More than 20 people were injured on June 22 in clashes between demonstrators and police in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. Should the conflict escalate, it could represent a setback for both Serbia and Kosovo’s ambitions of EU membership.
Hundreds of Albanians took to the streets of Mitrovica on June 22, thrown stones and setting police cars ablaze in a protest sparked when local Serbs re-built barricades on a bridge over the River Ibar in the ethnically divided town. Police used tear gas to drive the crowds back. Nato peacekeepers we also called in to support the local police force. A police spokesman told the BBC that 13 policemen and 10 civilians had been injured in the riots.
The bridge in Mitrovica had been blockaded by Serbian residents of the town, who reject control by the Kosovan state, for three years. However, with Serbia - nudged by the EU - moving closer to accepting the situation on the ground in its erstwhile republic, the blockade was removed earlier this month. However, days later local ethnic Serbs blocked the bridge once more with flower pots and soil, which some called a “Peace Park”.
The local authorities quickly protested. On June 21, Mitrovica Mayor Agim Bahtiri insisted the new blockade must be removed immediately, as patience was “wearing thin”.
Threat to progress
Belgrade has refused to recognize Kosovan statehood since it declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Kosovo’s Serb minority - approximately 120,000 strong - continues to look to Belgrade rather than Pristina for leadership.
However, under a 2013 deal brokered by the EU, the two countries agreed to work towards normalizing relations. Brussels has made integration with the EU and eventual accession for both Serbia and Kosovo contingent on this process, and Belgrade has done much bending to allow it to move forward.
A further breakthrough came with Kosovo’s peaceful June 8 elections. Despite fears of a Serb boycott, which would would have undermined the legitimacy of the election, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic gave a clear statement encouraging ethnic Serbs to vote. Although only around 18% turned out, this was still viewed as progress. The threat of a return to the violence that has centered on Mitrovica over the years could threaten to derail efforts towards eventual EU membership.
At the same time, Belgrade's support for a peaceful north of Kosovo is not entirely balanced. On the same day as the clashes in Mitrovica, Marko Djuric - head of the Serbian government's Office for Kosovo-Metohija - called for a community of Serb municipalities to be formed within Kosovo. He also accused the Kosovo Privatization Agency of attempting to take over key buildings in Serb-populated areas.
"I think that in general, by participating in this political process, our community is gaining traction. The important thing now is that we remain calm and united, as this is the only way to make sure that the community of Serb municipalities will have sufficient political strength," Tanjung quotes Djuric as saying.
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