MITROVICA, Kosovo – Branimir Cvetnic likes to remember his hometown of Mitrovica as the lively, multicultural industrial hub it once was, rather than the grim symbol of Kosovo's ethnic division it has become.
"Back then, Mitrovica was an open city, a city for everybody. And, now ... it's not even possible to compare," said Cvetnic, 57, whose family have lived here for almost a century. "We used to live together, but can we do it again? I don't know."
Mitrovica, a former mining center in northern Kosovo, was sharply split into Serb and Albanian parts at the end of the Kosovo war in 1999. Officials from Serbia and Kosovo meet in Brussels on Tuesday in hopes of reaching an agreement that could pave the way for reuniting the city — an agreement that the town's Serbs fear could see their demands sacrificed by a Serbia desperate to join the European Union.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but until now Belgrade has refused to accept the split. The Serbs of northern Kosovo — up to 50,000 people — have rejected any authority of the ethnic Albanian government in Pristina, creating parallel institutions, including hospitals and schools, all financed and supported from the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
But Serbia's bid for membership in the European Union has been conditioned on normalizing relations with its former province and abolishing the parallel structures.
Impoverished by years of wars and international sanctions during the 1990s, Serbia is desperately seeking to move closer to EU membership. If the deal is reached on Tuesday, Serbia will likely be granted a date to open talks with the 27-nation bloc, which means access to pre-entry funds and an improved position in the eyes of international investors. If the deal is not reached, Serbia would likely be put on hold by the EU.
In a sign that agreement may be near, top Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic said last weekend that the country "can no longer afford a frozen conflict."
Kosovo Serbs now fear they will be abandoned to save the EU deal. In Mitrovica, they warn that reuniting the town against their will could lead to a Serb exodus or to unrest.
The ethnic division is clear in every corner of Mitrovica — population unknown since the divided groups have never managed to carry out a reliable census. A huge pile of sand and soil blocks the bridge over the Ibar river that leads into the southern, Albanian part, while Serb flags flutter on buildings and lamp posts in the northern part.
A big banner in the town center reads: "The Serb Town." The street signs are written in the Cyrillic alphabet traditionally used by Serbs, and the official currency remains the Serbian dinar, instead of the euro used by ethnic Albanians.
Underscoring the religious split — the Serbs are Orthodox Christians while ethnic Albanians are mostly Muslims — a large Serbian Orthodox Church overlooks the town from the Serb side. In the distance, a mosque minaret is visible in the southern part of the city. Residents from the two sides hardly ever mix.
"Whatever they may sign (in Brussels) we will fight for this to remain part of Serbia," said housewife Gordana Djokovic, defiantly.
The dispute over the Serb-held north has been a constant source of tension and occasional violence over the years. Clashes between Serb hardliners and NATO-led peacekeepers have led to injuries on both sides. Last year, Serb nationalists set up barricades to prevent the Kosovo authorities from taking over border checkpoints. The roadblocks were dismantled following a deal on joint Kosovo and Serb manning of the crossings.
A year later, Serb and Kosovo border officials are stationed at the boundary, but there is no sign to mark that the visitors are entering the territory of Kosovo.
"We will not accept any integration into Kosovo," Milan Ivanovic, a hardline Serb leader from northern Kosovo told The Associated Press.
He said that if Serbian government officials agree in Brussels on Tuesday to lift their hold over northern Kosovo, four Serb municipalities in the region — including Mitrovica — will form a self-styled association and declare that they will remain within Serbia.
Some 10,000 people died in Kosovo before 78 days of NATO bombing in 1999 forced the Serbian army and police to pull out. Tens of thousands of Serbs then fled or were driven out. Some who stayed behind gathered in the northern parts bordering Serbia.
Serbia has until now insisted on a high level of self-rule for the Kosovo Serbs, including their own police, judicial authorities and self-government. But this has been rejected by Kosovo Albanians as a de-facto partition of Kosovo, which enjoys the backing of the United States and most European Union countries.
In the Kosovo capital, Pristina, officials say they will not budge. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci made a rare appearance in the area last weekend, visiting the home of Ali Kadrija, an ethnic Albanian who rebuilt his house which lies along the route leading into the Serb-held part of Mitrovica.
"I will never leave this place," Kadrija said.
Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, who is the chief Serbian negotiator, recently demanded more concessions from the Albanians, saying they could regain the Serb-controlled northern Kosovo only by force.
Last weekend, several thousand Albanian demonstrators gathered in the southern part of Mitrovica demanding that the town be reintegrated fully and without delay.
Nebi Qena from Pristina and Zvezdan Djukanovic from Mitrovica contributed.