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Serbs Protest Kosovo's Declaration of Independence

The United States officially recognized Kosovo as an independent state Monday, and 17 European Union members said they would soon do the same.

But in a sign of Europe's divisions over Balkan policy, several members declined to recognize the new state. Among them, Spain, Cyprus, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania — countries that all have separatist movements of their own.

In Kosovo's major Serbian enclave, angry residents demonstrated against a decision Serbs say is a violation of international law.

About 6,000 protestors gathered at noon in a central square of the divided city of Mitrovica, a rundown city in northern Kosovo. Speaker after speaker reassured the crowd that they'll never be abandoned, and that Kosovo will never be independent.

Many of the demonstrators were young, most would not talk to foreign journalists.

But Alexander did try to explain why Serbs are so angry and feel betrayed by the international community.

"People they are frustrated," Alexander said. "Last eight years, they didn't get anything ... so we strongly protest, basically we are not satisfied with basic human rights and we want to send that message to the world."

Northern Kosovo has the largest Serbian enclave, with about 80,000 living here. At the end of the rally, the crowd moved slowly toward the bridge over the Ibar River separating Serbs from the rest of Mitrovica and the ethnic Albanian majority of Kosovo. They waved Serbian flags and sang patriotic songs.

The bridge is heavily patrolled by NATO peacekeepers and it's a de facto line of separation between two communities.

The Serb sector is closely linked to Serbia: The cell phone provider is Serbian, the currency is Serbia's, and the city is plastered with posters of Serbian politicians.

On Sunday, officials from Belgrade came to promise the opening of Belgrade government, a clear hint of a possible future partition. Mitrovica is a stronghold of hard-line Serb nationalism. But even here, there are some Serbs who try to work for reconciliation between the two communities.

Momcilo Arlov, who runs the center for civil society development. accuses the U.N. officials who administered Kosovo for nine years of failing to develop an environment of reconciliation and respect for minorities. He says Kosovo's secession will only worsen the situation.

"If you have two sides in a conflict, independence serves interests only one side. That solution is not sustainable and will serve as foundation for future conflict," Arlov says.

Arlov's group is now urging Serbs in the smaller, more-isolated enclaves to resist and to fight for their civil rights in Kosovo.

"We say to them, "Stay, fight, fight using nonviolent ways of fight, use every instrument at your disposal, democratic instrument, to raise your voice, to position yourself, to claim your rights, but stay. Don't surrender.'"

Meanwhile, in Brussels, the European Union is putting the final touches on the civilian mission it will send here to steer Kosovo toward nationhood. But Balkan expert Mary Kaldor warns that in the last decade, the international community has failed to solve the problems of the Balkans.

"Grass-roots nationalism is stronger than before the war, Kaldor says. "There's high levels of criminality, unemployment, and there's lots of conflict entrepreneurs who want to make use of that."

Kaldor says that the EU is taking on a huge responsibility in what has remained Europe's most volatile region.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.