My Crisis Group colleagues and I drove up to Serb-held northern Kosovo on Thursday, and crossed into Serbia (briefly). In short, everything has changed, though no one has announced any change at all. The worst winter in living memory, which many hoped would drive the locals to use the official border posts, is in full sway and the border posts are open as are the roads leading to them, but not a single vehicle passes. However understandable Kosovo’s interest in controlling its borders, there are important lessons here about trying to use issues like freedom of movement to pressure a reluctant people to accept a sovereignty they view as foreign.
Few barricades remain in the snowbound northern region of Kosovo, and fewer still are manned. The main Pristina-Belgrade highway is still blocked at the hamlet of Dudin Krš by what appears to be a pile of gravel (impossible to tell under all that snow) and some barbed wire stolen from NATO during one of last fall’s countless confrontations. A little way further up the road, the once-massive Rudare roadblock is completely open, though a few men are visible nearby, presumably ready to close it if need be.
Two of Mitrovica’s three bridges between the Serb-held north and the Kosovo-controlled south are still open, and the snow has provided a way around one of the barricades that used to block traffic just past the easternmost bridge: the roadway has migrated up over the kerb onto the snow-covered sidewalk, past the pile of gravel, and back onto the road. From here, the road is clear, and well ploughed, all the way up to the Serbian border near the village of Jarinje.
German KFOR troops man a checkpoint just before the border post; they stop cars and bark “karta!” (ID card), check the driver’s ID, and wave you through. A few hundred meters further down the (now unploughed) road you come to the actual border post, which looks like an Alaska ghost town. The first sign of life is a charming Alaskan husky, thrilled to have new people to play with. Then a Bulgarian EULEX official emerges from his hut and asks us why we have no license plates (our car is registered in Kosovo, and driving through the Serb-held North with Kosovo plates is dangerous – but half the North drives without plates of any kind). He then asks where we are going, something I am coming to wonder myself since the road ahead is not only totally unploughed, but also blocked by EULEX tank traps. We say we want to drive to Serbia. He tells us, OK, but there is a problem with the road; there is a roadblock further ahead on Serbian territory and “everyone who tries to get through turns back”. He then leans closer and says, “there is another road you can take, I am telling you this as advice” – he, the EULEX border policeman, is directing us to the illegal alternative route (that is clearly marked with a turnoff just short of the KFOR checkpoint, one of many such routes opened and maintained by locals). Since we are investigating the actual, formal crossing point and not trying to get to Serbia, we agree to leave the car at the border and walk through on foot.
The road is tranquil and lovely and we make rapid progress through the deepening snow, using footprints left by previous trekkers. After a few hundred meters the road – with drifts of a meter or more, totally impassable, roadblock or no – is barred by rocks fallen from the hillside. After about a kilometre and a half, we come to the first barrier, where someone has taken the guardrail and bent it across the road. The next hundred meters or so are full of felled saplings and branches, nothing a few strong men couldn’t remove in an hour. Finally, we come to the barricade itself, which is really just a green army tent erected in the middle of the road, festooned with Greek, Russian and Serbian flags.
This, too, seems deserted apart from another dog, this one a tiny brown mutt who is clearly terrified of us but also hopeful we might provide food, or at least human affection; he takes shelter behind a pile of logs chopped for heating and eyes us warily. I walk past, to where the road has again been ploughed. It turns out buses from Serbia come this far and stop, discharging passengers who walk up to and then over the hill around the border post, back down to the road where another bus awaits them. I snap a few photos and get ready to turn back when the guardian of the barricade emerges. He is the first we have seen and is located on Serbian, not Kosovo, territory.
The barricade watcher is in his early twenties and turns out to be a volunteer from Montenegro, here to defend his Serb brothers from the Albanians. He is a member of an extremist group SNP 1389, which has clashed violently with police in Serbia and Kosovo, but is courteous and polite and assures us he is unarmed as he invites us into his tent. Inside, the walls are decorated with a banner reading “Next year in Prizren” [a town in south-western Kosovo], posters supporting accused war criminals Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić and Montenegro’s flag from before its separation from Serbia; there are two cots, a wood-burning stove, and a table with some preserved food. We chat amiably for about half an hour; he’s opposed to the EU but upset that it refused to accept Montenegro as a candidate member. Our host discusses the relative merits of the KFOR troops he’s fought with (“the Hungarians, we beat the living shit out of them and still they wouldn’t shoot, but the Germans! You move too fast and they open fire.”) and bemoaned the international and Serbian perfidy that was leaving Kosovo Serbs at the mercy of Pristina. The only hope, he thought, was for Serbian president Boris Tadić’s party to lose the upcoming elections – or for Kosovo to be partitioned.
He (we never got his name) also told us a bus routinely stopped by his tent, discharging passengers from Serbia who would then walk toward the border, but break off just before and hike up over the adjacent KFOR base and back down to the highway inside Kosovo, where another bus waited to pick them up. (Buses that use the alternative routes recommended by EULEX have been doing the same, but in their case because the vehicles cannot make it over the steepest terrain in the snow, so they make their passengers climb over it on foot.)
We said goodbye to the 1389 man and his (now exuberantly friendly) puppy and trudged back to the border. On our return, it was clear the EULEX guards had been conferring, and worrying, about what to do with us. Absurdly, since we had just come from Kosovo and left our car parked at their post, they insisted on processing my companions (who had Serbian ID) and issuing the “entry-exit documents” adopted in the technical dialogue mediated by the EU. Though they had assured us they issued these as a matter of course, it still took half an hour and much whispering and conferring before the papers appeared. In the meantime, they told us that pedestrians routinely used the crossing point when the snow was too deep to climb, which was hard for the ones with a lot of luggage.
What does all this mean? The EU pressured Serbia intensely in November and December, demanding that it force the northern Kosovo Serbs to remove their barricades in the name of “freedom of movement”. KFOR fought several actions against barricades, inflicting – and taking – casualties. The barricades inside Kosovo are gone. Yet there is no free movement, because the road into Serbia is blocked – by EULEX itself, and by our lone Montenegrin on Serbia’s own territory. But no one raises a peep. It’s easy to guess why. The one remaining roadblock is flimsy and could be cleared by Serbia in half an hour – but the Kosovo Serbs would respond by putting up their own barricades again. Then EULEX and KFOR would have to troop back outside into the freezing cold and confront them, fruitlessly, as they did last fall. Much better to go with a gentleman’s agreement: the official border posts are nominally open, but the real crossing points remain the alternative routes.
The situation shows with crystal clarity the folly of the “freedom of movement” campaign, which cost tens of millions of Euros (flying Kosovo officials to, and from, the border day after day runs into serious money), dozens of injuries, made travel more difficult for real people and achieved nothing. All this started because of the basic disputes between Kosovo and Serbia, over Kosovo’s independence and territorial integrity. Trying to use issues like freedom of movement – or the rule of law – as tools to change locals’ minds about sovereignty issues, rather than as ends in themselves, just damages the tool. The dispute isn’t a technicality and cannot be resolved as though it were.