BELGRADE (Reuters) – Dozens of Serb ultranationalists protested on Wednesday against a festival promoting Kosovan Albanian culture in Belgrade, a day after Serbia ordered its troops on full alert following an incident involving Kosovo’s police and ethnic Serbs.
Riot police cordoned off the culture centre in downtown Belgrade where festival was held, while protesters waved Serbian flags and chanted “Kosovo is Serbia” and “We will not give up Kosovo”. They also briefly scuffled with the police.
The festival, which started in 2014, is dubbed “Miredita, dobar dan,” or “good day” in the Albanian and Serbian languages. It presents films, exhibitions and debates aiming to bring closer Serb and Albanian communities that drifted far apart after a bloody Kosovo war in 1998 and 1999.
Kosovo, Serbia’s former southern province, declared independence in 2008. Many Serbs consider Kosovo as the cradle of their nation and Orthodox Christian faith. Belgrade, backed by Russia, China, and five European Union countries, remains opposed to its independence.
The festival, set to last until Saturday, is organised by Belgrade’s Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Civic Initiative for Human Rights and Integra, a rights organisation from Kosovo’s capital Pristina.
“The festival is sending a clear message to … public, but also to political elites that barriers and obstacles must be removed instead of creating new ones,” the organisers of the festival said in a statement.
The opening came amid tensions after Serbia on Tuesday ordered its troops on full alert, following the arrests of at least 19 people in an anti-crime operation in restive northern Kosovo, mainly populated by ethnic Serbs.
Serbia is seeking EU membership but must first normalise relations with Pristina if it wants to join the bloc. On Monday, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic told parliament that the country needs to accept that it has lost control over Kosovo.
(Reporting by Marko Djurica; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Frances Kerry)