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Border tensions stall Serbia-Kosovo progress

Ethnic Serbs gather near a barricade in the divided town of Mitrovica Keystone

Relations remain strained between Serbia and the breakaway state of Kosovo, as reflected in renewed clashes around Kosovo’s northern border this week.

This content was published on October 1, 2011 - 18:25
swissinfo.ch

Troops from Nato’s Kosovo force (Kfor) and ethnic Serb civilians were among the injured at a disputed border crossing on Tuesday. Switzerland has a contingent of 220 soldiers serving in Kfor, mainly providing logistical support.

François Furer, spokesman for the Swiss Armed Forces International Command (Swissint), confirmed to swissinfo.ch that no Swiss were present during the latest incidents. Swiss troops most recently helped clear “massive” roadblocks in the area at the beginning of August.

“Currently there are no Swiss north of the Ibar [river which delineates northern Kosovo],” Furer said, describing the security situation there as tense and at times escalating.

 “There are no security concerns in the south where our people are…Work is continuing as normal but logically people are vigilant.”

Serbs in the north reject Kosovo's 2008 secession and have blocked main roads to stop authorities from setting up customs, a move they see as establishing Kosovo's statehood over the whole territory.

Big neighbour watching

The EU is closely watching developments between Serbia and Kosovo.

On Wednesday, Serbia and Kosovo cancelled the latest round of EU-mediated talks in Brussels aimed at sorting out day-to-day matters such as the movement of people and goods, property rights and personal documents. The Belgrade delegation opposed the planned agenda, EU diplomats said.

Meanwhile Serbia is very close to being declared a candidate country for EU membership, partly in recognition for handing over major war criminals earlier this year.

In October the EU executive is due to publish its annual report on countries aspiring to join the union. But as long as tensions persist in relations with Serbia’s former province, the EU is unlikely to launch actual membership negotiations, a process which could take years.   

Unfair treatment?

Thomas Fleiner, emeritus of Fribourg University and former advisor to the Serbian government, claims the  EU is treating Serbia in a demeaning way.

“The EU is to a certain extent playing with the Serbian government. They always put new conditions on the way to membership,” Fleiner told swissinfo.ch.

“That is the old way colonial powers dealt with countries. That’s not the way you should deal with a country which you consider as your partner,” he added.

Serbia is lagging behind several of its former Yugoslav peers with regard to the EU. Slovenia is already a member and Croatia is on track to join in July 2013.

“What would really be in the best interests of the people would be a stable and long-lasting peace situation in the Balkans,” Fleiner said.

Saving face

Kosovo, with a population of 1.7 million mainly ethnic Albanians has been recognised as a state by more than 80 countries, including Switzerland.

But the northern part of the country is a predominantly Serb region with a population of some 60,000, refusing to deal with Pristina. A further 120,000 Serbs live in enclaves in the south of the country.

Balkan expert and Neue Zürcher Zeitung journalist Andreas Ernst says that all reasonable people in Belgrade know that Kosovo as an entity has been lost.

“Therefore it’s a question of finding a face-saving solution. Part of that could be the exchange of the northern corner. This would resolve a large integration problem for Pristina,” Ernst told swissinfo.ch.

However Fleiner pointed out that the international community has prohibited even the mention of this possibility in negotiations to date.

Borislav Stefanovic, Serbia's chief negotiator for Kosovo, said on Thursday that EU envoy Robert Cooper was due to travel to Belgrade early next week to try to resolve the impasse. "We have to find a modality acceptable for everyone," he told reporters.

Bitter legacy

The northern area has been a flashpoint ever since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, when a 78-day Nato bombing campaign forced Serbia to stop its crackdown on separatists and relinquish control over its former province.

Since declaring independence in 2008, the new Kosovo administration has been dogged by allegations of criminal links.

Swiss Senator Dick Marty filed a report last December with the Council of Europe implicating high ranking members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in the murder of mostly Serbian prisoners and the selling of their organs. Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is among the accused.

Swiss role in Kosovo

The number of Swiss peacekeepers in Kosovo will be temporarily boosted as they prepare to take on a leading role at the multinational Kfor mission.

At the end of August the cabinet approved an increase of up to 15 staff members for the 220-strong Swisscoy contingent, according to the defence ministry.

As of next January Switzerland will be in charge of a joint regional detachment of liaison and monitoring teams in the north of Kosovo for 12 months.
 
Swisscoy has been stationed in Kosovo since 1999.

In June parliament approved a three-year extension of the mandate of the Swiss peacekeeping force in Kosovo. The troops, who are armed for self-defence, do not join peace enforcement operations.

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Kosovo context

During and after the breakup of Yugoslavia, there were increasing ethnic and regional conflicts, culminating in the Kosovo war of 1998-9.
 
Skirmishes between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Yugoslav forces resulted in a massive displacement of the population in Kosovo.
 
In March 1999, Nato forces started to bomb Yugoslavia in an effort to drive Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo. President Slobodan Milosevic finally capitulated.
 
The UN Security Council passed resolution 1244, which placed Kosovo under transitional UN administration (Unmik) and authorised Kfor, a Nato-led peacekeeping force.

  
Kosovo declared its independence in February 2008. Switzerland was one of the first countries to recognise the new state. Serbia still refuses to do so.

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