North Kosovo – the underestimated conflict at the heart of the Balkan powder keg

The demands of the Serbian population in Northern Kosovo – which Pristina has misleadingly sought to characterize as a parallel structure plagued by crime and instability – are simply to enjoy the same right to self-determination as the Kosovo Albanians.

By Milos Subotic

Last month Serbia arrested and extradited the last war crimes suspected to the Hague Tribunal, former political leader of Serbs in Croatia, Goran Hadzic. Serbia didn’t just fulfill its final obligation to the Hague Tribunal or tick one more box on its application for EU candidate status, Serbia laid to rest the ghost of the shameful Milosevic era and turned new page in regional, international and national policy.

For many years Serbia has had a pro-Western, democratically-elected Government.  Serbians can no longer be painted simply as the bad guys in a black and white approach to politics in the Balkans. Unfortunately, many leading powers internationally are unable to move beyond this perception.

Goran Hadzic was still in the air on his way to face trial in The Hague when a new problem emerged – the “question of Kosovo”. Since 1999, Kosovo’s status has been governed by United Nations resolution 1244 as a province of southern Serbia, administered as a UN Administrative Province.  This resolution was supported by all major powers, including the United Kingdom and United States.

In 2008, the provisional institution governing the southern part of the province unilaterally declared independence on the base of self-determination.  75 countries have now recognized Kosovo’s independence. Today, Kosovo is one of the poorest “countries” in Europe, with 35 to 40% of the population below the poverty line, extremely high unemployment, widespread corruption and endemic levels of organize crime.

While the bulk of the population are ethnic Albanians, approximately 120,000 Serbs continue to live in Kosovo – the overwhelming majority of which were born in the province and whose family history in the region stretches back many hundreds of years.  Since the end of the war in 1999 and widespread anti-Serb rioting in March 2004, the overwhelming majority of the Serb population now lives in North Kosovo. A small number continue to live in enclaves in the Albanian-governed south of the country.  For those familiar with the nuances of Balkans politics, the word “enclave” has become a euphemism for a 21st century ghetto.

The 95% ethnic-Serb populated north of Kosovo has been governed as de facto independent from the Kosovan Albanian government in Pristina since 1999. As a direct response to Kosovo’s unilateral proclamation of independence in February 2008 – a move which Serbs in the province were not consulted on – the Serbian population removed the administrative gates between Kosovo and Serbia and broke off all contact with government in Pristina.

Following this, the Pristina government ceased to have any control over freedom of movement and trade across the administrative lines between Kosovo and Serbia, with responsibility for its policing being placed in the hands of the European Union’s EULEX mission and local Serb Police officers.

The removal of these artificial barriers with Serbia gave the local population the chance to organize its own affairs, building effective local administration, health, justice and education systems – including a well-regarded university.

As a result of free trade links with Serbia, North Kosovo’s living standards far outstrip those in the south of the province.  In the south, average salaries stand at around €250 per month, whilst they are around €500 in the north.  Indeed, many Kosovan Albanians make the journey to Northern Kosovo each day in pursuit of better employment opportunities.

The reality in Northern Kosovo could not be more different to that portrayed by the administration in Pristina who have sought to characterize the region as a parallel structure plagued by crime and instability. Pristina’s preferred term for Northern Kosovo is to describe it as the “black hole of Europe”.

The chief proponent of this rhetoric is the prime minister of the Kosovan government, Hashim Thaci, a man accused of by Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty of involvement in organized human organ trafficking. In my life, I have never paid so much as a traffic penalty, let alone faced a charge as serious as that leveled against Hashim Thaci.

As a Kosovo Serb, however, me and my family are punished each day for aspiring to achieve self-determination for Northern Kosovo.

Under the EU’s negotiator Robert Cooper, talks between representatives of Belgrade and Priština commenced in Brussels on March 8th. Topics on the agenda were supposed to revolve around resolving the daily problems of citizens regarding freedom of movement around Kosovo, the cadastre, the sharing of civil registries of births, deaths and marriages and electricity supplies.

Both sides made a firm undertaking that no changes would be made to existing legal procedures or realities on the ground while negotiations were ongoing. This promise was soon broken by Pristina.

Only days after the commencement of talks, Kosovo’s minister of internal affairs, Bajram Rexhepi, declared that documents issued by the Republic of Serbia were no longer valid in Kosovo – a clear act of aggression against the minority ethnic Serb population who are unwilling to hold ID cards and other documentation issued by the authorities in Pristina. Rexhepi’s move effectively blocked freedom of movement of Serbs between North and South.  It also restricted the rights of the many ethnic Albanians who continue to hold Serbian nationality to take advantage of the visa liberalization scheme Serbia enjoys with the European Union.

