Kosovo Serbs in the flashpoint town of Mitrovica disassembled a barricade blocking the main bridge over the river Ibar on Tuesday night, removing the last concrete barrier preventing Pristina from asserting its authority over the Serbian enclave.
The region, long under Belgrade’s de facto control, has resisted integration into predominantly Albanian Kosovo – one of the principal tenets of an E.U.-brokered rapprochement deal signed in 2013 between Serbia and its historic rival, Kosovo. The carrot dangling over both countries is E.U. accession, or at least the possibility of it. Little wonder then that both Belgrade and Pristina have pushed the Serbian minority in Kosovo to lay down their arms, so to speak. Despite initial resistance from Kosovar Serbs – i.e., violence during last year’s local elections – the pressure is working. (Note that the citizens of Mitrovica decided to remove the roadblock themselves.)
The barrier’s removal comes a few weeks after mayors of four Serb municipalities met with NATO forces in Pristina – an unprecedented visit given that many Serbs in Kosovo view NATO peacekeepers as aggressors in the 1998-99 war – and follows a June 8 general election that was the first to include ethnic Serb voters from northern Kosovo, and which saw Prime Minister Hashim Thaci re-elected. But while Serbs may not have boycotted the ballot as they did in the last general election in 2010 – despite initial calls by Serb community leaders to do so – that doesn’t mean Kosovo’s Serb quandary is resolved. Indeed, while this vote wasn’t marred by the violence that broke out during municipal elections, turnout in Serb municipalities was low, with election observers reportedly outnumbering voters at times.
Serbian political parties backed by Belgrade continue to demand that voter ballots, and other official documents, be free of Kosovo state symbols. (In January, the victor of a local mayoral race, an ethnic Serb, refused to take office because the documents used at the inauguration ceremony bore Kosovo’s coat of arms.) A bigger fight is looming as well. Thaci’s insistence on developing Kosovo’s army is set to reignite tensions with Serbs uneasy with the creation of an Albanian armed force. With the removal of a Mitrovica roadblock, Kosovo Serbs may have edged closer to integration with Pristina, but major barriers remain.