By RFE RL
By Gordana Knezevic
(RFE/RL) — Bridges are meant to connect people, but the one over the Ibar River in Kosovo has long been a tool of separation, used by ethnic Serbs to maintain isolation from the Albanian majority in southern Mitrovica.
Parapets and barricades had impeded access to the other side since 1999. Now, as the bridge becomes passable once again, Russia appears to be stepping in to preserve the physical and political divide it symbolized in its ruinous state.
Russian influence is visible at every turn in North Mitrovica. Russian flags hang over balconies, while portraits of Vladimir Putin and graffiti honoring the Serb-Russian alliance are everywhere.The political leadership of the Kosovo Serbs boasted of having been summoned to Moscow for “consultations” prior to recent local elections (October 22), claiming to have forged closer ties with United Russia. It seems that Moscow is now the destination of choice for Serbian politicians facing elections or in the process of forming a government — whether in Serbia or in Kosovo.
For Russia, Northern Kosovo is useful because it allows Moscow to appear as the protector of its Balkan Slavic cousins with little effort, almost by default. The fact that since 2013 Serbia has been engaged in dialogue with the Kosovar government under EU auspices is seen as betrayal by Kosovo Serbs because it destroys the illusion that Mitrovica is still somehow a part of Serbia. Feeling abandoned, many Serbs in Northern Kosovo instinctively looked to Russia. When the high-level talks between Belgrade and Pristina began, local Serbs demanded Russian citizenship — which was of course unrealistic, but reveals the depth of their disappointment.
RFE/RL spoke with ordinary people on the streets of Mitrovica, and the pro-Moscow feelings were unanimous. A typical comment was that of pensioner Jova Jovanovic:
“The Russians have been our friends for centuries. Whoever has a problem with the Russians is an enemy of the Serbian people.”
Another person interviewed, Bosanka Prodanovic, also expressed admiration for Russia and added:
“We have no idea what kind of agreements they are making in Brussels. But we have confidence in Putin.”
The reconstruction of the Ibar Bridge was part of the agreement between Belgrade and Pristina guaranteeing “freedom of movement” for both ethnic groups. The reconstruction project is estimated to cost 1.2 million euros ($1.4 million) and is being financed by the EU. Yet, like so many agreements brokered by Brussels, it has been subject to delays and obstruction. Europe is doing its best to nudge ethnic Serb communities toward integration with the rest of Kosovo, while Russia supports those who continue to insist that Kosovo is a part of Serbia.
“Kosovo is also effectively used by Russia to highlight the hypocrisy of the West’s commitment to preserving states’ territorial integrity in some cases while supporting the principle of self-determination in others. This has served to both discredit the West as well as justify Russia’s own foreign policy actions in Georgia and Ukraine, with Russia citing Kosovo as precedent,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes in its study on “The Kremlin Playbook.”
Nevertheless, the bridge over the Ibar River that has been the scene of so many incidents and violent clashes is now open in both directions, albeit so far only for pedestrians. Italian Carabinieri who are part of the KFOR peacekeeping mission are still posted on the bridge, but the tensions are lower than they have been for a long time.
Faruk Ahmeti, a Kosovo Albanian who lives in Bosnjacka Mahala, at the entrance of North Mitrovica, told RFE/RL’s Pristina bureau that crossing from one part of the town to the other is easy, but that some apprehension remains.
“I am still anxious, because I work in the southern sector, and my family lives in the north, and I am constantly wondering if they are safe.”
Besides freedom of movement there are signs of progress elsewhere, but it is slow, and many obstacles remain. It is estimated that around half of the inhabitants of the four ethnically Serb municipalities in the northern sector have Kosovo ID cards, but only 3 percent have Kosovo driver’s licenses — even though Serbian documents are not accepted as valid by the Kosovar authorities.
According to RFE/RL reports, the problem is not only that the majority of ethnic Serbs refuse to identify with Kosovo as their country, but that even those who do try to obtain a Kosovo ID or passport find that the process is made unnecessarily difficult by the local bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, those who stubbornly refuse to make any compromise with the reality of living in the state of Kosovo have put their faith in Putin’s Russia, even more than Serbia. It is Putin’s face smiling down on passersby from a giant billboard in Mitrovica’s main square.
Russian meddling is no surprise for Daniel Serwer, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Russia will use any opening to try to make trouble in the Balkans, where doing so is cheap and productive. If Moscow can wreck the progress made in the dialogue, all the better from its perspective,” Serwer told RFE/RL.
Naim Rashiti of Balkans Policy Research Group feels that Russia is keen on sabotaging any project where the West is actively involved, and Kosovo is no exception in this sense — although it is seen as particularly fertile ground for disruption.
The Russian state-supported media outlet Sputnik habitually refers to Kosovo as “the West’s most expensive project.”
“It is in their interest to keep tensions high in the Western Balkans in order to divert Euro-Atlantic integrations of the countries in the region,” says Rashiti. In Kosovo, the goal of Russian interference is “to impede reconciliation (between Serbs and Albanians) and to prevent the integration of Kosovo North.”
According to a recently published paper on Russian interference by the Kosovo Center for Security Studies (KCSS), the country’s biggest challenge will be finding a way to prevent the Association of Serb Municipalities in Northern Kosovo from becoming Russian government proxies in the manner of Republika Srpska in Bosnia.
The official opening of the bridge over the Ibar River was scheduled for March, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was due to attend. With the bridge only partly functional and the opening postponed again, she said that it is “a symbol of the fractures, the wars, and the pain that has marked the history of the Balkans in the last 25 years.”
But she added that it could become “a symbol of dialogue, reconciliation, hope.” The barricades and walls on the Ibar Bridge may be gone, but it will take longer for the walls in people’s minds to come down.