Serbia's road to EU may be blocked as checkpoints return to Balkans

Kosovo border dispute may scupper application amid fears of 'strategic disaster' if Croatia is admitted without Serbia

Barbed wire and burnt-out vehicles, trucks laden with logs splayed across the roads, stone-throwing mobs and panicking international peacekeepers cowering behind their riot shields. The Balkan checkpoint, wearily familiar from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, is back.

In an attempt to keep a little swath of Kosovo Serbian, Serbs have cut roads, blocked passages and erected checkpoints at a score of locations across the north of Kosovo bordering Serbia since the summer.

Last week dozens of German and Austrian peacekeepers and Serbian protesters were injured in clashes as the confrontation escalated into a crisis whose impact is reverberating well beyond this poor, dusty corner of south-eastern Europe.

The contest is about who should control the border between Serbia and Kosovo and whether it is even a border at all. Serbia regards Kosovo as its own, refusing to recognise the Albanian-majority country that declared independence three years ago. For the Kosovars, meanwhile, having police and customs officers on the border crossings with Serbia is a fundamental attribute of statehood.

It is a local conflict, but the impact is resonating far beyond Belgrade and Pristina and could on Monday scupper Serbia's central political aim: its chances of being put on the path to join the European Union.

"We do want to see a very strong [Serbia] commitment to the dialogue with Kosovo," William Hague, the foreign secretary, said as Britain joined Germany, Austria, and The Netherlands in threatening to veto the decision.

It is a momentous week for the Balkans. While Belgrade is to learn whether it is a contender for joining the EU and Montenegro, already a candidate, is to be told if it can open negotiations, Croatia later in the week will sign the treaty to join the union. It will take another 18 months of referendums and ratifications before Croatia becomes a member. The fear felt keenly across the Balkans is that the EU will then close its doors unless a breakthrough is made this week.

"Certainly after Croatia no one will enter quickly. There will be a hiatus," Bozidar Djelic, Serbia's deputy prime minister, told The Guardian. A senior German figure involved in the negotiations said: "It will be a very fateful signal if we take in the Croats and then turn our backs on the Serbs."

The head of an international organisation working in former Yugoslavia says that the west may be on the brink of a serious miscalculation if Serbia is snubbed. "It will be a strategic disaster. An angry, frustrated Serbia can cause trouble everywhere, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Montenegro. You will have a black hole."

But in an EU plunged into an existential crisis by the financial and sovereign debt debacles, there is little appetite in the main capitals for enlarging the union beyond the 28 countries including Croatia. Eight years ago in Greece, European leaders pledged to bring all of former Yugoslavia and Albania into the EU. Balkan gloom-mongers say the EU is now simply going through the motions. "This week is the end of the Thessaloniki process," said one international official based in Sarajevo in Bosnia, referring to the policy born in 2003.

They fear that if the west gives up on the Balkans, others will enter in a region whose geography has made it a prey of the big powers for centuries.

With Slovenia and Croatia – the westernmost, Roman Catholic bits of former Yugoslavia – integrated in the EU and Nato, what remains in limbo – Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania – is split between Orthodox Christian Slavs and indigenous European Muslims. The situation invites a contest for influence between Vladimir Putin's Russia parading as the guardian of the Orthodox and Turkey, the European Muslim power with an increasingly assertive foreign policy. There are three unresolved issues in former Yugoslavia – Macedonia's endless name dispute with Greece, the utter failure of Bosnian elites to move beyond ethnic constituencies and agree a common modus operandi (Bosnia has been without a central government for more than a year), and the Serbia-Kosovo standoff. It is Kosovo that is the key to a breakthrough this week.

Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, said on Friday that Serbia was not ripe for EU candidate status. In the summer she went to Belgrade and read the riot act to President Boris Tadic, widely seen as the west's best hope in Belgrade. Britain and Austria support Germany's hard line.

But the EU's decision on Serbia remains finely balanced, with Tadic under immense pressure to deliver concessions on Kosovo while risking opprobrium at home if he does. For the first time since the north Kosovo barricades went up in July, Tadic last week demanded that they be dismantled. He was ignored by local radicals.

In Brussels three days of fraught talks between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians, described as "pretty awful" by an EU official, resulted in a mini-breakthrough on Saturday. The Serbs agreed to allow Kosovar Albanian police and customs officers to man the contested border points. The Kosovo government, since the province declared independence from Serbia in 2008, views this as a demonstration of sovereignty. But Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo, argues that the border points are not an international frontier but "administrative crossings" and says the Kosovo officers will only be allowed as "observers". And local Serbian politicians in northern Kosovo have rejected the agreement. With years of a Cyprus-style frozen conflict in prospect, EU leaders are reluctant to import more trouble by starting the process of admitting Serbia .

"We want to make more use of this period of maximum leverage to progress relations with Kosovo," said an EU diplomat.

Europe and Serbia are engaged in a risky game of brinkmanship. On the dusty blocked roads of northern Kosovo, Serbia's future is at stake.


Ian Traynor, Europe editor

The GuardianTramp

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