Update on Northern Kosovo Barricades
Update on Northern Kosovo Barricades
Serbia and Kosovo: The Path to Normalisation
Serbia and Kosovo: The Path to Normalisation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Update on Northern Kosovo Barricades

My Crisis Group colleagues and I drove up to Serb-held northern Kosovo on Thursday, and crossed into Serbia (briefly). In short, everything has changed, though no one has announced any change at all. The worst winter in living memory, which many hoped would drive the locals to use the official border posts, is in full sway and the border posts are open as are the roads leading to them, but not a single vehicle passes. However understandable Kosovo’s interest in controlling its borders, there are important lessons here about trying to use issues like freedom of movement to pressure a reluctant people to accept a sovereignty they view as foreign.

Few barricades remain in the snowbound northern region of Kosovo, and fewer still are manned. The main Pristina-Belgrade highway is still blocked at the hamlet of Dudin Krš by what appears to be a pile of gravel (impossible to tell under all that snow) and some barbed wire stolen from NATO during one of last fall’s countless confrontations. A little way further up the road, the once-massive Rudare roadblock is completely open, though a few men are visible nearby, presumably ready to close it if need be.

Snow drift in no mans land between the Kosovo border post at Jarinje and the 1389 barricade in Serbia. The road here is under a meter or more of snow. CRISIS GROUP/Marko Prelec CRISIS GROUP/Marko Prelec

Two of Mitrovica’s three bridges between the Serb-held north and the Kosovo-controlled south are still open, and the snow has provided a way around one of the barricades that used to block traffic just past the easternmost bridge: the roadway has migrated up over the kerb onto the snow-covered sidewalk, past the pile of gravel, and back onto the road. From here, the road is clear, and well ploughed, all the way up to the Serbian border near the village of Jarinje.

German KFOR troops man a checkpoint just before the border post; they stop cars and bark “karta!” (ID card), check the driver’s ID, and wave you through. A few hundred meters further down the (now unploughed) road you come to the actual border post, which looks like an Alaska ghost town. The first sign of life is a charming Alaskan husky, thrilled to have new people to play with. Then a Bulgarian EULEX official emerges from his hut and asks us why we have no license plates (our car is registered in Kosovo, and driving through the Serb-held North with Kosovo plates is dangerous – but half the North drives without plates of any kind). He then asks where we are going, something I am coming to wonder myself since the road ahead is not only totally unploughed, but also blocked by EULEX tank traps. We say we want to drive to Serbia. He tells us, OK, but there is a problem with the road; there is a roadblock further ahead on Serbian territory and “everyone who tries to get through turns back”. He then leans closer and says, “there is another road you can take, I am telling you this as advice” – he, the EULEX border policeman, is directing us to the illegal alternative route (that is clearly marked with a turnoff just short of the KFOR checkpoint, one of many such routes opened and maintained by locals). Since we are investigating the actual, formal crossing point and not trying to get to Serbia, we agree to leave the car at the border and walk through on foot.

The road is tranquil and lovely and we make rapid progress through the deepening snow, using footprints left by previous trekkers. After a few hundred meters the road – with drifts of a meter or more, totally impassable, roadblock or no – is barred by rocks fallen from the hillside. After about a kilometre and a half, we come to the first barrier, where someone has taken the guardrail and bent it across the road. The next hundred meters or so are full of felled saplings and branches, nothing a few strong men couldn’t remove in an hour. Finally, we come to the barricade itself, which is really just a green army tent erected in the middle of the road, festooned with Greek, Russian and Serbian flags.

This, too, seems deserted apart from another dog, this one a tiny brown mutt who is clearly terrified of us but also hopeful we might provide food, or at least human affection; he takes shelter behind a pile of logs chopped for heating and eyes us warily. I walk past, to where the road has again been ploughed. It turns out buses from Serbia come this far and stop, discharging passengers who walk up to and then over the hill around the border post, back down to the road where another bus awaits them. I snap a few photos and get ready to turn back when the guardian of the barricade emerges. He is the first we have seen and is located on Serbian, not Kosovo, territory.

Trees blocking the road just before the 1389 barricade, just visible in background (it is really just a tent on the road). CRISIS GROUP/ Marko Prelec

The barricade watcher is in his early twenties and turns out to be a volunteer from Montenegro, here to defend his Serb brothers from the Albanians. He is a member of an extremist group SNP 1389, which has clashed violently with police in Serbia and Kosovo, but is courteous and polite and assures us he is unarmed as he invites us into his tent. Inside, the walls are decorated with a banner reading “Next year in Prizren” [a town in south-western Kosovo], posters supporting accused war criminals Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić and Montenegro’s flag from before its separation from Serbia; there are two cots, a wood-burning stove, and a table with some preserved food. We chat amiably for about half an hour; he’s opposed to the EU but upset that it refused to accept Montenegro as a candidate member. Our host discusses the relative merits of the KFOR troops he’s fought with (“the Hungarians, we beat the living shit out of them and still they wouldn’t shoot, but the Germans! You move too fast and they open fire.”) and bemoaned the international and Serbian perfidy that was leaving Kosovo Serbs at the mercy of Pristina. The only hope, he thought, was for Serbian president Boris Tadić’s party to lose the upcoming elections – or for Kosovo to be partitioned.

He (we never got his name) also told us a bus routinely stopped by his tent, discharging passengers from Serbia who would then walk toward the border, but break off just before and hike up over the adjacent KFOR base and back down to the highway inside Kosovo, where another bus waited to pick them up. (Buses that use the alternative routes recommended by EULEX have been doing the same, but in their case because the vehicles cannot make it over the steepest terrain in the snow, so they make their passengers climb over it on foot.)

Looking back at the 1389 barricade from the Serbian side. CRISIS GROUP/Marko Prelec

We said goodbye to the 1389 man and his (now exuberantly friendly) puppy and trudged back to the border. On our return, it was clear the EULEX guards had been conferring, and worrying, about what to do with us. Absurdly, since we had just come from Kosovo and left our car parked at their post, they insisted on processing my companions (who had Serbian ID) and issuing the “entry-exit documents” adopted in the technical dialogue mediated by the EU. Though they had assured us they issued these as a matter of course, it still took half an hour and much whispering and conferring before the papers appeared. In the meantime, they told us that pedestrians routinely used the crossing point when the snow was too deep to climb, which was hard for the ones with a lot of luggage.

What does all this mean? The EU pressured Serbia intensely in November and December, demanding that it force the northern Kosovo Serbs to remove their barricades in the name of “freedom of movement”. KFOR fought several actions against barricades, inflicting – and taking – casualties. The barricades inside Kosovo are gone. Yet there is no free movement, because the road into Serbia is blocked – by EULEX itself, and by our lone Montenegrin on Serbia’s own territory. But no one raises a peep. It’s easy to guess why. The one remaining roadblock is flimsy and could be cleared by Serbia in half an hour – but the Kosovo Serbs would respond by putting up their own barricades again. Then EULEX and KFOR would have to troop back outside into the freezing cold and confront them, fruitlessly, as they did last fall. Much better to go with a gentleman’s agreement: the official border posts are nominally open, but the real crossing points remain the alternative routes.

The situation shows with crystal clarity the folly of the “freedom of movement” campaign, which cost tens of millions of Euros (flying Kosovo officials to, and from, the border day after day runs into serious money), dozens of injuries, made travel more difficult for real people and achieved nothing. All this started because of the basic disputes between Kosovo and Serbia, over Kosovo’s independence and territorial integrity. Trying to use issues like freedom of movement – or the rule of law – as tools to change locals’ minds about sovereignty issues, rather than as ends in themselves, just damages the tool. The dispute isn’t a technicality and cannot be resolved as though it were.

Report 223 / Europe & Central Asia

Serbia and Kosovo: The Path to Normalisation

Serbia and Kosovo must build on a recent breakthrough in negotiations and extend dialogue to sensitive issues, especially northern Kosovo’s institutions, in order to keep their fragile relationship moving forward.

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The ground shifted underfoot in Kosovo in December 2012. After years of posturing, punctuated by outbursts of violence, Serbia and Kosovo began to implement a landmark agreement on border control, opening joint posts at crossings that had been variously barricaded, circumvented or burned to the ground for much of the past two years. Bigger issues, including the courts, police and municipal structures in Serb-majority northern Kosovo, are now on the agenda of a high-level bilateral dialogue facilitated by the European Union (EU). The leaders of both states seem more ready than ever to compromise, but the northern Kosovo Serbs are staunchly opposed to integration, low-level violence is increasing, Kosovo nationalists are tense, and a spark could set off intercommunal fighting. Belgrade and Pristina should seize this chance to engage in a substantial discussion on the transformation of existing structures in the North and to offer a self-governing region that fits into Kosovo’s jurisdiction based on a flexible application of the Ahtisaari plan’s features.

