EU

Passive-Aggressive Politics: The Symbolic Nature of Wall-building

mitrovica3

Photo by Genti Behramaj

James Leigh

In August of 2016, the EU mission to Kosovo finally initiated its project to redevelop the main bridge in the city of Mitrovica. The project had been in a state of limbo since around August 2015, when construction workers first enclosed most of the bridge within a fence of corrugated steel sheeting, leaving only the footpath on the western side open to foot traffic across the river Ibar/Ibër. Still, the ‘closure’ of the bridge itself was nothing new; it now merely took on a different form and look. I recall how in 2009, on my first visit to Mitrovica, the bridge, though still passable on foot, was blocked to traffic by lines of barbed wire and concrete pyramids. For a short period spanning 2010 and 2011, it once again became open to vehicles, but this changed in the aftermath of the ROSU incident in July 2011, when roadblocks were erected by local Kosovo Serbs to hinder troop and police movements in northern Kosovo, including on Mitrovica’s main bridge. This time the improvised barriers came in the form of huge piles of building rubble and sand; not necessarily aesthetically pleasing, but effective nevertheless. Some years later, in June 2014, the rubble roadblock was removed, only to be replaced by a so-called ‘Peace Park’; stretches of grass interspersed with rows of concrete planters, filled with lines of miniature conifers, which covered the northernmost portion of the bridge.

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Photo by Fitim Selimi

As part of the EU-brokered dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, an initial agreement reached in August 2015 foresaw the reopening of the bridge to road traffic. However, following the placing of the aforementioned steel fencing, progress stalled until the last remaining details of a deal were ironed out on 5 August 2016, in part due to disagreements on relative jurisdictions and administrative lines between municipalities in the north and south of the city. Finally, on 14 August, work began to clear the ‘Peace Park’ and commence with the bridge’s revitalisation. It is intended that the redevelopment should be completed by 20 January this year (2017).

The case of the bridge as explained in these opening paragraphs is not meant to be the main focus here; however, an understanding of the developments surrounding this particular area of public space is important to enter the discussion I now wish to move on to. Whilst it would be possible to dedicate an entire piece to the symbolism of the bridge itself, my intention here is to discuss walls instead. Or rather, one specific wall which has become the source of controversy in Kosovo as of late.

mitrovica2

Photo by Julia Druelle

Alongside the EU-funded and -fostered project to reopen the central synapse between the south and north of the city, the municipality in Mitrovica North simultaneously commenced revitalisation works to create a pedestrian zone from the area’s main high street, Kralja Petra (King Peter), which runs northwards directly from the end of the bridge itself. Discussion and planning of this redevelopment has been underway in the north for several years now; thus it was eventually decided to harmonise the two projects so the reopening of bridge and street to the public could take place on the same day. According to a statement by the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS), “the revitalization of the bridge, as well as King Petar (Kralja Petra) Street, will greatly contribute to facilitating contacts between all people of Mitrovica North and South and will thus contribute to exchanges and understanding.” Moreover, “the Mitrovica Bridge will become the symbol of normalization of relations between the Kosovo Serb, Kosovo Albanian and other communities.”

Yet as the construction work proceeded, it appeared the implementation of the ‘harmonised’ project for Kralja Petra was developing rather differently to what was imagined. In early December, the municipality commenced with the construction of a 2-metre high wall, essentially cutting off access from the bridge to the main street, not only for cars (as was to be expected), but (at least symbolically) for people also. According to media sources in Kosovo, the decision to build a wall in this fashion seems to have been made quite suddenly, as members of Mitrovica’s Serb community have also been caught by surprise.

You say wall, I say amphitheatre?

