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The center of the bridge on the Ibar River in Mitrovica under construction in July 2017.

Bridges are meant to connect people, but the one over the Ibar River in Kosovo has long been a tool of separation, used by ethnic Serbs to maintain isolation from the Albanian majority in southern Mitrovica.

Parapets and barricades had impeded access to the other side since 1999. Now, as the bridge becomes passable once again, Russia appears to be stepping in to preserve the physical and political divide it symbolized in its ruinous state.

Russian influence is visible at every turn in North Mitrovica. Russian flags hang over balconies, while portraits of Vladimir Putin and graffiti honoring the Serbian-Russian alliance are everywhere.

The political leadership of the Kosovo Serbs boasted of having been summoned to Moscow for "consultations" prior to recent local elections (October 22), claiming to have forged closer ties with United Russia. It seems that Moscow is now the destination of choice for Serbian politicians facing elections or in the process of forming a government -- whether in Serbia or in Kosovo.

For Russia, northern Kosovo is useful because it allows Moscow to appear as the protector of its Balkan Slavic cousins with little effort, almost by default. The fact that since 2013 Serbia has been engaged in dialogue with the Kosovar government under EU auspices is seen as betrayal by Kosovo Serbs because it destroys the illusion that Mitrovica is still somehow a part of Serbia. Feeling abandoned, many Serbs in northern Kosovo instinctively looked to Russia. When the high-level talks between Belgrade and Pristina began, local Serbs demanded Russian citizenship -- which was of course unrealistic, but reveals the depth of their disappointment.

Serbian flags fly in North Mitrovica as local elections are held on October 22.
Serbian flags fly in North Mitrovica as local elections are held on October 22.

RFE/RL spoke with ordinary people on the streets of Mitrovica, and the pro-Moscow feelings were unanimous. A typical comment was that of pensioner Jova Jovanovic: "The Russians have been our friends for centuries. Whoever has a problem with the Russians is an enemy of the Serbian people."

Another person interviewed, Bosanka Prodanovic, also expressed admiration for Russia and added: "We have no idea what kind of agreements they are making in Brussels. But we have confidence in Putin."

The reconstruction of the Ibar Bridge was part of the agreement between Belgrade and Pristina guaranteeing "freedom of movement" for both ethnic groups. The reconstruction project is estimated to cost 1.2 million euros ($1.4 million) and is being financed by the EU.

Yet, like so many agreements brokered by Brussels, it has been subject to delays and obstruction. Europe is doing its best to nudge ethnic Serbian communities toward integration with the rest of Kosovo, while Russia supports those who continue to insist that Kosovo is a part of Serbia.

"Kosovo is also effectively used by Russia to highlight the hypocrisy of the West's commitment to preserving states' territorial integrity in some cases while supporting the principle of self-determination in others. This has served to both discredit the West as well as justify Russia's own foreign policy actions in Georgia and Ukraine, with Russia citing Kosovo as precedent," the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes in its study on The Kremlin Playbook.

Nevertheless, the bridge over the Ibar River that has been the scene of so many incidents and violent clashes is now open in both directions, albeit so far only for pedestrians. Italian Carabinieri who are part of the KFOR peacekeeping mission are still posted on the bridge, but the tensions are lower than they have been for a long time.

A mural in Mitrovica stating that "Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia."
A mural in Mitrovica stating that "Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia."

Faruk Ahmeti, a Kosovo Albanian who lives in Bosnjacka Mahala, at the entrance of North Mitrovica, told RFE/RL's Pristina bureau that crossing from one part of the town to the other is easy, but that some apprehension remains.

"I am still anxious, because I work in the southern sector, and my family lives in the north, and I am constantly wondering if they are safe."

Besides freedom of movement there are signs of progress elsewhere, but it is slow, and many obstacles remain. It is estimated that around half of the inhabitants of the four ethnically Serbian municipalities in the northern sector have Kosovo ID cards, but only 3 percent have Kosovo driver's licenses -- even though Serbian documents are not accepted as valid by the Kosovar authorities.

