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News 10 Jul 14

Kosovo Serbs Erect Square on Mitrovica Bridge

A new square erected over the bridge in the divided northern town of Mitrovica, apparently designed to stop it reopening to traffic, has revived tensions between local Serbs and Albanians in the south.

Behar Mustafa

Kosovo Serbs have begun building a square named after a medieval Serbian emperor on the bridge that separates the ethniclly and politically divided town in northern Kosovo.

Construction on the “Tsar Lazar” square began on Wednesday by the same construction company that removed the recently built “Peace Park” there.

Lazar, a 14th-century ruler of Serbia, led the country into battle against invading Ottoman Turks in 1389 - a seminal event in Serbian history.

But Emir Azemi, a member of the local assembly in North Mitrovica, said the decision to erect the square was not discussed with other Albanian members of the assembly.

“No written project was offered to Albanian assembly members, showing  how big the square will be. That’s why we left the chamber [as a sign of dissatisfaction]”, he said.

The bridge separates what are now two municipalities: South Mitrovica, largely inhabited by Albanians, and North Mitrovica, where mostly Serbs live. For the past several years, a large barricade manned by local Serbs has prevented the free flow of traffic.

Nazmi Ismaili, an ethnic Albanian living in the north said the new square was a deliberate attempt to prevent any potential reopening of the bridge.

“This is a blockage of the city and of the Albanians. We don’t think we will ever be able to cross the bridge by car,” he said.

Work on the square, whose exact dimensions remain unclear, began about three weeks ago, after violent unrest hit the town, when Albanians protested over the erection of the so-called “Peace Park”, which replaced the big barricade put up three years ago.

The protest on June 22 and subsequent events underscored underlying tensions between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs that persist despite the success of EU-facilitated talks, which have made strides in normalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

The assembly in South Mitrovica called on the Kosovo government to intervene and “stop the construction [of the square] and return the situation to normality”.

An April 2013 agreement between Kosovo and Serbia - which does not recognise Kosovo's independence - brought Serbs in northern Kosovo back under the overall authority of Kosovo institutions, with the offer of limited autonomy through an association of northern Serb municipalities.

Since then, Serbs in the region have participated in local and national elections held last November and in June.

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