|"Graffiti criticising the EU's rule of law mission in Kosovo, which is known as Eulex." (Mary Fitzgerald)|
By Mary Fitzgerald
The Irish Times, April 9, 2012
"Not so long ago the smoke-filled La Dolce Vita bar next to Mitrovica’s flashpoint bridge was synonymous with Serb vigilantes known as 'bridge watchers' whose job it was to keep ethnic Albanians out of their enclave. Its position overlooking the Ibar river that marks the dividing line between the town's Serb-dominated northern flank and its ethnic Albanian south provided the bar's patrons with a birds-eye view, but also made it a target for attack. The 'bridge watchers' are still there, but La Dolce Vita's customers are now a more diverse bunch. They include university students such as Alexandra and Sasha who chain-smoke while bemoaning the lack of opportunity in this grimy former industrial town. 'We have cafes like this and nothing else,' says Alexandra. 'Sometimes it feels like we have been forgotten.' Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has since been recognised by the US and 22 of the EU’s 27 member states. But the fate of the Serb-dominated pockets of northern Kosovo, whose residents effectively live as if still forming part of Serbia, remains a festering sore, while their resentment of the Pristina government continues to bubble. Nowhere is the divide between Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority and its Serb minority as obvious as in the hinterland that surrounds this contested northern town.
Local Serbs set up barricades and block the movement of Kosovo officials and the EU’s rule of law mission, known as Eulex. Today there are tentative signs of budding prosperity south of the Ibar river, but northern Mitrovica, with its drab, crumbling apartment blocks and defiant Serbian nationalist murals, retains a sense of clinging to the past. Billboards praising Vladimir Putin feature his face under the strapline: 'Our honorary citizen.' Graffiti condemning Eulex is daubed on walls and shutters. A sign by the main bridge warning against 'malicious or provocative' behaviour has been torn down and vandalised. 'We are Serbs and our heart will always be with Serbia,' says Marko, one of several 'bridge watchers' hunched over a stove in a tent by the mouth of the bridge. 'We will never accept this artificial state of Kosovo. For us it means nothing more than Albanian tyranny.' The men sitting around him nod in agreement. One mentions the controversial unofficial referendum organised by Kosovo Serbs in February in which 99.4 per cent of voters answered 'No' to the question: 'Do you accept the institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo?' The Kosovo government declared the ballot illegal. Animosity between Belgrade and Pristina has risen in recent weeks after Serbia said it planned to include Serb-controlled areas in the northern reaches of its former province in local, parliamentary and presidential elections due to take place on May 6th. The Kosovo government has strongly objected and declared it will try to prevent the ballot. 'We will use all possible means, in co-ordination with our international partners, to prevent these elections taking place because it is in breach of international law,' Kosovo's deputy prime minister Edita Tahiri, who also leads Pristina's delegation in EU-mediated talks with Serbia, told The Irish Times. She describes the recent arrest by Serbia of two Kosovo border police officers as 'politically motivated ... [and] an attack on Kosovo's sovereignty and territorial integrity'. The two were later released, but the incident served to further ratchet up tensions. Holding elections in the Serb-dominated northern areas is seen as especially problematic, as they will serve to reinforce Serbia's so-called 'parallel institutions' in the borderland region. Abandoning these institutions is one of the conditions that Brussels has set for Serbia as it pursues EU accession. Tahiri accuses Belgrade, which was granted EU candidate status earlier this year, of 'double standards' and argues the EU must exert more pressure. 'Serbia shows a European face to the EU, but in the region, especially vis-a-vis Kosovo, it continues to be anti-European,' she says. 'Now that Serbia has gained candidate status, I strongly believe the EU has more leverage to ask Serbia to perform according to European values, which include good neighbourly relations and regional co-operation and stability.' [...]"