In the reactions to the controversy emerging from both sides of the Ibar, we already see disagreement and confusion. The head of urban planning construction in north Mitrovica states that the wall was “clearly agreed upon” during talks in Brussels. This is denied by Kosovo’s Minister for Dialogue, Edita Tahiri, and the mayor of south Mitrovica, Agim Bahtiri. Yet original plans obtained by Prishtina Insight show that a wall was indeed to be included, although in the preliminary design this was only to be around a metre high. After negotiations on the issue took place on 10 December 2015, some of those involved claimed the finished wall was now to be torn down completely. This was in turn denied by northern Mitrovica mayor Goran Rakic; as Prishtina Insight reported over the following weekend, the mayor now states that the wall will be “redesign[ed]…into an amphitheatre” in order to become “a summer theatre open to citizens from both sides of the bridge”. Having made the transformation from wall to amphitheatre in the space of a week, it appears that even a stretch of grey concrete can potentially become all things to all people. Perhaps it is just a matter of perspective; indeed, Dragan Spasojevic, Mitrovica North’s urban planning chief, observed that “[w]hoever looks upon this as a wall sees something that divides, but whoever looks at this as an amphitheatre sees something that connects, because I believe this amphitheatre will one day be used by Serbs and Albanians.” Thus a wall may not be a wall, if we decide to call it something else.

Irony aside, it is clear from the disparate political reactions that this construction is a divisive act, regardless of where you stand. Yet as observed in an article on the Albanian-language news site Insajderi, this wall-building action comes at a time when it appeared relations between the two communities were becoming more relaxed, with interethnic tensions somewhat in abatement. Hence it might seem an odd moment at which to carry out such a heavily symbolic act. So is the structure indeed as controversial as it appears to be (and as it has been viewed by the Albanian community)? To better understand the motivations behind the building of the wall, let us examine a number of questions regarding both the real and symbolic purposes such a wall might serve, especially in light of the positions of the actors involved. How can the wall be perceived, evaluated and constructed by different actors or members or society? Does the wall serve only to block, or does it also have a protective function? If so, who exactly does it block and/or protect (and in the latter case, from whom does it provide protection)?

Walls of meaning

It is interesting to reflect on how much meaning can be packed into what is essentially a simple and oblique physical formation; plain, unadorned, with apparently little to say at first glance. Walls are, after all, some of the most basic structures humanity creates. And yet they are also a vital means of shelter. Moreover, it seems that walls may also have a lot to communicate, even where they apparently say nothing at all. Theirs is a message which goes beyond language. In essence, walls might first appear to keep things out, be that the wind, the cold, or other people. But it should be remembered that they also keep things in; warmth perhaps, as well as those people one wants to ensure stay inside.

mitrovica_veriore_kosove

Photo by Agron Beqiri

What does the wall in Mitrovica mean for the builders, first and foremost? They are, after all, the primary instigators of this action. From the Serb perspective, one could foresee that the wall presents a means through which a local actor might intervene in the political processes currently being determined at a higher level. Thus while the decision to reopen the bridge was made in the context of interstate negotiations at the European level, one might question to what extent this is fully backed by local political actors. Whilst still complying with the agreement (and with Belgrade) on the face of things, building a wall might appear as a way of simultaneously resisting and rebelling against the will of said national and international political actors. Moreover, it may also serve to exert reverse-pressure on the Belgrade-based authorities, as a reaction to the pressure local authorities are presently placed under to obey these agreed terms.

Still, for those commissioning the building of a wall, there are sure to be other motivations. This act is also an apparent securitisation of the public space which borders the end of the bridge. But if this is the case, who does the added ‘security’ defend, and from whom? According to the official word, the structure should protect “pedestrians from traffic”. Thus as a design principal, the primary point would be to stop people from driving onto the newly pedestrianised street. But is this a general precaution, or a specifically targeted one? Who is then seen as the threat? Would it be reading too much into things to assume a case of ‘othering’ here? One might indeed interpret this as a typical example of out-group construction, the fear of attack by the ‘Other’, be that an individual member of the Albanian community, or an organised assault conducted by government or international forces. Given such a reading, the sense appears to be that the reopening of the bridge, and its linking with a major public thoroughfare now potentially filled with strolling members of the public, would create a vulnerability which needs to be defended against.

But if this is the fear being addressed, does is it still seem necessary to create something of this height? After all, looking at the present construction, although tall, it seems rather thin; surely if one wanted to prevent vehicular access it would make more sense to use thicker, heavier, lower-lying obstacles? This potential weakness of the wall, combined with the height aspect, makes one think that the structure aims to present a visual, symbolic message and function beyond that claimed by its creators.

