Serbian leader sees no end in sight to Kosovo stand-off

Aleksandar Vucic vows to defend Kosovo Serbs as roadblocks disrupt visit

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic addressing people in Mitrovica, Kosovo on Sunday. Photograph:  Laura Hasani/Reuters

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic addressing people in Mitrovica, Kosovo on Sunday. Photograph: Laura Hasani/Reuters

 

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic has warned that a deal to normalise relations with Kosovo is a long way off and that he will defend his ethnic kin in the mostly ethnic Albanian country, which broke from Belgrade’s rule a decade ago.

Hundreds of Kosovar Albanians, including veterans from a 1998-9 independence war with Serbian government forces, blocked roads around a mostly Serb village to prevent Mr Vucic entering the area on Sunday, raising tension at a time of intense speculation over a possible deal between Belgrade and Pristina.

Mr Vucic and his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci have suggested that border changes are now on the table in negotiations between their countries, which must resolve their differences if they want to join the European Union.

Critics warn that such a deal could rekindle the conflicts that engulfed Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but senior EU and US officials have said they would not oppose any land swap that was agreed by Belgrade and Pristina.

“I will do my best [to reach the agreement], but it is a long road full of thorns and problems ahead,” Mr Vucic said in northern Kosovo, a mostly Serb-inhabited region that could come back under Belgrade’s control as part of a territory exchange.

“My idea for tomorrow and for the future of Serbia and Serbs is to preserve our people, our country, peace, institutions, and at least to try to establish bridges of reconciliation with Albanians. I want to believe that now we can have an era of rational and – why not in 50 years – friendly relations with Albanians,” he added.

“A solution is not in sight, but I hope that at least it will be in 10 or 20 years, because anything else would mean the end for us in Kosovo.”

Enclaves

Only about 100,000 Serbs now reside in 1.8 million-strong Kosovo, with most of them living in so-called enclaves scattered around the country, well away from their stronghold in the north that borders Serbia and retains strong ties with Belgrade.

There are concerns that a land swap, which also resulted in Serbia recognising Kosovo’s sovereignty, would prompt an exodus of Serbs from enclaves where they would see no prospect for the future under the Pristina government.

“I don’t like guns, but we won’t allow anyone to harass Serbs in Kosovo,” Mr Vucic said.

“We are not playing heroes, but I ask everyone on the other side to take my words seriously and accept them . . . I will not think twice to protect our people if our people are attacked in any part of Kosovo.”

The Kosovo government revoked Mr Vucic’s permission to visit Serbs in the village of Banja in the Drenica region – where Belgrade’s violent crackdown on Kosovo started a decade ago – amid protests from Kosovars and security concerns.

Mr Thaci said he “fully understood” opposition to Mr Vucic’s visit and that the “pain and wounds of war are still very fresh”.

“However, when we are making efforts for peace and reconciliation, the protests and the blocking of the roads do not help us at all,” he added.