According to RFE/RL reports, the problem is not only that the majority of ethnic Serbs refuse to identify with Kosovo as their country, but that even those who do try to obtain a Kosovo ID or passport find that the process is made unnecessarily difficult by the local bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, those who stubbornly refuse to make any compromise with the reality of living in the state of Kosovo have put their faith in Putin's Russia, even more than Serbia. It is Putin's face smiling down on passersby from a giant billboard in Mitrovica's main square.

Russian meddling is no surprise for Daniel Serwer, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"Russia will use any opening to try to make trouble in the Balkans, where doing so is cheap and productive. If Moscow can wreck the progress made in the dialogue, all the better from its perspective," Serwer told RFE/RL.

Naim Rashiti of Balkans Policy Research Group feels that Russia is keen on sabotaging any project where the West is actively involved, and Kosovo is no exception in this sense -- although it is seen as particularly fertile ground for disruption.

Naim Rashiti
Naim Rashiti

The Russian state-supported media outlet Sputnik habitually refers to Kosovo as "the West's most expensive project."

"It is in their interest to keep tensions high in the Western Balkans in order to divert Euro-Atlantic integrations of the countries in the region," Rashiti says. In Kosovo, the goal of Russian interference is "to impede reconciliation [between Serbs and Albanians] and to prevent the integration of northern Kosovo."

According to a recently published paper on Russian interference by the Kosovo Center for Security Studies (KCSS), the country's biggest challenge will be finding a way to prevent the Association of Serb Municipalities in Northern Kosovo from becoming Russian government proxies in the manner of Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

The official opening of the bridge over the Ibar River was scheduled for March, and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini was due to attend. With the bridge only partly functional and the opening postponed again, she said that it is "a symbol of the fractures, the wars, and the pain that has marked the history of the Balkans in the last 25 years."

But she added that it could become "a symbol of dialogue, reconciliation, hope." The barricades and walls on the Ibar Bridge may be gone, but it will take longer for the walls in people's minds to come down.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Serbian General Vladimir Lazarevic, ultimately convicted of command responsibility for war crimes committed against the civilian population during the 1998-99 Kosovo war, is seen during his initial appearance at The Hague tribunal on February 7, 2005.

It was a disappointment, but no surprise, to human rights activists in Belgrade when it was officially announced that senior officers convicted of -- or alleged to have committed -- war crimes would join the teaching staff at the Military Academy.

Aleksandar Vulin, the Serbian defense minister, justified the move as an act of restitution.

"The decision...is a way of correcting the injustice [the officers] have been suffering," he said, adding that wartime generals had a "great deal of experience to impart to their younger colleagues."

One of those called upon to pass on their experience to future Serbian Army officers is General Vladimir Lazarevic, the former commander of the Pristina Corps of the Yugoslav Army. In 2009, he was convicted at The Hague tribunal of command responsibility for war crimes committed against the civilian population during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.

Attempts by RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau to find out which subjects would be taught by the convicted general received only a vague response from the Defense Ministry, stating that "all prominent senior officers who served in the most recent conflicts (the Kosovo war and the NATO campaign in 1999) should pass on their knowledge and experience to academics."

The ministry further announced that while the General Staff and the ministry itself will provide a list of candidates, the final choice of instructors will be made by the Military Academy -- and that those selected would have the rank of unpaid visiting instructors.

Lazarevic inspects Serb positions near the Serbian-Kosovar border town of Bujanovac in November 2000.
Lazarevic inspects Serb positions near the Serbian-Kosovar border town of Bujanovac in November 2000.

Other notable officers slated to become instructors include retired general and Serb Radical Party member Bozidar Delic, as well as the current chief of staff of the Serbian Army, Ljubisa Dikovic -- both dogged by allegations of war crimes.

The lack of accountability seems to reflect a desire to forget -- or to rewrite -- the history of the 1990s.

However, at least some in Serbia, albeit a minority, are refusing to draw a veil over those dark years in the nation's history.

The Hague tribunal sentenced Lazarevic to 14 years in prison for his role in the crimes against civilians, and he was released having served two-thirds of his prison term.