The wall appears not only to deny direct physical access. It blocks the natural line of sight one has to the main street when crossing the bridge from south to north. As such, it prevents visual access to the world beyond the wall; from a symbolic perspective, it creates an abrupt, stark and unnatural division within both the physical and visual realms of public space. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that such a barrier works in both directions; it is not a one-way mirror. What is blocked for one is also blocked for the other.

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The view from the other side. Photo by Julia Druelle

 

What, then, are the experiential effects of this interruption of the visual space? Firstly, it disrupts the ability of each side to look into and make connections with the visual world of the other. This, moreover, leaves one both restricted in seeing who is present in the world over the other side of the barrier, and limited in catching a glimpse of the life taking place there. As such, it makes the socially and psychologically constructed boundaries between communities all the more real.

Yet perhaps the wall simultaneously provides a shield from observation for those who would pass between the two social realms, from one side of the mirror to the other? In this sense, it might offer a certain security to all. Still, the effect here is questionable, as rather than allowing a freer flow of people, this obstacle channels them into narrower spaces (the gaps at the edges of the wall), where they can be more easily observed or challenged when attempting to go beyond the barrier. Hereby the social osmosis of individuals can be more easily policed and controlled, a control directed not only towards the ‘other’, but also towards one’s own community. Hence a wall such as this is a mental barrier to people’s freedom of movement; a warning to those on both sides that it is not so straightforward to transition back and forth across a divided yet essentially singular space.

From the Albanian perspective, the experience of the blocking of physical and visual access is perhaps felt particularly keenly. Again, this is more in the symbolic sense than anything else. Practically speaking, few Albanians in fact make use of the main road in northern Mitrovica at present; those that pass over the main bridge on foot tend to live in areas close to the northern bank, and their world usually turns immediately to the left or right upon crossing the bridge. In the current socio-cultural environment, there are probably few who would want or need to head straight on.

Thus the construction of the wall here can also be read as an act which is predominantly communicative, but consequently visually and physically manifested in public space. The mental barrier which results from the idea that you can’t go somewhere, or that it is unsafe to do so, is here brought into existence in the real world. It is irrelevant that it will probably be possible to get around the wall if one chooses to (for there will have to be a way for local residents to gain access to the high street); the effect of what is transmitted to the individual citizen confronted by such an object is far more important. Here it doesn’t much matter where one stands in relation to the wall. The feeling generated, whether it be the sense of being unwelcome, or that of being trapped, reinforces the notion of divided communities and spaces, strengthening the barriers in the mind.

For those on either side, especially older generations, the appearance of the wall may hit particularly hard when accompanied by a sense of loss for the world beyond. The feeling here is that a part of the city which one once knew and lived is gone and will not return; that the fault lines will no longer be overcome. From the interviews I have held with Mitrovicans on both sides of the bridge, it is abundantly clear that personal memories of life in the city are closely tied to particular sites and spaces, and often with places that in the last 16 years have become strange and unknown, but for which a yearning remains. While this physical piece of one’s past remains distant and intangible, the individual’s sense of self may never feel truly complete.

The future potential of walls

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Photo by Michal Voska

What will happen remains uncertain for now, for we are dealing with a developing narrative. Will the wall indeed become an amphitheatre, the conjoined social space for all? The latest vision of the EU apparently foresees stairways on either side, leading people up and over the wall in both directions. But should the wall remain in its present form, one wonders what will become of it. Noting the already-prevalent graffiti surrounding the bridge area, I could imagine that such a vast expanse of blank concrete would present an irresistible new canvas for audacious urban artists and activists. What new messages might then find their way onto and into this particular public space? What will the wall ‘say’ in future? What steps might civic actors take to claim ownership and reappropriate this object, in order to present other symbolic meanings? What forms of ‘resistance, resilience and adaptation’ may yet be to come?

James Leigh is currently working towards completion of his PhD within the Department of History at the University of Groningen, where he is also involved in teaching on the Euroculture programme. James graduated from Euroculture himself back in 2009; he subsequently spent a number of years working in educational development in Kosovo, the area upon which his research is presently focused.

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