Several days later, the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Special Forces entered the Serbian side of the divided city of Mitrovica and began to forcibly remove Serbian licence plates from vehicles, seized ID cards and passports and other Serbian documents.  Even student discount cards issued to university students by the Republic of Serbia’s government were seized.  Those who did not produce these documents on demand were forcibly searched. In a region as volatile as Northern Kosovo, this action resulted outrage among the local population.  As a lawyer, I cannot reconcile with the law how it can be legal for anyone to seize private property such as ID cards, passports or any documents in your private possession.

Despite this act of aggression against the local Serb population, the first round of last month’s negotiations resulted in an agreement on freedom of movement and the sharing of land registration documents. A second round of negotiations has, however, been postponed until September as a result of a disagreement between Serbs and Albanians on customs seals.

The Pristina Government insists on using the “Republic of Kosovo” text on the seal instead of the internationally-agreed “UNMIK Kosovo” (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) logo agreed in 2006 under the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA).  While products from the “Republic of Kosovo” are banned in both Bosnia and Hercegovina and Serbia, those bearing the UNMIK seal have free and unimpeded access to all markets across the region.

In July, with the support of the United States, the Kosovo Government established an illegal embargo on products from Serbia and introduced a 10% import tax on the importation of products from Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Perplexingly, the US deputy assistant secretary of state, Thomas Countryman, claimed such regulations were being introduced as a response to CEFTA violations on the part of Serbia and Bosnia, despite the two countries continuing to welcome UNMIK-branded imports. Such an act stands in clear violation of CEFTA and the agreement undertaken by Kosovan Serbs and Albanians to impose no new rules or regulations upon one another while negotiations are ongoing.

The Kosovo Government seized upon Countryman’s remarks and deployed Special Forces to the administrative gates between Serbia and Northern Kosovo in an attempt to gain control over them. This move sparked a furious reaction from the local population; furious at attempts by Pristina to impose artificial divisions between Northern Kosovo and Serbia.  Many Serbs took to the streets, sparking clashes with Kosovan Albanian Special Forces troops which tragically resulted in the loss of a policeman’s life.

These violent clashes have continued, with hooligans burning down an administrative building in Northern Kosovo on Wednesday evening. While violence must always be condemned, the anger among the ethnic Serb population of Kosovo must be recognized.

While Pristina has sought to portray the violent clashes of the past few days as the actions of Serbian thugs, it is important to note that the Kosovo Police Force’s attempts to seize control of border posts received no support from the international community.  Not one of the numerous acronyms presiding over Kosovo – the EU, USA, EULEX, KFOR or UNMIK – was consulted on this act of unprompted aggression prior to its commencement.

Sadly, the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission has reacted to this situation as it has done so many times before – by taking the side of Pristina.  In the past few days, KFOR helicopters and troops have appeared along the border posts between Kosovo and Serbia in order to enforce this artificial division.  Their actions clearly lay outside the scope of UN Resolution 1244 in which they promised to respect the territorial integrity of Serbia and the human rights of all people living in the region.

KFOR commander Erhard Buehler also declared the administrative gates a ”restricted military area’’ in which his troops “can employ lethal force” against anyone opposing the division – namely, local Serbs. The constant sound of NATO helicopters overhead has prevented my eight year old daughter from getting to sleep.  When she does lapse into sleep for even a moment, she is quickly woken by the sound of her own, heavy breathing.  I find my home – where I was born, where I grew up, where I went to school, where I work – designated as a “restricted zone”.

Serbia has made mistakes in the past, but all I wish for is peace.  All I want is the right to protect my family and property and enjoy a decent standard of life in Europe in the 21st century.

The demands of the Serbian population are simple – all we ask is for the same right of self-determination given to our Albanian neighbours.  We have no quarrel with peacekeepers remaining in the region in order to guarantee the human rights of all of Kosovo’s residents are respected.

All we ask is that our rights are respected and that we are treated as equals. If those in the south of Kosovo can declare independence, is not right that a referendum should take place in the north in order to allow those living there to decide in which country they wish to live?

I hope that those in the halls of power in Washington, Brussels and London will have enough intelligence to save the North Kosovo powder keg from explosion.

Milos Subotic is an international relations officer at the University of Pristina in Kosovska Mitrovica. He served two terms as chairman of the Democratic Youth of Kosovska Mitrovica, the youth wing of the Democratic Party. He is a former member of the local parliament and previously served as Director of Public Enterprise in the Directorate for Housing and the Rental of Commercial Assets of the municipality of Kosovska Mitrovica. He has worked for many international organizations in Kosovo, including the OSCE, Council of Europe and the international NGO ‘’SPARK’’, and is an expert in field of higher education policy.

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