Festering sore that is northern Kosovo

 

The divide between the ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority remains intractable

NOT SO long ago the smoke-filled La Dolce Vita bar next to Mitrovica’s flashpoint bridge was synonymous with Serb vigilantes known as “bridge watchers” whose job it was to keep ethnic Albanians out of their enclave.

Its position overlooking the Ibar river that marks the dividing line between the town’s Serb-dominated northern flank and its ethnic Albanian south provided the bar’s patrons with a birds-eye view, but also made it a target for attack. The “bridge watchers” are still there, but La Dolce Vita’s customers are now a more diverse bunch. They include university students such as Alexandra and Sasha who chain-smoke while bemoaning the lack of opportunity in this grimy former industrial town.

“We have cafes like this and nothing else,” says Alexandra. “Sometimes it feels like we have been forgotten.”

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has since been recognised by the US and 22 of the EU’s 27 member states. But the fate of the Serb-dominated pockets of northern Kosovo, whose residents effectively live as if still forming part of Serbia, remains a festering sore, while their resentment of the Pristina government continues to bubble.

Nowhere is the divide between Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority and its Serb minority as obvious as in the hinterland that surrounds this contested northern town. Local Serbs set up barricades and block the movement of Kosovo officials and the EU’s rule of law mission, known as Eulex.

Today there are tentative signs of budding prosperity south of the Ibar river, but northern Mitrovica, with its drab, crumbling apartment blocks and defiant Serbian nationalist murals, retains a sense of clinging to the past. Billboards praising Vladimir Putin feature his face under the strapline: “Our honorary citizen.” Graffiti condemning Eulex is daubed on walls and shutters. A sign by the main bridge warning against “malicious or provocative” behaviour has been torn down and vandalised.

“We are Serbs and our heart will always be with Serbia,” says Marko, one of several “bridge watchers” hunched over a stove in a tent by the mouth of the bridge. “We will never accept this artificial state of Kosovo. For us it means nothing more than Albanian tyranny.”

The men sitting around him nod in agreement. One mentions the controversial unofficial referendum organised by Kosovo Serbs in February in which 99.4 per cent of voters answered “No” to the question: “Do you accept the institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo?” The Kosovo government declared the ballot illegal.

Animosity between Belgrade and Pristina has risen in recent weeks after Serbia said it planned to include Serb-controlled areas in the northern reaches of its former province in local, parliamentary and presidential elections due to take place on May 6th. The Kosovo government has strongly objected and declared it will try to prevent the ballot. “We will use all possible means, in co-ordination with our international partners, to prevent these elections taking place because it is in breach of international law,” Kosovo’s deputy prime minister Edita Tahiri, who also leads Pristina’s delegation in EU-mediated talks with Serbia, told The Irish Times. She describes the recent arrest by Serbia of two Kosovo border police officers as “politically motivated . . . [and] an attack on Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. The two were later released, but the incident served to further ratchet up tensions.

Holding elections in the Serb-dominated northern areas is seen as especially problematic, as they will serve to reinforce Serbia’s so-called “parallel institutions” in the borderland region.

Abandoning these institutions is one of the conditions that Brussels has set for Serbia as it pursues EU accession. Tahiri accuses Belgrade, which was granted EU candidate status earlier this year, of “double standards” and argues the EU must exert more pressure.

“Serbia shows a European face to the EU, but in the region, especially vis-a-vis Kosovo, it continues to be anti-European,” she says. “Now that Serbia has gained candidate status, I strongly believe the EU has more leverage to ask Serbia to perform according to European values, which include good neighbourly relations and regional co-operation and stability.”

The conundrum presented by northern Kosovo is expected to colour Serbia’s impending elections. The two leading candidates are Boris Tadic, who recently formally resigned as president to make way for an early election, and Tomislav Nikolic, whose nationalist Serbian Progressive Party is backed by Russia.

Tadic, who is generally perceived to have overseen a more conciliatory approach toward Kosovo, has seen his party’s support slip in polls to Nikolic, who insists Serbia must not join the EU if it means giving up its claim to Kosovo.

Tadic has been forced to deny the nationalists’ claims he is willing to abandon Kosovo for the prize of joining the EU.

“Many Serbs in Serbia and in Kosovo do not want to accept that the north will eventually fit within Kosovo’s constitutional order, yet accommodation is necessary for Belgrade to succeed ultimately in its EU membership ambition,” Sabine Freizer of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in February. “For integration to be peaceful, however, it will have to be gradual, and the result of political compromises and agreement”.

In northern Mitrovica, there is much wariness, if not downright suspicion, of machinations in Belgrade. “We feel like we are being sold out by everyone,” says Sasha. “We have everything to lose if Serbia moves towards the EU. We will be all alone.”

The question of how to reduce tensions in northern Kosovo has prompted suggestions including greater autonomy for Serb communities there as well as a land swap with Serbia. Some Serbs push for partition.

In Washington last week, Kosovo’s prime minister Hashim Thaci rejected calls for greater autonomy for Serbs in the north and said he would never consider a territorial swap with Serbia as a solution. He insisted integration is the only option he will accept for Kosovo’s Serb population.

Talk of partition makes officials in Kosovo nervous. “I know the story of Michael Collins and what happened after he agreed to the partitioning of Ireland,” says one. “No one wants to be the Michael Collins of Kosovo.”

Pieter Feith, a Dutch diplomat who has spent several years in Kosovo as head of the International Civilian Office – the main international supervisory body for the fledgling state – believes the situation in the north has the potential of becoming a frozen conflict.

“There are frozen conflicts elsewhere in the world, in the Caucasus and the Middle East, which have been tolerated for years or generations, but to have a frozen conflict in the heartland of Europe is highly dangerous and cannot be accepted,” he says. “One way or another this problem in the north of Kosovo needs to be addressed and solved.”

TOMORROW: Kosovo’s enduring corruption problem