The Berlinisation of north Kosovo

A European solution to the Kosovo issues requires that boundaries be broken down through negotiation and compromise, rather than reinforced through unilateralism and the use of violence.

By Milos Subotic

In August 1961, the East German government began constructing the Berlin wall between East and West Germany; the stated aim of which was to provide an ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’. In reality, the wall’s main aim was to prevent freedom of movement between the two Germanys; as it did for almost thirty years, thereby becoming a symbol of the Cold War.

Fifty years on, the Kosovo government is now trying to build a new wall to divide Serbians on either side of the administrative line between Serbia and Kosovo. Under the declarative aim of preventing criminal activities in the north of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci – Kosovo’s prime minister, who stands accused by the Council of Europe’s special rapporteur, Dick Marty, of involvement in organized human organ trafficking – deployed ethnic Albanian Kosovo Special Forces to occupy administrative gates 1 and 31, and to impose the Kosovo government’s decision to establish an illegal embargo on products from Serbia.

The Kosovo government’s actions sparked a furious reaction from the local population, aggrieved at Pristina’s attempts to impose an artificial division between northern Kosovo and Serbia. Many Serbs took to the roads to block the Special Forces, with the resulting clashes leading to the tragic loss of a policeman’s life and hooligans burning down an administrative building in northern Kosovo. Despite KFOR violating the mandate granted to it by UN Security Council Resolution 1244 – namely, to respect the territorial integrity of Serbia and uphold the human rights of all people living in Kosovo – the vast majority of the Serbian population responded through non-violent means.

From the reaction of Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, government and parliament, plus the local Serbian population, it is clear that the Serbian side will not resort to force and will instead work to find a compromise solution. In contrast, the Kosovo government persistently threatens violence and the use of force to conquer the north of Kosovo. Some of Kosovo’s political elite have even proposed an operation ‘Oluja’ (‘Storm’) – which was characterized by the ICTY’s verdict as an act of ethnic cleansing of the Serbian population in Croatia – as a possible solution.

After long, tedious and often dishonest negotiations between representatives of the Serbian government and the KFOR commander, Erhard Buehler, a temporary agreement was made that KFOR would take over control of administrative gate 1 and 31, allowing freedom of movement and the transportation of shipments lighter then 3.5 tons. Heavier shipments would only be allowed to pass with the specific approval of the Red Cross.

Unsurprisingly, the first notable person to visit administrative gate 1 – the German minister of foreign affairs, Guido Westerwelle – supported Pristina’s aggressive act and the building of a new wall on gates 1 and 31. Two weeks after, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, visited Belgrade and stressed to president Tadic that Serbia’s candidate status depends on three points; one of which is a solution to the Kosovo issue.  Merkel presented the solution in three further points; progress in the Belgrade-Priština dialogue, EULEX jurisdiction in the entirety of Kosovo’s territory and steps to abolish parallel structures of power.

After years of the EU’s policy of ‘carrot and stick’ towards Serbia, insisting on recognition of Kosovo is a step too far. Such a condition was not sought from any other country seeking to the join the EU. The message delivered by Merkel further diminishes the support expressed by Serbians for the country’s EU integration. After her statement that Serbia should abolish its “parallel” structures in northern Kosovo, support for EU integration has fallen to barely over 50%.

As someone who strongly believes in European values, and fought for them against Milosevic during the nineties, it is hard to accept the so-called ‘Kosovo reality’. European bureaucrats do not understand that in Kosovo we have two realities. One is that Kosovo is de facto independent from Serbia; the other is that north Kosovo is de facto independent from Pristina.

The so-called “parallel” structures are the only legal and legitimate structure recognised by the local population of north Kosovo. Concrete evidence is provided by the 6,292 voters who took part in the last local elections organised in May 2010 in North Mitrovica. In December the same year, the Kosovo government organised local elections in north Kosovo in which only two voters participated.

The Kosovo government has regularly spun the thesis that Serbian institutions in the north are criminal. They believe that if a lie is repeated a hundred times it becomes a truth. In reality, the rate of criminality in the north is at the same level as in rest of Kosovo or in neighbouring countries. Thaci continues to state that ‘parallel’ institutions in the north are paramilitary structures that carry out terrorist acts and that the Kosovo government will protect the Serbian community. Given Thaci’s role in organizations accused by the US of terrorism, such claims ring hollow. Indeed, the international community should pay closer attention to allegations of corruption within the Kosovo government, plus the real problems facing Kosovo’s citizens, with 45% living in poverty and 16% in extreme poverty according to UNICEF.

Thaci continues to employ similar tactics to those employed by Milosevic; exaggerating problems in north Kosovo, deploying Special Forces, giving misleading statements about criminality and ‘parallel’ structures, and contributing to a negative feelings of fear amongst citizens of the north. The goal is to present the Serbian community as being guilty for the dire situation in Kosovo. Such political games – as the lessons from the last twenty years in the Balkans have shown – are extremely serious and dangerous.

The Serbian community seeks no more than what has been granted to the Albanian community in Kosovo – namely, the right to self-determination – and call upon those in Washington, Brussels and London to understand and respect these legitimate wishes. The Ahtisaari plan and Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 did not ensure long-term stability between Kosovo and Serbia. Negotiations under EU mediation, meanwhile, do not focus on the essential questions, especially those concerning Kosovo’s final status. Reopening negotiations on these questions – with a special focus on the status of north Kosovo and Serbian cultural heritage – in order to find a compromise solution for both sides will guarantee long-term sustainability in the Balkans.

For those who live in north Kosovo, non-violent resistance to the Kosovo government’s unilateral use of force is the only way to pursue the right of self-determination, as Berliners themselves once did during the Cold War period.

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 has worked for many international organizations in Kosovo, including the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the international NGO ‘Spark’. Milos is also an expert in the field of higher education policy.

To keep up-to-date with the work of TransConflict, please click here. If you are interested in supporting TransConflict, please click here.

Email