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.
Why Serbian locals diverge from official line
In the Serbian enclave of Rudare in northern Serbia yesterday, locals manned an elaborate roadblock of heavy machinery, bricks, stones, wood, and tires in protest of the Kosovo police action. A gigantic metal cross, cemented in the roadway, warns drivers to find another route. At midday, the roadblock was calm, and stray motorists were directed to a small dirt road that allowed passage around the formidable barricade.
Sanel Tiffany, a local nurse who was offering support at the roadblock, was confident that the barricade – one of three in the region – would come down soon.
But, he said, the Serbian locals were not swayed by Serbian President Boris Tadic's support for an agreement. “The people from here listen very closely but they can’t listen blindly,” Mr. Tiffany says. “This is the only option we had … the only nonviolent thing we had to do, that we must do.”
Capt. Hans Dieter Wichter, a spokesman for the NATO military force charged with providing security in the region, says, however, that high-level officials on both the Serbian and Kosovo sides appear eager for an agreement.
“The common understanding between the Serbs and the Kosovars accepts [NATO control of border crossings], and that we will hold this regime until at least Sept. 15, and we hope then that tensions will be solved when the talks between Pristina and Belgrade continue.”
On Wednesday, local media reported that local Serbs had begun removing the barricades.
Kosovar aggression, or defensive move?
For Oliver Ivanovic, the secretary for the Ministry of Kosovo in the Serbian government, navigating this current crisis in the conflict-weary region is less a question of long-term strategizing than overcoming the inertia of tit-for-tat violence.
“The municipal mayors don’t want to take responsibility for approval or denial of the agreement,” Mr. Ivanovic says, but he adds that much of this reluctance to act stems from a fear that any agreement would, in a sense, reward Kosovo for having taken aggressive, unilateral police action. “We should not let anyone benefit from the use of violence.”
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has vigorously disputed this characterization, however. For Mr. Thaci, seizure of the border gates was a justified expression of national sovereignty amid the trade dispute with Serbia. Kosovo, in other words, has a right to control its own borders.
In a strongly worded statement released last week, Thaci said, “Our intervention is not intended against the Serb citizens living there. On the contrary, it aims at creating equal opportunities, an environment where the rules are defined by the law and not b[y] criminals and smugglers.”
But for Hadzi Branislav Barovic, an ethnic Serbian in Rudare, even an agreement hammered out by high-level officials would do little to assuage his concern that the Kosovo authorities seek to force him out of his ancestral home. “I am here because I don’t have another country, and I live on holy Serbian land,” Mr. Barovic says.