Rail service to Mitrovica from Kraljevo is an illegal incursion, Kosovo officials say.
There is no café at the railway station in the northern half of the divided town of Mitrovica. There is not even a kiosk to buy a newspaper to read on the train.
However, there are trains. Since last October, the station in North Mitrovica has been the embarkation point for a twice-daily train service to Kraljevo in Serbia.
For 392 dinar (€3.30), passengers can get to Kraljevo in three-and-a-half hours, after which they can catch a train to Lapovo and reach Belgrade.
As the newly refurbished Russian-built train pulls out of Mitrovica, it passes the vast, dilapidated Trepca mine complex, and then an enormous dump where two pickers are searching for anything that that could be sold for a few coins.
It continues, reaching a top speed of 70 kilometers per hour, hugging the Ibar riverbank and stopping at small stations that look as if they were built in Austro-Hungarian times.
For the pensioners and students on the train one Friday, it is a normal way to stay connected to relatives or travel between home and work or study.
But, in the eyes of Kosovo officials, since Serbia’s national railway company, Zeljeznice Srbije, both owns and operates the train, it is an illegal incursion into the territory of a sovereign state.
“This train is beyond the control of the railway authorities of Kosovo,” the Deputy Prime Minister and Kosovo’s chief EU negotiator, Edita Tahiri, told Prishtina Insight.
A train has run regularly from Serbia to Zvecan in north Kosovo since June 2008. But it was only extended to North Mitrovica last October.
Railway travel was not mentioned in the EU-brokered agreement last April, on the “normalisation” of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told Prishtina Insight. It has not been discussed in the dialogue between the two parties.
Serbia has long maintained an official and unofficial presence in northern Kosovo. Serbian mobile providers have operated there for years – illegally, according to Kosovo officials. The EU talks included an agreement to allow those providers to continue operating.
At the same time, the EU-led talks have moved the north out of the orbit of Belgrade’s direct rule. Mostly notably, Serbs in northern Kosovo took part in last year’s local elections, which the government in Prishtina organised. However, the train system has moved in the other direction, with Serbia expanding its services in Kosovo.
The only existing agreement on rail travel is a memorandum of understanding dating back to 2003 between Yugoslav Railways, the predecessor to Serbian Railways, and what was then known as UNMIK Railways – rail travel in Kosovo then being in the hands of the UN mission to Kosovo.
This stated that the two railway systems would not operate on each other’s territories.
Tahiri calls the new train service to Mitrovica an “illegal intervention” and says it could hinder progress towards normalization of relations with Serbia.
Although a Serb-run train service has operated in northern Kosovo since 2008, and no attempts have been made to stop it, Tahiri says that, “without implementing the current agreements, we will not continue dialogue”.
Wrangle after independence:
The train from Serbia to Zvecan started running in June 2008 after the EU rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, took control of the northern borders of Kosovo from UNMIK, following Kosovo’s declaration of independence. From 2000 to 2008, UNMIK railways operated all railway lines throughout Kosovo.
While under UNMIK control, the railways were considered a protected institution, partly because they helped ethnic minorities in Kosovo to stay connected to each other.
A “Freedom of Movement Train,” operated twice a day from the southern town of Han i Elezit near the Macedonian border to Lesak in the far north, and twice weekly from Han i Elezit to Gracanica in central Kosovo.
At that time, the train drivers were from Canada and Kenya, and a ride cost just €0.50.
In February 2008, when Kosovo declared independence, Serbs in the north took control of the line for a short period, before UNMIK reclaimed the 50km north of Mitrovica to the border in March.
In June, UNMIK ceded responsibility for the northern border to EULEX and daily trains resumed.
A EULEX spokesperson told Prishtina Insight that in conformity with the Integrated Border Management agreement, its personnel team “conducts regular checks on the trains and its passengers at the train station near Lesak in close cooperation with the Kosovo Border Police and Kosovo Customs, as at the both Crossing Points.”
Almost all of the train’s seats were full as it slowed near Lesak, the last stop before Serbia. Several members of the Serbian police come around to check identification.
One woman taking the train indicated surprise that a police officer was present. Last time, she said, the Serbian police checked her documents, but before that, no one looked.
On the way back from Kraljevo to Kosovo, members of Serbian police again got on board to examine passengers’ documents. Members of the Kosovo police then jumped out of a jeep and onto the train, walked through without talking to anyone, and got off.
The chief of the Serbian border police, Nenad Banovic, confirmed that the border does not come under his jurisdiction, as Serbia considers it an internal administrative boundary, but is monitored by police.
“Once the train crosses the administrative line, members of the Kosovo Police are allowed to check the train as well, but that rarely happens,” Banovic said.
“Regarding our duties, this is no problem, because most passengers are people living in local communities who work in Raska or Leposavic or Mitrovica, so there is no special treatment for these travelers.”
Kosovo’s first railway line, between Han i Elezit and Mitrovica, opened in 1874, when Kosovo and much of today’s southern Serbia was part of the Ottoman Empire.
Today, the stretch from Fushe Kosove, near Prishtina, to Mitrovica does not function at all. At a depot in Fushe Kosovo, four trains intended for the line stand idle. Kosovo Railways’ union leader, Sabet Thaci, says the trains are meant to run from southern Kosovo all the way to Lesak, just as they did until 2008.
Kosovo Railways took over from UNMIK in 2008 and, in 2011, in compliance with EU directives, the company split into TrainKos, which manages transport operations, and InfraKos, which oversees the physical infrastructure of the trains.
The two companies say they have received no payment from Serbian Railways for use of its property, the railway tracks.
“They don’t give us any money; this is an illegal occupation, even an invasion,” Thaci told Prishtina Insight. “They should adhere to the 2003 agreement.”
According to Thaci, the northern portion of the line will come under Kosovo’s control after Serbia’s snap general elections on March 16.
Thaci said real profits would come with the free flow of goods trains. “Goods coming from Europe now have to go through Serbia and then through Macedonia before they reach us by train. We need a direct line to Europe,” he said.
InfraKos did not respond to inquiries about whether it intended to stop Serbian Railways from using the line.
EULEX told this newspaper that stopping trains did not come under the mission’s mandate, and ultimate authority over the issue lay with TrainKos and InfraKos.
The CEO of InfraKos, Agron Thaci, said he has asked the Kosovo government to stop the train, but no action had been taken.
He also said he had no information about a handover of authority for the railways in the north following the Serbian general election.
End of the line:
Kosovo’s railways are hampered by the fact that the companies are not members of any major international railway organizations.
The Community of European Railways, which lobbies Brussels on behalf of 75 train networks on the continent, told Pristina Insight it had consulted with Kosovo on the matter, but that Kosovo had not submitted a formal application to join. The same goes for OTIF, the inter-governmental organization for rail transport.
Tahiri says the topic of railways and air travel will be raised with Serbia in the coming rounds of the EU-led dialogue.
“What there is [about railways] is illegal interference into the state of Kosovo. That has to be addressed in the dialogue,” she said.