A standoff between NATO officials and local Serbs in Kosovo continues to roil, with hardliners today saying they will defy demands to remove road barricades leading to two border stations in the Serb-majority north.
For more than a month, European Union police have helicoptered Kosovo customs officers over some 16 mud-and-log roadblocks guarded by local Serbs who do not want to accept that Kosovo is an independent state.
The barricades are a symbol of local Serb defiance and were erected this summer after tense clashes, as Kosovo police tried to establish their authority at border control points. Meanwhile, Russian officials have said they are establishing a “humanitarian center,” formerly described as an air base, 50 miles from the Kosovo border in the Serbian town of Nis.
NATO officials gave Serbs a barricade removal deadline last weekend, and another Tuesday. But Serbs did not comply. Today, after a meeting of municipal Serb leaders (elected unofficially in the view of the EU) they said the barricades would be lifted only for limited freedom of movement for KFOR (the term used for NATO in Kosovo) and for humanitarian purposes, terms that in the past have been highly arbitrary.
"I am disappointed with this outcome," said Maj. Gen. Erhard Drews, the NATO commander in Kosovo, yesterday. "The north did not comply with the request to remove the roadblocks."
Kosovo is an important national symbol in Serbia; the loss of Kosovo in 1999 after NATO intervened to stop ethnic cleansing, and the subsequent 2008 US and EU backing of Kosovo's declaration of independence, are sore points in Belgrade.
Yet in recent years, Serbia has downplayed the issue as it seeks EU candidacy. In late May, the Tadic government in Belgrade turned over Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, accused of genocide, to the Yugoslav tribunal at The Hague.
Removal by force
One Western official in Kosovo says KFOR is considering removing the barricades by force, but adds that “time is on the side” of KFOR and “pressure is only building on Belgrade.” Serbia knows that EU members will not want to admit a state with ragged neighborly relations or which resembles a divided Cyprus.
“Time may take care of this, but we are also aware things could blow up,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity owing to diplomatic sensitivity.
Last week, Serb candidacy in the EU was accepted; but a formal date to begin talks was delayed pending better relations between Serbia, and the Albanian-majority Kosovo. “We recommend that accession negotiations be opened as soon as Serbia achieves further progress in the one key priority ... the negotiations with Kosovo,” said EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule last week.
The standoff started over a long-running trade dispute. Currently, Serb goods come into Kosovo, but Kosovo cannot send goods into or through Serbia. The situation is out of kilter with UN Resolution 1244, has dragged on for years, and Kosovars, irritated at a lack of resolution, attempted to “take” border posts in the Serb-controlled north in late July.