Kosovo has barred Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic from visiting a Serb-populated enclave after dozens of protesters blocked the road to the village he had planned to travel to.
Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said on Facebook on September 9 that the revocation of Vucic’s permission to visit the village of Banje was made in the interests of the safety of citizens.
President Hashim Thaci said on Facebook that he supported the decision but called protests and roadblocks unhelpful as Kosovo and Serbia make efforts for “peace and reconciliation” after the 1998-99 war between the two sides.
Thaci added that the blockade “shows that the pain and war injuries are still fresh.”
The protesters used cars and trucks to block the main road between the city of Mitrovica and the village of Banje, which Vucic was scheduled to visit later on September 9.
They also burned tires and displayed banners that read “Vucic will not pass here” and “You have to apologize for the crimes.”
NATO peacekeepers from Hungary wearing full riot gear and backed by Swiss Army bulldozers were stationed close to the barricade and said they were ready to intervene if they are asked by Kosovar authorities to clear the road.
The NATO-led peacekeeping mission, known as KFOR, said in a statement that it was working with Kosovar authorities to remove the barricade on the road to the Serb-populated village without incident.
“KFOR is working to do it peacefully, but it is ready to intervene…if required,” the mission said in a statement to the Associated Press.
It added that “nobody is threatening Mr. Vucic and his safety was guaranteed.”
Vucic arrived in Kosovo on September 8 for a two-day visit that began a day after a meeting between him and Thaci was canceled because the Serbian president refused to meet.
The failed meeting adds further doubt to a possible land swap between the two countries that was floated by both Belgrade and Pristina last month.
While some EU and U.S. officials have said they support the exchange of territories, Germany and many analysts have said it is a bad idea that could renew old ethnic hostilities throughout the Balkans.
The land swap is also opposed by Kosovo’s ruling coalition and the opposition.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after NATO bombed to stop the killing and expulsion of Albanians by Serbian forces during a two-year counterinsurgency war.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and has been recognized by more than 100 countries, but not by Serbia. Normalizing bilateral ties is a key condition for both countries to move toward EU membership.
Speaking in northern Kosovo on September 8, Vucic said he would continue talks with Kosovar officials but warned it would be difficult to reach a deal that could normalize relations.
Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, said in a statement that the EU “regrets the decision” to cancel Vucic’s visit to Banje.
“We ask all those responsible to maintain order and provide secure passings throughout the day. Full commitment to preserving peace and security of the people of Kosovo and the people of Serbia, wisdom and calm is what is needed now,” Kocijancic said.
Kosovo police on September 9 stopped Vucic and his entourage on the road to the Drenica region and informed they would not be allowed to proceed due to security concerns. The region was the site of Serbian forces’ first bloody crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1998.
Vucic, once a fiery ultranationalist, told members of the Serbian ethnic minority in Mitrovica on September 9 that he would “not hesitate for second when it comes to the need to defend our nation in any part of Kosovo and Metohija if our nation is attacked.”
Belgrade continues to refer to the country as “Kosovo and Metohija,” its official name when it was an autonomous Serbian republic.
“We want Serbian children and schools, teachers, and kindergartens for them,” Vucic said. “I want you to have enough reasons to want to have children. I want maternity wards, playgrounds, roads, and factories, so that in the end you can have everything that will let you stay here.”
But Vucic said that he did not “want to incite war” and “won’t promise arms and ammunition.
“I wish to believe that we can now have an era of rational, and why not in 50 years, friendly relations with the Albanians,” he said.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP