Kosovo: Sticking-point for Serbia’s EU hopes

Serbia's hopes of joining the EU are now closer to realization. EU lawmakers have called on the European Council to grant Belgrade long-anticipated candidate status at a session in March. However, Kosovo remains the main obstacle to accession.

The Jagnjenica checkpoint in Northern Kosovo may not look like an obvious triumph of peace.

Since the summer, EU-backed Kosovan Albanians have tried to take control of the border between Serbia and Kosovo. The Serb minority erected barricades in response. They do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, saying the province – which has a majority Albanian population – is still part of Serbia. Now, both sides have finally agreed that the border will be jointly policed. Vehicles from all territories are now able to pass freely through the checkpoint.

However, while the current situation has improved, many here wonder if Serbs have once again paid too high a price for the compromise, and if the long-term prospects for a resolution have improved.

Belgrade tried to talk Serbs in Kosovo down from the barricades. Serbia wants to join the EU, which made a peaceful solution to the border issue a pre-condition.

Despite progress on the border, Belgrade's application for candidate status has been stalled in the latest round of talks with Brussels.  

“Some countries which did recognize Kosovo…feel that Serbia is weak just before they are getting the candidacy status,” said Oliver Ivanovic, State Secretary of Serbia's Ministry for Kosovo. “That is why they are squeezing Serbia to try and achieve something more than they are usually asking the candidates.”

Just meters from the EU, soldiers in Jagnjenica, are Serbian militia. Many here have been engaged in conflicts with Albanians since 1999, when an ethnic war divided the territory in two. They have been coming to this roadblock since July, and say the border deal makes no difference.

“Why should we be happy that EU soldiers give us permission to use this road? We never used to need permission to use it at all,” one of the militiamen said. “We do not trust the EU or Albanians one bit, when our relatives and friends have been injured in this conflict for the past 12 years.”

Those who have gained the most from the border compromise are ordinary Serbs. Blocked roads prevented many children from attending school and their parents from buying even basic foodstuffs. Still, normality is some distance away.

“There are constant warning sirens during the lessons,” said educational psychologist Biljana Janicevic. “These children are not growing up normally. Their lives are defined by the conflict.”

This is true not just for children, but for all Serbs who have been living in Kosovo for 12 years. While opening the roads is a step forward, the Serbs' status in a Kosovo state, which they do not consider their own and that does not appear to want them, remains as uncertain as ever.