Bridges connect and divide the Balkans. The one in Mostar remained a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims, Catholics and Serbian Orthodox communities for four centuries. Built by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th Century, it was deliberately destroyed by the Bosnian Croats in 1993. The intended message was clear: enough of unity in the Balkans. The Old Bridge in Mostar was no more, and it took a great effort to rebuild it. Another Balkan bridge, once connecting the Albanians and Serbs in Mitrovica, still stands, but, having been barred for several years, it is a symbol of Kosovo’s division.

Spanning the banks of the River Ibar, the bridge separates the northern Serbian part of Mitrovica from the Albanian one in the south. The night belongs to the illuminated Saint Dimitri Serbian Orthodox Church, devoted to the city’s patron, built in 2005 on a hill overlooking the area. The mornings, in turn, are dominated by the muezzins who call the faithful to prayer from the southern bank. Both sides of the river have for years lived in utter isolation, interrupted occasionally by riots.

But this summer may see a decisive breakthrough for Mitrovica, Kosovo, and the whole region. And not only because Croatia has just become the European Union’s 28th member state. Back in the spring, following weeks of hushed negotiations, Belgrade and Pristina reached what is referred to as a “landmark deal” for the Kosovo Serbs. As a reward, EU leaders agreed in June to open accession talks with Serbia while Kosovo was given green light to negotiate an association treaty, a first step to potential EU membership.

A former Serbian province, Kosovo’s ethnic makeup is today overwhelmingly dominated by Albanians, of which there are some 1.8 million, compared with just 140,000 Serbs. The latter have for years been sponsored by Belgrade, which pays for Serbian schools and hospitals, and which shells out (double!) salaries to public servants and police officers who have not even been to their desks for years. Serbs stress their historic right to the land. Kosovo is their national cradle.

Bloody supression

Kosovo has now been de facto independent of Serbia for 14 years. When the local Albanians started an uprising in 1998, Belgrade wanted to suppress it quickly and bloodily. Some 10,000 Albanians lost their lives, and hundred of thousands more were displaced. In retaliation, the Albanians struck against the local Serbs. The ethnic cleansing that followed ceased only as a result of Nato bombing raids. Kosovo became an international protectorate, which was no longer governed by Belgrade. In 2008, it unilaterally announced full independence, although this is not recognised everywhere. The Serbs have refused to accept the province’s secession and even wrote into their new constitution that “Kosovo je Srbija” [Kosovo is Serbia].

In Brussels in spring 2012, the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo – Ivica Dačić and Hashim Thaçi – started rebuilding bridges. While Belgrade continues to refuse to recognise Kosovo’s independence, the new deal has finally regulated the status of the Kosovo Serbs. Until now, their enclaves in northern Kosovo had functioned like parts of Serbia. The agreement brings them closer to Pristina, at the same time granting them broad, though not yet specified, autonomy.

First of all, Serbian institutions in Kosovo are to be replaced by new ones, reporting to Pristina. Serb-inhabited communes are to form an association that will have a decisive say over a range of local matters. Also the Serb judiciary and police are to be integrated with the Kosovo state structures. The Serbs will have the right to elect their own police chief and enjoy a guaranteed quota of seats in the national parliament. They will also be granted a tax amnesty, because up until now, they have not paid tax or utility bills.

The Kosovo Serbs had for years been opposed to a deal with Pristina, remaining – and not without reason – deeply mistrustful of the Albanians and the Pristina government. Their sense of mistrust is further fuelled by the fact that many of the agreement’s provisions sound rather vague. Whereas it is more or less clear what will happen with the courts and the police, the future of schools, the local university, and the healthcare system is uncertain.

Subsidised by Belgrade, the Kosovo Serbs earn relatively good money, unlike their Albanian counterparts. A Serbian doctor employed at the hospital in Mitrovica makes some €1,000 a month, four times what his Kosovo Albanian colleague receives.

But this provisional arrangement, sponsored by Belgrade, could not last forever. No jobs are available in the Serbian enclaves, except in the public sector; the best one can do is start a shop. And Belgrade itself is cash-strapped and can no longer afford maintaining the status quo.

A choice for their children

Pristina is much more optimistic today. Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj calls Serbian politicians “our friends from Belgrade” and presents the Brussels deal as a model that could be followed by the region’s other conflicted states – Bosnia and Macedonia.

Some of the liberal experts are sceptical. “The establishment of new Serbian institutions in Kosovo threatens to divide the country, like in Bosnia where the state does not really function,” says Ilir Deda, director of the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development.

Experts also note the current catchphrase in both Belgrade and Pristina: “We’re going forward, let’s not talk about the past.” But, they point out, there will be no normalisation of relations, let alone a reconciliation, without historical accuracy.

So why did Serbia agree to go for a deal after all? It had no choice. Such was the condition of commencing accession talks with the EU. Today, only European integration can produce the impulse that will put Serbia back on the track of both economic and demographic growth. Sociologists estimate that out of the official 7.2 million citizens, only 5.2 million live in the country. Serbia has 1.3 million people over 60, and median age is above 41 years, one of the world’s highest. There are also more retirees than workers.

“Serbs don’t love the EU, but they know it’s the only choice for the country,” says Srdjan Bogosavljevic, a sociologist at market research firm Ipsos. “They’re realistic and don’t expect swift accession or EU-inspired changes for themselves. They are choosing the EU for their children.”