Reopening the Bridge? The preparations for this winter and possible re-flooding? These subjects and more were discussed last month at New Perspektiva’s Let’s Talk About it… series with Ramadan Ilazi, Head of Research at the Kosovo Centre for Security Studies and Dejan Nedejlković from NGO Green Heart. This discussion was held last month in north Mitrovica at Europe House and moderated by New Perspektiva, Executive Director, Bronwyn Jones.

Both ended up agreeing on many of the points made that included not reopening the main bridge over the Ibar river. More cooperation on the community level to deal with issues like floods. It was noted that on a community level people from minority and majority groups worked together, had economic ties and were more integrated than most would assume. But the tensions started from the politicians at the top and filtered down to the communities.

Both agreed more economic and community cooperation were needed and necessary. Especially to work on environmental issues like flooding, forestry and waste management. The same issues affected both communities. The way forward was cooperation.

Find the original and complete audio of the conversation in Serbian, Albanian and English here.

And below are the answers to the first question on the reopening of the Bridge for vehicle traffic something recently proposed by the new municipal government of north Mitrovica:

Ramadan Ilazi: “From my perspective, the Ibër River bridge reopening is a sensitive topic. To just refresh our
collective memory, this issue was a topic for the first time in 2014 as a part of the dialogue on normalization of relations.

The agreement was reached that year, then it was repeated in 2015, then we had another agreement in 2016. The last accord date between Kosovo and Serbia to reopen the bridge was 20 January 2017, but that was not implemented. In technical terms, a reason for this was the lack of defining the administrative borders between South Mitrovica and North Mitrovica, and there are two contested villages, Suhodoll and Kroi i Vitakut.

In this regard, these two villages remain problematic issues and this is the reason why the bridge was not reopened. On the other hand, other aspects are completed, the bridge has been revitalized, the works are completed, and the boulevard in the northern part has been improved, and only the reopening of the bridge is missing. I think the reopening of the bridge also has a great psychological weight for all citizens because everyone says it is a symbol of separation and perhaps of insecurity.

As long there is still a blocked bridge, there is also this conviction that the north is still not safe for the majority of Albanians. This certainly is also an indicator for the Serbian community in the northern part. The fact the bridge is still closed is not an indicator that part is not safe enough, although even cars do not pass through that bridge, the citizens, as I saw while coming here, were circulating continuously.

Despite political problems, this circulation has been even more active. Although this bridge has become a symbol, it does not define the relations between the north and the south, because other parts are very accessible, so there is not a real separation. However, it does have political and psychological importance.

What we must consider is we probably cannot take out the reopening of the bridge from the general political context. We have seen that, every time we had political tensions in Kosovo, they were translated into community tensions, and this has had its own impact. Therefore, forced solutions can create new problems, the reopening of the bridge must be done in a welcoming atmosphere by all communities.

I think a political decision of the city council can open the bridge. The bridge can be reopened even with physical force, but that is not a sustainable solution, and it even creates more tensions of the relations, so there needs to be a solution to achieve understanding to implement the agreements, to regulate laws about these two villages and areas that impede the implementation of the agreement for revitalizing the bridge and move forward.

However, I hope this will not be done in a way that creates more tensions than it helps, because bridges are a symbol of collaboration. So, I think if the reopening of a bridge becomes a source of tensions, then the whole aim of the process is lost, because there was an agreement about this. I hope this happens as soon as possible but, as I said, it should be done in a welcoming atmosphere from communities, and it should not be forced because that is not a sustainable solution.”

Dejan Nedejlković: “As far as the bridge itself is concerned and the last part, air pollution, a lot of things are polluted, not just the vehicle, so the vehicle wouldn’t be a problem.

But when we talk about the bridge and the possible opening of the bridge for international communication between Serbs and Albanians south and north of the river Ibar, we have to go back to the period in 2000, the time after the bombing, when we had constant attacks of Albanian citizens from 2000 to 2003.

We know that there was a great conflict between Serbs and Albanians, that some kind of forum was eventually set up as a peaceful factor, which in some way brought peace to all people.

And the situation, after signing the Brussels agreement, led to stabilization of the situation, that is, to peace between Serbs and Albanians and, among other things, better communication.

Until the signing of the Brussels agreement, we did not have a large number of citizens from southern Mitrovica coming to the north, as well as a large number from the northern part coming to the south.

After the signing of the Brussels agreement, that part was very well corrected, and a large number of Serbs went to the south, as well as a large number of Albanians to the north.

The situation in that form went in a very good direction and, let’s say, until [prime minister Albin Kurti’s] repressions on Serbs, especially on Serbs in the north of Kosovo, there was cooling of those relations, and that can be seen now.

I’m afraid that this situation, instead of, let’s say, in that short period of 2013, when [the Bridge] started to connect us, that these last two years have separated us very much and that the issue of opening the bridge is now, literally, maybe even worse.

Because the political situation is such that anything can happen, even if someone forcibly opens the bridge, it would only lead to a new conflict between Serbs and Albanians, and I think that now it does not apply to anyone, neither to Albanians nor to Serbs, especially in this situation.

As far as the bridge itself is concerned, we have a southern bridge, which is used for traffic down there.”