What Country Are You in, and How Do You Know?
What Country Are You in, and How Do You Know?
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

What Country Are You in, and How Do You Know?

What country are you in, and how do you know? Until recently, the answer to that question in North Kosovo was a matter of personal choice.

Serbs thought they were in Serbia. They could cross what they called the “administrative boundary line” into Serbia proper without fuss and many did on a daily basis, for work, school, shopping and seeing friends. They drive cars with Serbian license plates (or no plates) which they get, along with driver licenses, ID cards and passports in local Serbian government offices and courts. They marry and divorce in local Serbian courts. Shops take Serbian dinars which Serbian banks dispense. All signs are in Serbian.

The Albanian minority in the North thought it was in Kosovo. There was no fixed line between them and the rest of Kosovo. They drive cars with Kosovo license plates (or no plates) and get documents from Kosovo police, who are the only uniformed police allowed in the North. Shops also take Euros, the official currency of Kosovo, and European banks dispense them. In Albanian or mixed areas, shops catering to both communities featured bilingual signs and staff.

This bizarre idyll is over.

Since Friday, the roads between Serbia and north Kosovo are closed by KFOR, guarding Kosovo and EULEX customs officers – and also barricades by local Serbs protesting implementation of Kosovo customs procedures at the two gates. Northerners have also barricaded the roads south into the rest of Kosovo, cutting themselves off on all sides.
When the roads to Serbia finally re-open, it will feel like a proper border between two countries. The North will feel less like Serbia, more like Kosovo. With customs under Kosovo control, it will become much more difficult for the northern Serbs to sustain Serbian institutions and that way of life. That is why most of the Serbs are angry and afraid. They are standing still, but they can feel the map moving underneath them.

The local criminal underworld has other reasons. Its livelihood depends on unregulated traffic north and south; proper customs controls will kill it. These people have guns and every reason to use them. (Now may not be the time to wonder about a policy that would have split the crime gangs from the general population of the North, as Crisis Group has repeatedly urged.)

For now the Northerners are using non-violence, but they have few options available to get what they want: for their territory to stay Serbia. They can keep the barricades up for weeks, even months, but the temptation to shoot will be strong. Other Serbs who have gotten used to years of Serbian subsidies, salaries and pensions may just pack up and leave.

The key now is to avoid violence. KFOR and EULEX should not escalate by trying to pull down the barricades. Pristina should go slow. For its part, Belgrade should give up trying to roll back the clock and find new ways to protect the interests of northern Kosovo’s Serbs and its own state interests because North Kosovo is unlikely to ever look again exactly as it did before this weekend.

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