Some barriers can’t be bridged in Mitrovica

The Brussels-negotiated agreement left a vacuum of uncertainty in Mitrovica. The real issue with the bridge is that people, from the north and the south, were never asked how they feel.

The Mitrovica Bridge, undergoing revitalization and formally scheduled for opening by 20 January 2017, is flaring up controversies yet again. What the Mayor of Mitrovica North, Goran Rakic calls a “support wall,” many Albanians see as a wall, akin to the Berlin Wall, or to the less obvious divisions of the Mostar Bridge. Contrary to their original symbolism and purpose, bridges in the Balkans have come to symbolize deep divisions, imagined and real alike. The “support wall” in question, regardless of what its actual purpose is, is a sad manifestation of one community’s deeply rooted fear and distrust towards “the other,” whoever that might be. The barrier, according to the official explanation, is to have an access staircase and will not impede movement of people. Albanians oppose the stairwell and the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning requested immediate cessation of all construction work (in a note in Albanian, no less).

Let us leave aside the wall/barrier classification for a bit, and instead ask if the Serbs would want to be walled in. When the tall mounds of soil which served as a barrier were first removed a few years back and the bridge was open mere hours for traffic, only to be replaced by the so-called Peace Park, many Serbs, friends and relatives of mine said things like “Albanians were not honorable in their victory,” or “they were honking the horns and cat-calling our girls,” and “we were terrified. It felt like 1999 all over, something had to be done.” Suddenly, locals reacted out of real fear and shut the bridge down again. This all was fueled by the already existing vacuum of uncertainty left in place by the first Brussels Agreement. This kind of an organic reaction to uncertainty, which seems to be the rule in Kosovo rather than the exception, is what has the potential to forever keep the communities in a deadlock. Repurposing the bridge in any way without the input of both local communities, taking into account all the possible implications, is emblematic of the Brussels process itself – little local input on issues of biggest importance to both sides.

The real question, the answer to which seems to be escaping everyone, myself included, is how is it possible that many different groups of people lived at relative peace for so long only to come to where we are today? Arguably, one might say that the fear of a sizeable portion of Serbs that they are under a siege of sorts is justified; and it is difficult to imagine that even if Albanians would make active efforts to engage with the local Serbs to dispel such perceptions, they would be successful.

The real issue with the bridge is that people, from the north and the south, were never  asked how they feel. Their feelings were often used by any side which might see it to their immediate advantage, showing zero care for welding together the broken communication line between the two.

The often elusive, but omnipotent “internationals” (whoever they might be) have garnered a status of beings with near superpowers at their disposal, shaping territories, boundaries, rhetoric, negotiations, economy, life. Are the internationals to be credited with what has been accomplished, or are they to be blamed?

It would be far too simplistic, and indeed naive, to believe that divided communities emerge on their own. The “internationals,” again, as elusive as ever, have insisted on stability over true democracy. This, in turn, has lead to issues of governance.

Was there ever a public debate for the Mitrovica bridge reconstruction? Has there ever been a public bid? What about questions of rigged tenders in the north and beyond in order to secure local buy-in of elites and ensure no trouble is created in the field? The international community has done little, if anything, to address these concerns. The Mitrovica Bridge and its chronic obsession with barricades is today not a source of conflicts, but an epitome of failed international governance, focusing so much on security and gradual improvements over time that it took 17 years of half-concerted reconciliation efforts to get here.

Take this into perspective: someone born at the end of the “Allied Force” NATO campaign is today a junior in high school. The reluctance of the international community to invest more money primarily in infrastructure certainly did not help alleviate this status quo. Infrastructure, at the end of the day, is what people see; it is a lasting legacy and a sign of good will. Constant insistence on “improving the lives of ordinary citizens” by the international community remains little more than a simple sentence – residents of Mitrovica North still do not have a regular supply of clean drinking water and power plants in Obiliq at Prishtina’s doorstep are some of Europe’s biggest pollutants. Both these issues require a policy-based approach and financial commitments, something the international donors seem reluctant to do, at least when it comes to the latter.

Serbs are not sure what will happen. They are afraid that the withdrawal of Serbian institutions is jeopardizing not even the quality of their lives, but their survival as such. This is decided in Belgrade, and this they have no control over. Yet again, the international community fails to recognize the non-democratic practice of alienating an entire community from the negotiation process which impacts their very lives. Fueled by nearly 18 years of ghettoization (self-imposed or otherwise), the community has become reliant on the bridge (or a metaphorical bridge of a kind) to perpetuate the safety net they themselves had built, without Belgrade’s or anyone’s help. The removal of such physical obstacles demands a removal of internal barriers. To many this is a scary prospect. The real question is why the people were never given help to create this alternative.

I took part in a conversation once a few years ago in Prishtina and a Western diplomat said something that will forever be etched in my mind: “When Belgrade needs 1244 for its own use, it refers back to the Resolution. The biggest concession to Belgrade regarding 1244 will be that they come to, let’s say the Mitrovica Bridge, and sign the independence of Kosovo at 12:44. That’s about the most they can get out of it.” From its perspective, Belgrade is losing ground in Kosovo, possibly accepting this state of affairs and focusing on its own EU integrations. The Kosovo Serb locals, on the other hand, through local proxies with often next to zero legitimacy, are told that the situation will change for the better because Belgrade will make something happen.

Such conflicting statements, an absence of a common communication platform regarding the Brussels process, may lead many Serbs to not try to create solutions; they might be disenfranchised from the beginning if they feel their contribution means nothing. A constant state of uncertainty might make their fears even more powerful and their reactions much more resolute. In the end, Kosovo Serbs may feel utterly alone, surrounded by nothing more than political stagnation, lack of economic opportunities and a slow deterioration in the quality of local services provided due to migration. Parliamentary elections held in the northern municipalities may be considered illegitimate and downright illegal: MPs were appointed by Belgrade, while Brussels stood silent in the face of election fraud. Prishtina, for its own part, did little to increase local democratic decision-making capacities in the North, sending a message that the local Serbs really aren’t stakeholders – they are merely voters and passive users of imposed solutions. Kosovo is only one of examples around the world in which divided communities give rise to a host of issues already mentioned. Should Brussels fail in rebuilding Kosovo, it will fail elsewhere, too.

Igor Zlatojev earned his BA from the University of Mississippi in Political Science, with a minor in History. He is currently a freelance translator and writer based out of Wroclaw, Poland. He may be reached for comments and suggestions via [email protected]

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