In-depth | Politics

One train and much tension

By - 15.01.2017

Controversial train turns back to Belgrade, but tensions remain.

It was 22:00 by the time Kosovo Police’s Regional Operational Support Unit (ROSU) was preparing to return to headquarters. “The train reached Kraljevo [in Serbia], there’s nothing for us to do here,” was the enthusiastic statement of one ROSU member to K2.0, after more than 10 hours on duty. You could read relief and pride in his face and in the faces of many other members of the police, who, from the early hours of Saturday were on standby, waiting for a rather peculiar train.

The so-called ‘Russian train’ — in reference to where it was bought from — with the provocative slogan: “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages had been headed towards the north of Mitrovica from Belgrade. According to voices from Serbia’s capital, this was the first time a train has run between the two cities for 18 years.

But this train, carrying amongst its passengers Serbian officials, including those who have been refused entry into Kosovo such as the director of Serbia’s ‘Office for Kosovo and Metohija,’ Marko Djuric, did not reach its intended destination.

The train stopped exactly in the place considered by many historians as the center of medieval Serbia. Later on, Serbian historians would push this center further towards Kosovo, by creating the Serbian myth of Gazimestan, the sanctity of ‘Serbian land,’ Prizren as the ‘Tzar’s city’ and so on.

Renowned British scholar Noel Malcolm, the author of the book “Kosovo: A Short History,” in a 2003 interview for Radio Free Europe stated that most of the myths about Kosovo were created by Serbian historians — including amongst other things the idea that Kosovo is the heart of Serbia; the center of the Serbian Orthodox Church and culture. But Malcolm asserts that the cradle of Serbia was Raska, or western Sandzak, and not Kosovo. 

From there, there is no streetlight without the flag of Serbia hanging from it.

The Middle Ages was an important historical era for Serbia, which at that time was led by the dynasty of the Nemanjic family in Raska. Tim Judah, author of two books on Kosovo, writes that similar to many other medieval monarchs, the Nemanjics donated to the construction of churches, which can be found in both Serbia and Kosovo. The most famous of these in Kosovo are the Patriarchate of Peja, and the monasteries of Gracanice and Decan.

Aboard the train on Saturday morning, passengers that included Serbian government officials chanted songs that recall Serbia’s ‘glorious past.’ During the day, Kosovo Police were ordered to stop the train from entering Kosovo.

The western media, whose interest in the Balkans is continuously fading, on Saturday wrote that Serbia provoked Kosovo with its propaganda train, a kind of mobile church with Orthodox icons and the now-familiar message “Kosovo is Serbia” — an assertion undermined by the train’s return to Belgrade.

However, while the train turned back, Serbia’s influence continues to be present in different ways in the north of Kosovo. Serbian governments have incessantly invested in infrastructure in Kosovo’s north, in their efforts to create the impression that this is not Kosovo, but Serbia.

When traveling from the south to the north of Kosovo in the direction of Jarinje — the border checkpoint between Kosovo and Serbia — everything starts at the entrance of the village of Rudar, which ‘welcomes’ passersby with a giant cross. From there, there is no streetlight without the flag of Serbia hanging from it. Traffic signs, posters, the names of streets and roads, and even messages on the columns of concrete bridges are written only in Cyrillic. For Kosovar Albanians, who haven’t learned this alphabet, the trip through the north is a linguistic challenge.

Some signs of Kosovo’s statehood can be seen after almost two hours upon reaching Jarinje, where another of Kosovo’s official languages can be heard — Albanian, spoken by police officers stationed there.

Escalating rhetoric

From the early hours of Saturday morning Jarinje was filled with additional police forces, who were largely concentrated around the railway. Beside it, police forces led by ROSU commander Amir Gerguri placed their armored vehicles and vehicles for protest dispersals. However, there was no protest or reaction by Serb citizens in the north yesterday. Hundreds of protesters did gather this afternoon at the Car Lazar square in northern Mitrovica, although no incidents were reported.

As soon as the train stopped in Raska, Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic appeared at an extraordinary press conference in Belgrade, saying that he halted its progress “to save its citizens.” He told journalists in Serbia that Kosovo institutions already had their troops heading towards the border in Jarinje. These troops, according to him, had the task of arresting the driver.

“The [Kosovar] Albanians, without the approval of NATO or anyone else, sent 17 armored vehicles with special units … to the north with the aim of provoking a conflict of broad proportions,” said Vucic, who also suggested that Kosovars had laid mines on the tracks, a claim that has been categorically denied by Prishtina.

The U.S. President-elect, Donald Trump, can be seen everywhere in the north of Mitrovica on big posters with Cyrillic slogans.

He said that he had begun discussions with European and world leaders regarding the developments and suggested that he expected imminent reactions from Russia and China, while he would also be contacting U.S. leaders in the coming days.

