Serbia’s president criticised the outgoing US administration yesterday (17 January), voicing hope that President-elect Donald Trump would be more favourable towards Belgrade over the thorny issue of Kosovo.
President Tomislav Nikolić told the US ambassador to Serbia, Kyle Scott during a meeting that the United States had caused “many troubles” for Serbia, according to a statement from Nikolić’s office.
“I hope that this kind of behaviour will cease with the new administration,” he said.
The United States was among the first countries in 2008 to recognise the independence of Kosovo, a former Serbian province with an ethnic Albanian majority.
Serbia, supported by its traditional ally Russia, does not recognise the sovereignty of Kosovo, which it considers to be the cradle of its identity and religion.
Trump, who takes office on Friday, is popular in Serbia, where he is perceived as a leader likely to adopt a more “pro-Serbian” policy regarding the Kosovo issue.
In Belgrade’s main shopping street it is now possible to buy T-shirts featuring Trump alongside those bearing images of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the weekend, Serbia sent a train from Belgrade towards Kosovo painted in the colours of the Serbian flag, covered in the statement “Kosovo is Serbia” in multiple languages and decorated inside with Serbian Orthodox imagery.
The train, slammed as a “provocation” by Kosovo, was stopped before crossing the border over fears it would be attacked.
Ready to send the army
“We do not want war, but we will even send the army if needed to protect Serbs from possible killings,” Nikolić told reporters on Saturday.
Speaking to Western diplomats the following day, Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj said that Belgrade’s actions towards Kosovo “show that Serbia wants to ignite new conflicts”.
Belgrade and Pristina both aspire to join the European Union, and EU-brokered talks between the two sides since 2011 have led to greater freedom of movement and goods and improved police cooperation.
But nearly 20 years after the Kosovo war in which 13,000 people were killed, progress has stalled.
The disputes are accumulating: Kosovo’s citizens were outraged at the 4 January arrest in France of former premier Ramush Haradinaj on suspicion of war crimes, owing to an international arrest warrant issued by Belgrade.
A former head of the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), Haradinaj has been released on bail but cannot leave France while an extradition request from Belgrade is examined, which could take months.
He has twice before been tried and acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague.
Building a wall
Relations have further deteriorated in the town of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, where Serb authorities have started erecting a concrete wall on the banks of the Ibar river.
The wall’s construction, by a bridge that divides the town’s Serb-dominated north and largely ethnic Albanian south, has angered Pristina, which says it is cementing the town’s divisions and must be knocked down.
But the mayor of North Mitrovica, Goran Rakić, says the wall is simply practical and will protect pedestrians from traffic.
It is not up to Pristina to decide “what would and what would not be built”, he warned.
Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa said that the issue of the wall “will be settled in accordance with the law”.
Serbian political analyst Aleksandar Popov said the renewed tensions could be explained by domestic politics, with Serbia entering a campaigning period ahead of presidential elections in April.
Kosovo remains a sensitive issue 18 years after a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia aimed at ending the war, and Popov said the ruling SNS party wanted to anticipate voters’ criticisms over how they have handled Kosovo and relations with Europe.
Belul Beqaj, a political sciences professor in Kosovo, said Belgrade’s leaders had a habit of trying to distract voters from internal problems by focusing on Kosovo ahead of elections.
“It is a dangerous game with fire that cannot be fully controlled,” he warned.