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27.11.2011/ RIA Novosti

Weekly column by Konstantin von Eggert

Barricades adorned with Russian tricolors. Portraits of Putin, Medvedev and Lukashenko, slogans like "We want Russian troops here!" - that is the reality in Mitrovica, the Serb enclave in northern Kosovo bordering Serbia proper. Or the province of Kosovo and Metokhia, as the Serbs call this area. I spent the last weekend in Kosovo and for the first time was able to take a peek at what is going on there.

Serbs in Mitrovica are trying to prevent Kosovo customs officers and bailiffs from entering the enclave. The Serbs regularly clash with UN police. The de facto Albanian government in Pristina operates in Mitrovica only with the help of international forces. The population there hopes that sooner or later they will break away from Kosovo and join Serbia.

A few days ago the Russian media exploded with reports that no less than 20,000 Kosovo Serbs sent a letter to the Russian Embassy in Belgrade asking to be given Russian citizenship. They claim this is the only way they can protect themselves from intimidation by the Pristina government. But, according to Western diplomats in the region, the majority of signatures was collected among Serb refugees in Serbia, and sometimes even among people who themselves have never lived there, but have family roots in Kosovo. This was confirmed by Russian diplomats in Belgrade. They said that at least part of the signatures was collected in Serbia itself. So the main rule, which I learned while covering conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s – “Never fully trust anyone or anything” – is still useful.

The strange story of the Serb letter to Moscow is one more piece of evidence of that. It seems that this is yet another ploy by the opponents of Serbia’s pro-European president, Boris Tadic. He and his party are to face parliamentary elections in 2012. First, the letter implicitly accuses Serbian authorities of failing to protect their compatriots in Kosovo. Second, it deals a blow to Belgrade's position in negotiations in Brussels with the government in Pristina. The negotiations are mediated by the EU and form part of a normalization effort that Tadic has initiated with Kosovo.

Third, the Serbs living in the west and south of Kosovo are not particularly happy with their brothers’ in the north exercise in letter writing. In theory, Mitrovica Serbs may be able to secede. Then their brothers in the south and west of Kosovo would find themselves left behind.

Finally, the Russian government is not very happy either. Despite its opposition to Kosovo independence and its insistence on being the protector of Serbs, Moscow does not want an open conflict with NATO and the European Union. This is exactly what would have happened if the Russian authorities decided to grant the Serbs’ request for passports. But, judging by the conversations I had in Pristina on the sidelines of the inaugural Germia Hill Conference organized by the European Council on Foreign Relations, the Kosovo government is not entirely unhappy with the developments. It is an opportunity for it to tell its Western partners: "You see, we really try to make peace with the Serbs, but they are rowdy, unreasonable and stage provocations."

There is one interesting detail: according to Western diplomats in Pristina, nearly all Kosovo Serbs acquired Kosovo passports - in addition to their Serbian ones – despite the fact that Belgrade doesn’t recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state and still officially considers it a Serbian province. People are pragmatic, and who could blame them for this. This is not to say that Serbs do not have a problem living in a majority-Albanian state. But it seems that with time old animosities become muted, and the pain dulls. It also seems that Kosovo authorities are quite serious about eventually joining the EU. For this they have to have a spotless record on minority treatment. Hence a proliferation of bilingual street signs and trilingual headed papers in all government institutions.

Moreover, the Serbs in Serbia proper also increasingly “think European” and are slowly getting accustomed to the idea that they will not have Kosovo back. Russia has recently opened its Emergencies Ministry airbase near the town of Nis. Ostensibly to help in potential disaster relief and guard against possible damage to the South Stream gas pipeline. Many people at the Pristina conference asked questions as to whether this could be a disguise for a Russian Air Force site. It could be, or it might not be.

But Russian presence is sorely missing in Kosovo. Russia withdrew its paratroopers in 2003, citing “economic reasons.” Since the 2008 Kosovo independence proclamation, Moscow does not want to have anything to do with Pristina, despite the fact that Belgrade does. Today the protection of Orthodox churches and monasteries in Kosovo is in the hands of the so-called liaison mission of Greece, a country which, just as Russia, does not officially recognize Kosovo. If Russia had such an office, the Serbs would have felt much more secure, and Russia would have had more information and more meaningful policy in the region.

Things may be changing. A senior Kosovo diplomat told me: "Recently, Russian diplomats at international conferences have started to approach me and generally feel freer to talk with us." I said that Moscow's official position has not changed. But at the same time I thought to myself: "If the Serbian government talks to Pristina, why should Russians be ‘holier than the Pope’ on the issue?”

Kosovo independence is a fait accompli. Sooner or later it will be recognized by Serbia. Would Russia change its mind after this? I do not know. What I know is that Kosovo Serbs (if we Russians really care about them) would feel much more at ease if Russia were present there in some meaningful way.

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