Kosovo – the northern reality

Impressions from a recent visit to north Kosovo confirm that, in spite of improvements in movement across the River Ibar, it remains a potential crisis point that both the government and internationals in Pristina have contributed to rather then helping alleviate.

By Gerard Gallucci

A just completed visit to northern Kosovo – after an absence of some two and a half years – leaves me with three firm impressions:

  • the Serb majority north of the Ibar River continues to reject Kosovo independence and will resist any effort to compel them to accept rule by the institutions in Pristina;
  • while freedom of movement for Serbs and Albanians across the River has improved somewhat, aggressive talk and behavior from the Pristina authorities and their international supporters – especially the Americans – have kept tensions unnecessarily high and worked against gradual progress in reconciliation;
  • EULEX still seems not to understand the need for positive status neutrality – including the use of executive authorities under UNSCR 1244 – to contain Pristina’s efforts to change facts on the ground through force and unilateral disregard of established elements of the UN mandate for Kosovo.

Overall, these three factors suggest that northern Kosovo remains a potential crisis point.  It could erupt into violence and ethnic conflict unless carefully managed by the international community with the sole aim of preserving the status quo – peace and the territorial integrity of Kosovo – while political issues remain unresolved.

All the local Serbs with whom I spoke – including officials and community leaders – remain strongly opposed to Kosovo independence and ready to resist any effort to force them to accept Kosovo institutions or Kosovo Albanian officials or police in the north.  They expressed concern about a lack of support from Belgrade and disagreement with what they view as over-eager concessions to Brussels on Kosovo – “abandoning” Serbs south of the Ibar, cooperation with EULEX, possible “technical” agreements with Pristina – made by President Tadic to gain EU membership.  They seemed genuinely concerned about the possibility of violence stemming from Albanian provocations encouraged by the US Embassy in Pristina and supported by KFOR and EULEX.  But they also expressed understanding of the need to avoid escalation of any provocative actions – such as the recent effort by Pristina to order the rotation and suspension of local police commanders in the north – through seeking accommodations with the responsible internationals.  Everyone expressed preference for non-violent resistance.  (Some even referred to recently studying Gandhi.)

The northern Serbs have observed an apparent change in approach by the EU toward recognizing the separate reality of the north.  But they universally expressed concern over the possible use of force by Kosovo security forces supported by the Americans – including US elements of KFOR (NATO).  They also remain concerned that EULEX does not always act in a status neutral manner – as required by the 2008 agreement with the UN.  They do not see EULEX reacting when Pristina takes unilateral actions, such as recently refusing Customs clearance for export shipments from the Trepca North mining complex that provide income for salaries paid to local Serb workers.   (Kosovo Customs remains under the executive authority of EULEX.)  The Serbs are also worried that the Europeans – in KFOR and EULEX – remain under strong pressure from the US to take a more aggressive pro-Albanian stance in the north.

No one living along the Ibar desires further conflict and most everyone wants life to become more “normal.”  But the north of Kosovo remains locked in a frozen conflict.  Albanians and Serbs are mixing a bit more on both sides of the river and one can hear Albanian being spoken at construction sites in the Serb areas of north Mitrovica.  However, tensions remain high.  Actions and statements coming from Pristina – from both the government and the internationals – have contributed to, rather than helped alleviate, this reality.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Gerard is also a member of TransConflict’s advisory board. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the position of any organization.

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