What's Djokovic's connection?

Djokovic's father, Srdjan, grew up in Zvečan.

The 22-time Grand Slam winner said after Monday's win that "as a son of a man born in Kosovo, I feel the need to give my support to our people," referring to the Serbians.

"My stance is clear: I am against wars, violence and any kind of conflict, as I've always stated publicly," he added. "I empathize with all people, but the situation with Kosovo is a precedent in international law."

Organizers of the French declined to comment, other than to say that there were "no official Grand Slam rules on what players can or cannot say."

Kosovo tennis federation president Jeton Hadergjonaj accused Djokovic of using his status as a well-known personality to stir tensions.

"Despite a general message against violence, the statement 'Kosovo is the heart of Serbia' and further statements after the match, made by such a public figure, on the occasion of a worldwide event like the French Open, directly result in raising the level of tension between the two states, Serbia and Kosovo," Hadergjonaj said in a statement.

Djokovic has been a lightning rod for controversy before. He defended his father at the Australian Open in January, when video emerged of Srdjan Djokovic posing with some fans holding Russian flags amid the war in Ukraine.

Djokovic also rejected tournament requirements for COVID-19 vaccination after tennis returned after the height of the pandemic.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press