Kosovo and Serbia still disagree on much. For Pristina, negotiation aims at winning Serb acceptance of the Ahtisaari plan – the framework devised originally by Martti Ahtisaari, the former UN special envoy – that set in place Kosovo’s internal structure and statehood. For Belgrade, the talks concern revision or improvement of agreements that it considers flawed or unacceptable, like the Ahtisaari plan. The gulf between the two expanded during years of little direct contact, ample mistrust and fractious domestic politics. Navigating a sure route through the waters will be hard, but recent developments provide hope, as results in the early stages of the talks have thawed some of the mutual rigidity. Serbia recently crossed a threshold by affirming, at least implicitly, Kosovo’s territorial integrity and jurisdiction over the North, though still denying its independence. Both capitals seem to have ruled out the use of force to reach a solution to their political dispute.

This report looks back at the technical dialogue conducted with EU facilitation since March 2011 and forward to the next stages of the high-level political talks that began in October 2012. The sides have resolved some practical issues: trade relations, participation in regional meetings and recognition of one another’s diplomas. Others – free movement of persons, personal documents, liaison offices, civil registry and property records – have been difficult, but some results are evident. Talks on telecommunications and energy have not led to agreement, and emotional subjects like missing persons have yet to be broached. The December opening of two jointly-managed border posts is the brightest achievement to date, and potentially an important one; the border regime touches almost every aspect of the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, from mundane practicalities to fundamental status and independence issues. Yet, the sides still have to finalise details, especially on customs controls, and Kosovo and EU police (EULEX) still must be granted full free movement to reach the Serbia border and carry out their duties.

The breakthrough was the first tangible result of talks between the two prime ministers and hosted by Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief. Until now, those meetings have been mainly about feeling one another out and making decisions on agreements framed earlier by experts. It has been possible to package results ambiguously enough to allow both sides to hold to their principles concerning Kosovo status. That period is ending, however. It will be more difficult to sustain ambiguity on the next agenda items, which deal with whose law and institutions will govern northern Kosovo.

In December 2012, EU member states set tough conditions closely tied to the gradual normalisation of their bilateral relations for Serbia and Kosovo to progress on their respective EU accession tracks. To begin membership negotiations, Serbia was asked to progressively deliver security and justice structures in northern Kosovo in cooperation with Kosovo. This means making substantial progress in discussions on how the local courts, police and municipalities are to be managed. While these institutions are currently outside Pristina’s control, solutions can be found that would affirm the state’s unity, while allowing local Serbs to retain their sense of ownership.

The transformation of northern structures into self-governing bodies that fit into Kosovo’s jurisdiction could open the way for offering the North a special arrangement as part of the overall solution. Much can be accomplished by flexible application of the Ahtisaari plan with regards to police, courts and regional government. One principle should be that Kosovo’s borders remain intact; another should be that the North govern itself as it wishes when it comes to issues of community concern, insofar as this does not damage Kosovo’s territorial integrity. Pristina also wants its status as an independent state affirmed, which Belgrade currently firmly rejects. Yet even here, there is room for compromise, with Serbia lifting its block on Kosovo’s membership in regional and international organisations and participation in international sporting and cultural events. These are complex, highly emotive issues the details of which can be worked out gradually, in step with Kosovo’s and Serbia’s EU accession processes.

But the dialogue is now at a decisive point. Belgrade’s and Pristina’s positions on northern Kosovo have never been closer. If they can finalise agreements on the border and make real progress in talks on governing institutions and the rule of law in the North before the European Council (summit) in June 2013, the EU is ready to reward both. For Kosovo, negotiating a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union would ground it as firmly as the rest of the region in the accession process. For Serbia, starting formal membership negotiations would give a huge boost to its reform efforts. Coupled with Croatia’s EU accession in July, these gains would ripple through the western Balkans. But if talks collapse in the next few months, EU member-state politics would dictate a long pause that the fragile coalitions in Belgrade and Pristina might not survive, and the low-level violence that has racked the region in early 2013 could worsen. Such a promising opportunity may not come again soon, if at all.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 19 February 2013

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