The war in the former Yugoslavia may have ended over 15 years ago, but the hatred still remains. Violent clashes over the northern Kosovo/Serbia border have brought up questions as to the EU status of both countries. On 10 November, the tensions led to the death of a Serb man who was fighting with two ethnic-Albanians in the city of Mitrovica. The troubles began in July when the Kosovo government deployed customs offers and police to two northern border checkpoints with Serbia. Serbia lost control of these checkpoints when Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. This attempt to “redefine” the Kosovo/Serbia border has renewed the rivalry between ethnic-Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia.
There are roughly 120,000 ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, about 10% of the population. Most of these Serbs do not recognize Kosovar independence and neither do many who live in Serbia. Anti-Kosovo protesters assert that the death of the Serb on the 10 November is not being taken seriously even though EULEX, the EU’s peace and justice mission in the country, is part of the investigation. Serbs are using this event to further their fight against an independent Kosovo.
In the past three years there has been a big push by world organizations to stabilize and help the growth of a peaceful Kosovo. The country is currently supported by EULEX and also KFOR, a NATO-led peacekeeping force. This is a fledgling democracy whose people were once targets of ethnic cleansing by Serbs in the 1990s (68,101 ethnic-Albanian Muslims were killed) and it needs help maintaining stability in a hostile environment. Playing devil’s advocate though, one might ask if Kosovo is being treated with kid-gloves? This is certainly a question that the Serbs are asking in their current peace talks with Kosovo that resumed on 21 November.
It is difficult for the Serbian government to prove that they are the victims in this situation since it seems that they have not done much to increase tolerance for Kosovo’s ethnic majority. Serb officials continue to dismiss the radicals in their society who remain prejudiced towards Kosovar Muslims and an independent Kosovo.
In the Northern Kosovo city of Zubin Potok Serbs recently built a road block to keep out KFOR and Kosovo customs officers. One bus in the barricade was shockingly decorated with posters of Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb military leader currently on trial in The Hague for genocide. Mladic faces charges over the massacre of at least 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 (BBC).
Mladic was captured “coincidentally” at the same time Serbia announced its candidacy for EU membership (in May 2011). After evading police for 16 years he was finally arrested. In his analysis of the issue of Serbian EU candidacy Mark Lowen of the BBC asked Serbian President Boris Tadic if this major war-criminal arrest was made and publicized purposely to coincide with Serbia’s bid to join the EU. Tadic denied the charge and responded that the country had never calculated its search for Mladic - it was always determined to catch him (BBC).
However troubling it might be that Mladic's arrest was timed, it is not as troubling as the fact that there are still Serbians who see Mladic, a mass-murderer, as a hero. Even more concerning is that these same people have the power to barricade roads from NATO missions without retribution from their government. Why are these people not reprimanded by the Serbian government if they are not acting in Serbian interest? Who is running Serbia?
The government in Belgrade wants to keep a low profile on this border situation because their candidacy for EU membership depends on how well the peace talks with Kosovo go. Yet, even if they are able to attain “good neighbourly status” with Kosovo, I have to ask the question: should the EU welcome a country that was responsible for genocide and still does nothing to sanction the "bullies" who continue their hatred toward Kosovo? Should the EU rightly admit a country who prefers to capture their war criminals for political gain instead of common human decency?
In the 22 November edition of the Irish Times, Tim Judah, a London-based Balkan analyst asserts that “the Serbian government is in a bit of a bind. It wants candidacy but it doesn’t want to be accused of treachery by Kosovo Serbs and the opposition in Belgrade by agreeing to Kosovo customs officers at the border crossings.” I find it shameful that Serbia feels the need to appease its intolerant citizens. Serbia must prove to the world that it has become a tolerant force, not a continually perpetrator of hatred.
Unfortunately, Kosovo is linked to this process; it is a victim again. Kosovo’s status in the EU is at stake because of this issue. Although the war is over, the extremists still exist as if it never ended. If there is nothing done to stop them, the conflict will continue to grow. The conflict has escalated so much in the past month that NATO forces are growing on the northern border. The Serbian government must take responsibility for its countrymen’s previous war crimes by seriously reprimanding the current aggressive anti-Kosovo, anti-Muslim sentiments. No matter how bad the EU economic situation and its need to restructure its economy, the Union should maintain a no-tolerance policy for the perpetuation of hatred. We will find out on 9 December when the decision is made.