Serbia, Kosovo inch toward tentative peace
Ethnic Serbian officials yesterday postponed a meeting on whether to accept a NATO-brokered accord with Kosovo authorities after ethnically charged violence rocked the breakaway state last month.
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Serbian, Kosovar, and international officials had expressed hope that the deal, which is aimed at quelling border tensions, would prevent further violence before formal dialogue on a host of issues resumes in Brussels next month.
High-level officials in both Serbia and Kosovo are eager for a quick resolution of the tension, since each side is concerned about the potentially negative impact of violence on their respective bids for EU membership. But at the local level in Kosovo – where a 10 percent ethnic Serb minority largely opposes the country's 2008 declaration of independence – there is significant resistance.
“There is a lot at stake,” says Hanns-Christian Klasing, a spokesperson for the European Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, which oversees policing, customs, and judicial functions in the country. “Membership in the European Union for both Serbia and Kosovo can only happen once [the Kosovo border issue] is solved politically…. We’re not there yet.”
But, Mr. Klasing adds, “this is what people want.”
Why border dispute erupted into violence
Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence still angers many Serbians, who consider the territory the cradle of their civilization and refuse to recognize Kosovo sovereignty.
The latest dispute erupted late last month in northern Kosovo along the border with Serbia. While the disagreement centered around trade, at heart it was about whether Kosovo had a right to control its border. After Serbia refused to lift a ban on exports or accept "Republic of Kosovo" customs stamps, Kosovo moved to block Serbian imports.
In a decisive move on July 25, the Kosovar government sent in ethnic Albanian special police to assert control of the border it shares with Serbia, displacing the ethnic Serbs who had previously manned the checkpoints.
The move sparked violence, with ethnic Serbs setting up roadblocks, killing a Kosovo officer, setting a border crossing on fire, and shooting at international troops brought in to help put an end to the fighting.
NATO's force in Kosovo, known as KFOR, proposed a "common understanding" to diffuse the immediate tensions. The plan called for removing the barricades and allowing KFOR to patrol the border zones until at least Sept. 15.
Serbia's government agreed to the deal in principle. And officials hoped that a meeting of local Serbian leaders in Kosovo scheduled for yesterday would result in the removal of Serbian-constructed roadblocks from major arteries.
But representatives for one of the local villages that constructed a roadblock failed to show up – a move the underscores the depths of distrust and animosity that plague peacekeeping efforts in the area, observers say. Resolution was delayed as Serbian leaders worked backchannels to bring locals in line with official policy.
“It’s a huge setback,” says Momcilo Arlov, program director for the Center for Civil Society Development, which works on reconciliation issues in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in nothern Kosovo.