Ethnic Albanians clash with Police in south Mitrovica

Clashes broke out between ethnic Albanians and police in the ethnically divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica, injuring 13 police officers and 21 protesters on Sunday 22 June. The clashes started after ethnic Serbs rebuilt a road barricade over the central bridge, dividing the ethnic Albanian southern part of the town from the ethnically Serbian northern part. Local Serbs removed the barricade on 17 June but they replaced a road barricade, made of sand and flowerpots, on 18 June. The ethnic Albanian’s were outraged by the renewed barricade, saying the barricade stands testament to ethnic Serb refusal to integrate into the independent state of Kosovo.

Spokesman of the Kosovo Police, Avni Zahiti, said “Kosovo police did not use any force apart from tear gas”. He added “Six vehicles were burned, and many other vehicles were damaged”. The protesters shouted “U.C.K.” in reference to the Kosovo Liberation Army. The local police had to call on NATO peacekeepers to support the anti-riot police. The President of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, called for calm, adding “Any attempt to find solutions by using violence will escalate the situation and will hinder any process of normalizing Mitrovica and the municipalities in the north of Kosovo”. Director of the Serbian Government Office of Kosovo, Marko Duric, said the demonstrations were destructive and “and spoke of the necessity of dialogue”. The Kosovo government announced the barricade would soon be removed again. 

The removal of the Mitrovica bridge barricade was part of the 2013 EU-brokered agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on the ‘normalization’ of relations. Serbia does not recognize the 2008 unilateral independence of Kosovo but agreed to the normalization. Both countries want to become member of the European Union but they have to normalize relations between each other first. Another part of the 2013 agreement was the establishment of an Association of Serbian Municipalities with broad powers, including for North Mitrovica. The establishment of such an association is going to be part of the upcoming rounds of dialogue between the governments of Serbia and Kosovo.      

The division of Mitrovica

The town of Mitrovica has been divided between the ethnic Albanians and the Ethnic Serbs since the end of the Kosovo war in June 1999. Around 100.000 Serbs became part of Kosovo in 2008 but they remain largely loyal to the Serbian government; they denounce the independence of Kosovo. Rapprochement has been achieved by the EU-brokered 2013 agreement, which saw Serbs participating in Kosovo’s elections on 8 June 2014. Vehicles regularly cross the dividing Ibar River using other bridges but the central bridge remains blocked. Despite the rapprochement between ethnic Albanians en Ethnic Serbs further to the south, the city of Mitrovica remains divided.      

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said on 19 June “As the prime minister of this country, yesterday morning I welcomed the voluntary removal of a barricade that was done by the citizens of Serb nationality, hoping it was a sign of civic maturity. Unfortunately it took only a few hours for me and Kosovo’s citizens to be once again disappointed, by the disgraceful act of placing a barricade on the bridge on the River Ibar. The NATO-led forces in Kosovo (KFOR) hailed the removal of the barricade, adding that it was “A positive step that can be beneficial to reconciliation”.

On 18 June the major of Northern Mitrovica, Goran Rakic, announced he had adopted the construction of a ‘peace park’ on top of the newly opened bridge. He expressed his “hope that ethnic Albanians and the international community would be able to adequately value and appreciate the importance of the decision to remove the block form the bridge whereby Serbs symbolically offered a friendly hand to their Albanian neighbors”. The major of South Mitrovica, Agim Bahtiri, said on 21 June that his patience was wearing thin, and that the new Ibar bridge barricade, in the form of the park, must be removed immediately. Rakic reacted by saying Bahtiri had to stop his provocative rhetoric and turn to talks in the further.        

Ending the blockade?
“The long standing blockade was a symbol of the Serb community’s rejection of Kosovo’s self-declared independence, and the authority of the Kosovo government,” BBC correspondent Guy Delauney reported. It stood testament to the reluctance of many ethnic Serbs to integrate with the Albanian communities in what they see as the Albanian state of Kosovo. Meanwhile, the ethnic Albanians support the independence of Kosovo and fear the reluctance of the Serbian majority.

The perspective of EU accession to both Kosovo and Serbia has led to institutional rapprochement but has failed to influence the people. Critics say there is still a lot to do before the markings of the war in Kosovo have faded and before ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs can live together as friendly neighbors. Reporters say the riots have been the worst since the independence of Kosovo in 2008. But as long as both parties remain committed to peace and coexistence, the prospect of EU-accession might be enough for peace and a lasting thaw of tensions between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs, analysts argue.

Sources: B92 I, B92 II, B92 III, Balkan Insight I, Balkan Insight II, BBC, InSerbia, RadioFreeEurope, Reuters.

Author: Koen Migchelbrink

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