Kosovo – almost time to deal with the north

Only dialogue, patient outreach and a shared readiness to compromise can tackle the root causes of recent tensions in the north of Kosovo; namely, its unsettled status and Quint insistence on trying to settle it through use of force.

By Gerard M. Gallucci

Events over the past few days highlight yet again the question of what to do about northern Kosovo. A bomb went off early on April 8th outside the apartment of a Kosovo Albanian family living in the ethnically-mixed, ‘Three Towers’, complex in north Mitrovica. One man was killed and members of his family – including children – injured. Later the same day, a group of Albanians reportedly beat up an elderly Kosovo Serb man in the mixed village of Suvi Do, also in north Mitrovica. The family members and elderly man will survive.

The Kosovo police say they have no suspects or motive in the bombing case. Three Towers sits on the northern shore of the Ibar River with direct access via footbridge to the south. One can imagine many motives for the attack including personal or political grudge, criminal activities, ethnic conflict or an effort to provoke reaction by instigating ethnic hatred. The perpetrators may be of any ethnic group working for anybody. Yet the reaction from the Kosovo Albanian side – via social media and from Pristina – assume the criminals were Serbs. Hopefully, the police are developing clues that can cast light before assumptions lead to a repeat of March 2004. If the crime was ethnic, the challenge will fall to KFOR and EULEX to prevent new violence.

The root causes for the tensions, however, remain the unsettled status of the north and Quint insistence on trying to settle it through use of force. The last few years have seen KFOR, EULEX and the Kosovo institutions obsess over the north rather than focus on making Kosovo south of the Ibar the sort of multi-ethnic model that might attract even in the north. The Quint allowed Pristina to bully the southern Kosovo Serbs into submission – including cutting off electricity and phones. Over the last several months, they have used force to seek to impose a customs boundary in the north while harassing Kosovo Serbs with Serbian documents and license plates. In the north, KFOR and EULEX supported unilateral “returns” meant to begin shifting the ethnic balance that has prevailed in the north since the violence of 1999-2004 chased thousands of Serbs there from the south.

Dialogue, patient outreach and readiness to compromise were not part of the Quint approach. The Quint agents – the ICO and EULEX – instead hatched plans to impose Pristina institutions in the north and elbow the UN out. A particular target has been north Mitrovica and the UN Administration (UAM) there. UAM has been the main institutional link between Pristina and north Mitrovica, providing some essential services (using funds from the central Kosovo budget) and seeking to keep the peace in the mixed ethnic areas. But recently, Pristina has cut off those funds and pressed UNMIK to close UAM. It also raised issue with the fact that some UAM employees were also receiving salaries from the Serbian government. It appears now that UNMIK is indeed looking to phase UAM out.

Meanwhile, Pristina and the Quint have apparently resuscitated their plan to impose a new municipal structure for North Mitrovica according to the Ahtisaari Plan. Last week, the Pristina press also reported that the Kosovo government might be willing to allow OSCE to hold the May Serbian presidential and parliamentary elections in Kosovo if it also would organize local elections in the north in September. This suggests an interesting possibility to make progress on devising an approach to the north that could reduce tensions and allow for peaceful change over time.

Some difficult issues would need to be resolved in talks including all parties. Some say the name is a problem, but the Ahtisaari Plan offers a solid framework for decentralized government and special features for North Mitrovica. It would, however, require some important tweaking to take into account the refusal by the local Serb majority to allow Pristina to control their lives. International facilitators would also need to be involved in a neutral, balanced way. The northern Kosovo Serbs would have to come to understand they would need to participate with their southern brethren in central institutions.

Some in north Kosovo may prefer continued stalemate, perhaps for criminal reasons as much as political. Many in the north, however, are also increasingly aware that the options of partition or continued frozen conflict are no longer available. Partition could only come through violence, which would also risk further ethnic cleansing. Under pressure from the Quint and from Belgrade – likely to increase no matter who wins the elections – a frozen conflict looks increasingly unstable. It is time for both Kosovo Albanians and the northern Kosovo Serbs to look at how the Ahtisaari Plan could serve everyone’s bottom line through mutual compromise and good will.

It is probably time to close UAM. Pristina and the Quint no longer seem to want it and won’t fund it. UNMIK can – and should – replace UAM with a municipal representative office such as it has in the other three northern municipalities. But that’s the easy part. Issues of who then is legally responsible for administering mixed areas along the Ibar – already a source of conflict – would become more pressing. A Serbian Mitrovica municipality would directly border a Kosovo one. The broader issue – finding the compromise solution for the north – would become even more pressing. Pristina may still be tempted to settle this by force or by provoking conflict. The real challenge, however, may be for the northern Kosovo Serbs themselves, to finally define what they really can settle for despite those who may hold out for further resistance. Continued resistance to any change may no longer be possible.

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. Gerard is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board.

To read TransConflict’s policy paper, written by Gerard and entitled ‘The Ahtisaari Plan and North Kosovo’, please click here.

To read other articles by Gerard for TransConflict, please click here.

To learn more about both Serbia and Kosovo, please check out TransConflict’s new reading lists series by clicking here.

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

Email