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Where Serbs meet the new Kosovo

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Strpce, Kosovo

Virtually all Kosovo's remaining Serbs still consider it an inalienable part of Serbia but many are having to compromise with the new independent state declared by the Albanian majority in February.

Fr Zivojin Kojic, parish priest of Strpce
Strpce's parish priest finds anxiety among his parishioners

The boycott of the new state came easier in the north, where Belgrade still provides essential services and international supervision is limited.

But in the archipelago of enclaves where most Serbs live, life dictates a level of interaction with the Kosovan government.

At the same time, in at least one community deep in the south, people are quietly making plans to leave Kosovo altogether if pushed too far.

Far from Belgrade

Strpce district, encompassing much of the Sar national park, is currently home to about 9,000 Serbs and 4,500 Albanians.

Approaching the town from Pristina, you are first struck by a large roadside memorial to dead Kosovo Liberation Army fighters.

Shortly afterwards, the red and white barriers of a Ukrainian K-For checkpoint signal the district's enclave status.

A portrait of Russia's Vladimir Putin in a Mitrovica window
Most Kosovo Serbs still look to Belgrade and Moscow

After the Serbian car number plates and dinars of Serb north Kosovo, the large number of cars with Kosovan (KS) number plates and the shop window price tags in euros (Kosovo's currency) come as a surprise.

A Serb researcher for an international organisation, who prefers not to be named, explains that northerners get everything they need from Serbia and rarely have to deal with police on the roads of central and south Kosovo.

Strpce Serbs tend to pay for bigger items like TV sets in euros, using dinars for such things as groceries.

The town's Thursday fruit and vegetable market is one of the few occasions when Serbs and Albanians mix freely, with mainly Albanian vendors selling to mainly Serb shoppers.

Pristina and Belgrade supply local healthcare and education in parallel, but on Strpce's municipal council, Serbs and Albanians find themselves working together on practical issues such as refuse collection and street lighting.

Policing in the form of the mainly Albanian Kosovan Police Service (KPS) is another grey area for Kosovo's divided communities.

Serb KPS officers in the north have refused to take orders from Pristina since independence and work to the UN instead, while in other Serb areas they have simply resigned.

But in Strpce, Serb KPS officers still take their orders from headquarters in Urosevac, the nearest big Albanian town, arguing that the local community needs their protection.

Comprehension gap

A Kosovo Serb university lecturer, who again did not wish to give his name, argues that any impression of a split among Kosovo Serbs is misleading.

A view from the road into Strpce
Strpce is famous for the national park around it

While Serbs in the north are "better placed to resist independence", they include many refugees from the south and "there is no active campaign for partition", he says.

But the researcher in Strpce detects a certain level of anxiety locally that northern politicians "care only for themselves and are advocating partition."

"In the past, certain irresponsible politicians in the north have accused southern Serbs of collaborating with the authorities in Pristina," he says.

"They do not, or refuse to, understand that the situation south of the Ibar river is different."

The concentration of Serbian investment in the north has not helped ease southern Serbs' fears of abandonment by Belgrade.

Following 'the weather'

Slobodan Petrovic is one of a small number of Kosovo Serbs who look to Pristina, not Belgrade, for the future.

Slobodan Petrovic in his office at the Kosovan parliament, Pristina
I like to compare Kosovo's status to the weather - you cannot support the weather
Slobodan Petrovic
Kosovo Serb politician
He is a member of the Kosovan parliament's presidency and leader of an ethnic Serb party, although, given that just 5% of Kosovo Serbs voted in last year's boycotted election, his views can hardly be said to be representative.

He says he is one of no more than 200 Serbs left in Pristina, a city of half a million. He finds himself at the heart of the new state.

Mr Petrovic argues that it is up to Kosovo Serbs to integrate individually and he accuses Belgrade of manipulating them.

Asked if he supported independence, he shrugs and says his party adopted a neutral stance.

"I like to compare Kosovo's status to the weather - you cannot support the weather," he says.

"I could be one of those people who adores the winter and goes out in a heavy overcoat on a day like this [baking heat]. On the other hand, I could adjust to the situation I am in."

Plan B

Serbia has not recorded any significant increase in Serb migration from Kosovo since independence was declared.

The word 'uncertainty' is basically written above the head of each and every Serb south of the Ibar
Serb researcher
speaking anonymously

But Strpce has seen 100 young Serb couples leaving for new lives in Norway and Sweden over the past two years, according to its parish priest, Fr Zivojin Kojic.

At the same time, rich Albanians from outside Strpce have been building large holiday homes in the area, site of a ski resort, leading some Serbs to fear the demographic balance may change.

"Since the unilateral declaration of independence, many people here have been saving money to buy property in central Serbia as a fallback option," the priest says.

He is speaking in the steel-fenced garden of his church, where children play among the neat flower-beds, in front of their parents.

The mosque (left) standing beside the Serbian Orthodox church (right) in central Urosevac
Muslim Albanians and Christian Serbs once lived together in Urosevac

The previous parochial house of Fr Zik, as he is affectionately known in Strpce, is a charred ruin in Urosevac, the town he and thousands of other Serbs were forced to leave during the war in 1999.

That year, the priest contends, all trust between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians was broken.

"If the so-called Kosovan Republic starts to impose its laws, its language, its teachers and its doctors, on Serb areas, that will be the end of the Serbian community in Kosovo," he reflects.

Such a scenario, it has to be said, would be avoided under the UN's stalled Ahtisaari Plan, with its provisions for Serb autonomy.

Despite their concerns, Strpce Serbs have been renovating their homes and businesses this year, suggesting a measure of stability.

"But you cannot plan your future here," says the Serb researcher.

"The word 'uncertainty' is basically written above the head of each and every Serb south of the Ibar."

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