MERDARE, Kosovo (Reuters) - After crossing the border at Merdare, Kosovo’s truckers pull over in no man’s land to change their license plates, hide their Kosovan documents, and get ready to show different papers and passports to Serbian customs.
The charade -- carried out within sight of customs officers on both sides of the Kosovo-Serbia border -- is a legacy of Belgrade’s refusal to recognize the independence of its former province.
But relief may be in sight with the long-awaited start of bilateral negotiations in the coming months.
Serbia’s control over Kosovo ended when NATO bombed it in 1999 to end killings and repression of Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanian population in a counter-insurgency war.
Serbia continues to see Kosovo as its cultural and spiritual heartland as well as part of its territory, but last month the World Court issued an advisory ruling that Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was legal.
Under pressure from the European Union, which it aims to join, Serbia last week agreed at least to discuss practical matters that are crucial to Kosovo’s everyday existence.
Kosovo, one of Europe’s poorest countries with a population of 2 million, currently exports only roughly 10 percent of the value of its imports -- its lack of institutions and large black economy make statistics highly unreliable.
It would like to send its main exports -- minerals, metals and farm produce -- to the EU through Serbia’s roads and railways.
But since it declared independence, Serbia and Bosnia have blocked all goods with Kosovo stamps, and barred travelers with Kosovo passports or car registrations.
The blockade forces firms to take alternative routes through Macedonia and Albania that add at least 10 hours to travel time, and significant cost.
“This is an economic war, done politically, and Serbia is trying in every way to block the normal functioning of the Kosovo state,” said Alban Zogaj, an economist at the Riinvest Institute for Development Research in Pristina.
The legacy of hostility also applies to the skies.
Any plane heading to or from Pristina must avoid Serbian airspace. Conversely, the radar screen at Pristina airport shows how all other planes flying over the Balkan peninsula skirt Kosovan airspace.
“This increases the price for air companies operating at our airport and is reflected in the ticket prices,” said Agon Krasniqi, director of air navigation at Kosovo’s only airport. He said this made flights 20 to 30 percent dearer.
“The most negative impact for the economy is that airplanes cannot use Kosovo’s airspace, which could bring in around 12 million euros per year.”
Train lines to the north have not operated since 1999.
Serbia’s objections also prevent Kosovo getting its own telephone country code, or joining many international economic or sporting organizations.
The goods that do make it into Serbia do so through a classic Balkan loophole.
About a sixth of Kosovo is outside Pristina’s control, and run by Serbs who still see Belgrade as their capital -- and so are not subject to Serbia’s embargo.
There are no border checks on the way into this area, so many truckers go there to obtain Serbian papers that can be used at the Serbian border to mask their Kosovo origins. Temporary license plates cost 35 euros for three days.
“Officially, no Kosovo goods have gone through this gate since Serbia stopped recognizing our stamp in 2008,” said Shkelzen Osmani, head of Kosovo customs at Merdare.
Thus truckers ”prepare two customs documents, one for us -- and then other documents for Serbian authorities ...
“We all know about this but cannot stop it.”
But now the days of double documentation may be numbered.
Last week Serbia not only scrapped a planned U.N. resolution seeking to reopen the fundamental question of Kosovo’s status, but also backed the EU proposal on dialogue.
“The whole process and the dialogue must be seen as part of the EU perspective,” said an EU official close to the process in Brussels.
“With the new resolution at the U.N. General Assembly we have closed a chapter and opened a new chapter: the chapter of a future heading toward the EU.”
Editing by Adam Tanner and Kevin Liffey