Author: HARRIET SALEM
The European Union is stepping in between squabbling Kosovar Albanians and Serbs, fearing that a new dispute could undo nearly two decades of efforts to stabilize the southern Balkans.
EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini this week will try to get leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to defuse a dispute over a rail link between the two adversaries that has stoked old tensions and territorial disputes.
Just over a week ago, a Serbian train emblazoned with nationalist slogans, including ‘Kosovo is Serbia,’ prompted fresh fears that heated rhetoric in the Western Balkans could escalate into more than a war of words. Decorated in Serbian national colors, the train was supposed to be the first to go direct from Serbia’s capital Belgrade to north Mitrovica, a Serb-dominated area of Kosovo, in nearly two decades. The train stopped before crossing into Kosovo after Pristina said it had sent special police to the border.
The incident prompted one of the most hostile exchanges between the two sides in years, and served as a reminder of the fragility of the peace imposed by the West in the region after a series of wars in the 1990s, the last ending with Serbia’s loss of control over Kosovo in 1999.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić said the two sides were on the “brink of war,” and threatened to send in the army if “they start killing Serbs.” His Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaçi, accused Belgrade of a “provocation” and plotting to annex northern Kosovo just as Russia seized control of Crimea.
Belgrade does not recognize Kosovo’s independence — declared unilaterally in 2008 — regarding it instead as a rebellious province that remains part of Serbia. But it agreed to “normalize relations” with Pristina in 2011 as a condition for eventual accession to the EU.
In the wake of the train incident, Mogherini last week invited both sides to a high-level meeting of their ongoing EU-sponsored dialogue on Tuesday. The presidents and prime ministers of both Serbia and Kosovo are due to attend Tuesday’s meeting in Brussels, underscoring the seriousness of recent events.
“The developments over the past days underline the need for increased commitment and engagement by the two sides through the dialogue,” Mogherini’s office said in a statement. “Progress in the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia remains of paramount importance for both sides, for the European Union, and the Western Balkans as a whole.”
With Serbian presidential elections approaching in April, some have interpreted the train flare-up as political maneuvering, a bid by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić to blame the incident on the incumbent president, Nikolić, and erode his support ahead of the vote. (Vučić claimed he had no knowledge of the provocative décor of the train until he saw it in the media.)
Analysts caution the situation could quickly get out of hand. “Vučić is playing with fire,” said Dejan Anastasijević, a Serbian journalist who covered the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. “He’s playing a political game, but, as we know, these kinds of incidents can quickly spiral out of control in the Balkans.”
Although a European Union-sponsored deal signed in 2013 has made some inroads toward normalizing relations, progress in implementing it has been slow and peace remains fragile, especially in multi-ethnic areas.
“The EU is a necessary soft power that has transformed the Western Balkans,” Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s foreign minister, told POLITICO. “Kosovo’s achievements are the achievements of the EU and, therefore, Brussels should protect its long-term investments in the wider region, including Kosovo.”
Nearly two decades on from the 1998-99 Kosovo war, tensions in Mitrovica, the train’s intended destination, are still visible. Sliced in half by the Ibar River, the community living on the northern side of the city is predominantly Serb, while those living on the southern side are mainly ethnic Albanians. Troops from the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force still maintain a constant presence at the main bridge between the two sides of the city, even though it has been closed to road traffic since the war.
“This situation [with the train] has two messages,” said Branislav Krstić a journalist and analyst from Mitrovica. “One is an internal political message. The other is a message to America and the European Union that if they try to exert too much pressure to change the political dynamic in Belgrade, there can be nasty surprises.”
In northern Mitrovica’s smoky cafés and bars, the growing tensions are a hot topic of conversation and rumors are rife. While many point to the convenient timing of the spat, there is also a real fear that a single serious incident could provoke a violent domino effect.
“Of course, it makes people nervous when you hear politicians talk of war on the television. People here are willing to fight, to self-mobilize as they have before, and most houses have at least two guns,” said Aca Mitić, a 22-year-old student, sipping on a macchiato. “If there’s an incident [in retaliation for the train], if somebody is killed or badly hurt, then Serbs will respond.”
Speaking in his office in north Mitrovica, Miodrag Milićević, the executive director of Activ, an NGO representing Serbs in northern Kosovo, said the developments add to an “already tense atmosphere.”
“Here we can go back 18 years in just one day, one hour,” he added. “This train issue has shown everyone how quickly any normalization of relations could be undone.”
Brussels urged to apply brakes
The Western Balkans are awash with weapons, many of them unregistered and privately owned — a legacy from the wars of the 1990s — and locals have shown a willingness to use them in Mitrovica.
Earlier this month, a hand grenade was thrown at a government building on the northern side of the city, after Kosovo’s minister for the EU-backed dialogue, Edita Tahiri, delivered a speech on expanding Pristina’s authority into the Serb-run areas in the north of the country. An unexploded bomb was also found at a hotel that she passed through.
In 2013, armed, masked men broke into a polling station and stole ballot boxes during a controversial vote which saw Serb areas in the north participate for the first time in Kosovo-wide elections.
One senior official in the international community working in Mitrovica described Belgrade’s decision to send the train to the city as “ludicrous, dangerous game-playing,” and also accused the European Union of just “sitting on their hands” in response to the escalating tensions in the region.
“Mild rebukes aren’t the solution to these problems,” added the official, who asked not to be named as they were not authorized to speak to a journalist. “Brussels is aware of what’s going on and needs to take a firm stance to put the brakes on this.”