I ask Serbs to remain calm, and my final warning and plea to Albanians in Kosovo and Metohija is not to try to attack Serbs with weapons because Serbia will not allow that,” said Vucic.

“We ask them to behave responsibly, peace is in the interest of everyone … And not to destroy that which we have built for a long time … The train is not a threat to anyone, chocolate is not a threat to anyone, not even [the Balkan dish] djuvec,” said Vucic.  He continued by saying how “ … 50 buses a day (from Kosovo) pass through Serbia and there is no problem whatsoever … To those who think they’re strong and can threaten others, I ask you not to do it and I hope they will understand well what I mean.”

The rhetoric was echoed by Serbia’s president, Tomislav Nikolic who told reporters that Serbia would not hesitate to send military troops to Kosovo if it was felt that Serb lives were in danger. “We will never start or provoke conflict, but we are a state that must protect its people and its territory,” he said. Asked if this would involve sending troops to Kosovo, he responded, “If they kill Serbs, we will all go there, not only the army. I would be the first to go, it wouldn’t be my first time.”

Prishtina reacts

In Prishtina, state officials — who allowed the daily trucks full of Serbian goods to enter Kosovo as usual — gave their own separate versions of the stopping of the train. President Hashim Thaci, who has been very vocal in his request to stop the train, and who according to Reuters claims to have issued the order to dispatch the special police forces, made a statement on Facebook.

“Kosovo respects the freedom of movement of people and goods. But a train covered with nationalistic slogans from Serbia, which are against the Kosovo Constitution and its laws, is absolutely unacceptable,” he wrote, emphasizing that there were people on board who did not have permission to enter Kosovo. “Therefore, anything illegal which infringes the state sovereignty of Kosovo must be prevented. This train is just another provocation and Kosovo authorities should undertake all necessary legal actions to stop it immediately.”

“But whenever the need arises, we will act as a state in order to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo.”

Enver Hoxhaj

His statement produced reactions by analysts and Assembly deputies, including Independent MP Ilir Deda, who emphasized that the train should be stopped, because it violates the sovereignty of Kosovo. However he said that the president has issued an order to Kosovo Police, and in doing so, Thaci had violated his constitutional mandate. Legally, the president is not an institution that can issues orders to police –- which is an independent authority within the Ministry of Internal Affairs and is accountable to the government.

The head of Kosovo’s government, Isa Mustafa, met with some members of his cabinet yesterday, and then made a statement to the media that Kosovo had responded lawfully to Serbia. “I should emphasize that together with the Assembly president, Kadri Veseli, and the president, Hashim Thaci after he returns, we have taken all measures to inform the international community about this situation, we have mobilized all state institutions, and we have undertaken all proper measures in line with the laws and the Constitution,” said Mustafa.

He added that this provocation is just another “wicked aim of Serbia to destabilize the situation in Kosovo.” According to Mustafa, the Kosovo Security Council took the decision to act according to the laws and the Constitution in relation to the latest developments.

“The entering of the train to the independent Republic shall not be allowed, and should it enter, it would face the consequences in line with Kosovo laws. We are committed to providing freedom of movement, but we will not allow such provocations. In light of this, let me express the readiness of the Government of Kosovo, in full cooperation with the president and the Assembly president, to engage for the protection of the sovereignty of the country,” said Mustafa, closing the press conference by thanking the USA. The U.S. president-elect, Donald Trump, can be seen everywhere in the north of Mitrovica on big posters with Cyrillic slogans.

The opposition in Kosovo also issued a reaction with Vetevendosje describing developments as purely a product of negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia without principles or conditions. “Similarly to the case of other concessions, those most responsible for this initiative of Serbia within Kosovo are Hashim Thaci, [Minister for Dialogue] Edita Tahiri and Isa Mustafa,” said a Vetevendosje press statement. “This train that is operating between Belgrade and Mitrovica for the first time since 1999, is full of motifs of Serbian cultural and religious heritage in Kosovo and full of slogans that consider Kosovo part of Serbia. And this makes clear the message that Serbia want Kosovo the way it used to be in 1999.”

Kosovo’s minister of foreign affairs, Enver Hoxhaj, also views the train as Serbian provocation and a source of destabilisation and conflict. “It is a country living in its dark past,” he said yesterday. “But whenever the need arises, we will act as a state in order to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo.” 

The U.S. Ambassador in Kosovo, Greg Delawie expressed his concerns on Twitter, emphasizing the need for the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

After a public frenzy due to the train, the situation had calmed by Sunday evening, with the majority of Kosovo special police standing down, while some remained on duty in Jarinje to observe the situation. Serb leaders from the north of Kosovo have appealed to Kosovo authorities to withdraw all units. While many of the train’s  passengers continued their journey by bus, the train itself returned to Belgrade. However the fallout from the weekend’s developments is likely to be felt for some time yet.K

Images: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.