A huge Russian flag flies over northern Mitrovica. From billboards former Serbian prime minister Vojislav Koštunica, Putin and Medvedev, but also Yanukovych and Lukashenko, cast their gaze – Slav allies all: “Brothers always together”, a slogan proclaims.

The major part of town south of the river Ibar is populated, like elsewhere in Kosovo, by ethnic Albanians, but their rule doesn’t extend to northern Mitrovica. An attempt to install Kosovo border posts at the Serbian border, which runs north of the city, ended in riots.

The posts have since been temporarily manned by Eulex, the EU’s mission in Kosovo. Talk is that the Serbian demonstrators currently blocking the Eulex posts were motivated not only by patriotic outrage but also by concern over their smuggling revenues.

On Monday, 21 November, Serbia and Kosovo restarted talks on border issues and mutual relations, but, as expected, without result. It looks, however, like the Mitrovica Serbs no longer trust the former capital. They are worried Brussels will use the leverage of Serbia’s accession talks with the EU to press Belgrade to accept Kosovo’s independence and that Belgrade will bow to the pressure.

Moscow deludes them

Which is why of the 70,000 Serbs still living in Kosovo, 20,000 have already applied for Russian citizenship and the rest reportedly wants to do the same. “And then Russia will defend us against the Albanians”, the Mitrovica Serbs say.

In 1999, after Nato forces drove the Serb army out of Kosovo, the Albanians took a bloody revenge on the local Serbs. Most of the latter fled for refuge north of the border. Those who remain feel safe only under the protection of the Nato-led international peacekeeping force, which doesn’t prevent them from hating it.

Faith in a Russian protective umbrella is fuelled by Moscow itself. “We fully understand the motivation of the Kosovo Serbs and we study their applications carefully”, said Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

The fact is that Russian law requires would-be citizens to reside in Russia or to hold former Soviet Union passports, meaning it is not legally possible to make Russians of the Mitrovica Serbs. Nevertheless Moscow deludes them with empty promises in order to stir things up in Kosovo, whose independence it opposes.

But in Mitrovica people say that in Abkhazia and Ossetia, Russia also first granted citizenship, then went to war with Georgia, and finally recognised both territories’ independence. So perhaps an independent Russian Republic of Serb Mitrovica is possible?

Genuine desperation

This is if course a vain hope, akin to that cocky answer Montenegrins (of whom there are 600,000) gave when asked how many of them there really were: “Together with the Russians, 140 million”.

But Montenegro commited an act of betrayal, recognised Kosovo, and now wants to join the EU. You will find no Montenegrin flag or image of its president in Kosovo. The omnipresent Serbian flag, in turn, is identical to the Russian one, only upside down, just as the whole idea of Russian citizenship for the Kosovo Serbs stands on its head.

It does reflect, however, genuine desperation on the part of people to whom history, after centuries of injustice done in their name, presented them with the bill. It would probably be fairer to award Mitrovica to Serbia and the Albanian-dominated counties of Bujanovac and Preševo back to Kosovo, from which they were separated by Marshall Tito. But no one will dare correct the Balkan borders because every such attempt smells of bloodshed.

This means the Mitrovica Serbs will neither keep their current passports with the Serbian double-headed eagle nor receive new ones with the Russian double-headed one. Nor need they fear receiving passports with the Albanian double-headed eagle, because the international community forbade the Kosovo Albanians to officially use the symbol and presented the new state with an emblem comprising the outline of its borders and six stars representing the country’s six main ethnic groups.

The Serbs have the second from the right or the left if you will. It is a measure of their weakness that they have little more left in Kosovo and a measure of their defeat that even that they don’t want to keep.

Translated from Polish by Marcin Wawrzynczak.