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin said he believes "the decision...is a way of correcting the injustice [the officers] have been suffering."
Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin said he believes "the decision...is a way of correcting the injustice [the officers] have been suffering."

Nemanja Stjepanovic of the Humanitarian Law Center is appalled that those responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians -- killed by troops under their command and in areas they controlled -- should be training new recruits to the officer corps.

"First, Lazarevic was convicted of abetting a joint criminal enterprise, as someone responsible for the deportation and forcible resettlement of Albanian civilians from Kosovo in 1999. He served out his sentence and returned to Serbia. In the area assigned to [Bozidar] Delic's 549th brigade, around 2,200 Albanian civilians were killed. In the area under the control of Ljubisa Dikic's unit, around 1,400 civilians perished, while in the Pristina Corps' zone of operations, under the command of Lazarevic from March 24 to June 10, 1999, 6,200 civilians were killed," Stjepanovic said.

There was no subsequent investigation of those crimes and nothing was done to punish the perpetrators, Stjepanovic added, and most of the victims ended up in mass graves in Serbia -- of which around 1,000 have been located thus far in four separate locations.

What are they going to teach? Will they teach students how to cover up war crimes? How not to reveal where the bodies are hidden?"
-- Nemanja Stjepanovic, Humanitarian Law Center

Yet, the Serbian defense minister insists that "there is no longer a reason to stand in the way of those who defended the nation during the NATO aggression" and keep them from the Military Academy, and that Serbia should "not be ashamed" of them any longer.

Stjepanovic is unimpressed.

"What are they going to teach? Will they teach students how to cover up war crimes? How not to reveal where the bodies are hidden? How to protect soldiers under their command guilty of war crimes? Is that on their syllabus? Or how to effectively expel 800,000 people from their homes? Because that's how many Kosovo Albanians were expelled in only 2 1/2 months, according to the records of The Hague trials," Stjepanovic said.

Sonja Biserko, the president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia (HCHRS), is worried about "war criminals setting the moral standard in society and influencing the next generation of officers," but she also sees a broader agenda at work.

"It is not just about the return of convicted war criminals. There is a wider pattern of denial, the normalization of [former Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic's policies and their continuation. It all means that Serbia may not be on the road to EU membership, because one of the bloc's conditions is for the country to face up to its past," Biserko told the Vojvodina Research and Analytical Center (VOICE).

The historian Dubravka Stojanovic, also speaking to VOICE, laments that "the same agendas and the same people who led Serbia into the wars [of the 1990s] are on the scene."

However, speaking to Novosti, retired General Radovan Radinovic defended Lazarevic's record.

"No one can take away his actions in defense of his country from NATO aggression. He is no criminal; he never committed a crime personally. He was convicted of command responsibility, which is a crime invented to persecute Serbs, and to go after the entire political and military leadership for opposing the seizure of their country, and defending itself against attack."

The U.S. ambassador to Serbia, Kyle Scott: "Soldiers have a duty to disobey orders that are against the rules of war."
The U.S. ambassador to Serbia, Kyle Scott: "Soldiers have a duty to disobey orders that are against the rules of war."

U.S. Ambassador Kyle Scott refused to comment on whether convicted war criminals should be instructing the new generation of Serbian officers, saying that he did not have all the details. However, he added that it could not happen in the United States because the rules of war and respect for the Geneva Conventions are taught at all military academies.

"Soldiers have a duty to disobey orders that are against the rules of war. It is inconceivable that someone like Lieutenant [William] Calley, whose unit was responsible for the massacre at My Lai [in South Vietnam in 1968], or the commander of Abu Ghraib [prison camp in Iraq] would be selected to teach American soldiers about the conduct of war or how to run a prison," Scott explained.

In Serbia, meanwhile, politicians and military commanders seem to be stuck in a vision of the past that is partial at best. Thus, Defense Minister Vulin and those who are defending the appointment of Lazarevic and others linked to war crimes as instructors at the Military Academy recall their service during the NATO bombing campaign -- cast as a war of self-defense -- while appearing to forget what led to it, and the thousands of Albanian civilians buried in unmarked mass graves, many of whose killers are still at large in Serbia.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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