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A Political Black Hole in the Middle of the Balkans

What is the strangest political entity in the whole of Europe? North Kosovo perhaps? From the perspective of the Albanians it is a country within a country. But from the perspective of the Serbs, it’s a country within a country within a country.

November 25, 2011 - Ziemowit Szczerek - Articles and Commentary

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Nintey five per cent of the population of North Kosovo, for which Pristina has almost no effective power, are Serbs. They pretend that nothing has happened in the last few years and that they are still living in Serbia. The Republic of Kosovo? There’s no such thing. The territories north of the Ibar River look even more Serbian than Serbia itself. The Serbian tricolour flag with its four Cyrillic letters representing “S” (Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava, “Only Unity can Save the Serbs”) seem bigger here than those actually inside Serbia. And there are also definitely more of them that fly here. Graffiti scribbled on walls constantly reminds us that “Kosovo je Srbija” (Kosovo is Serbia). It may be one of the poorest places in Europe with an unbelievably high unemployment rate, but every inch of the region has been branded Serbian.

The North Kosovo municipalities may be physically separated from Serbia by internationally guarded borders, but the citizens just ignore the state of Kosovo. The healthcare in the region is Serbian, and the same applies to the post offices and schools. Even the currency is Serbian as local patriots prefer dinars and euros to Kosovo’s own currency. The people vote in Serbian elections and members of the Serbian National Council for Kosovo and Metohija also refuse to take part in any endeavours of the Kosovan state. There was one effort made back in 2004, when the president of the council considered co-operating with the authorities in Pristina. However a bomb exploded in front of his house in Mitrovica destroying his car. Today he’s still the president, but he’s also much more careful.

Except for officers of Serbian descent, Albanian Kosovo police rarely cross the bridge over the Ibar in Kosovska Mitrovica to patrol the Serbian side. In fact it is EULEX and KFOR which mainly take care of security in the region. And the region is not amongst the most law-abiding either. There are not only problems with organized crime, but also irritating, seemingly meaningless misdemeanours: cars, for example, often have no licence plates at all. The reason? No Serb would put a Kosovan licence plate on his car, and Serbian plates are not recognized by either the Kosovo Police Force or the international forces. So why use them at all? In fact, a lot of local Serbs have two pairs of the licence plates, hidden deep in their boots. They attach Kosovan plates when they need to go down south, behind the de-facto border on the Ibar River, and Serbian ones for when they travel to Serbia. Life goes on.

Until a few years ago no Serb would actually doubt whether the whole of Kosovo should be returned to Serbia. But Kosovo does not look Serbian anymore and even the Serbs can see that, even though it is hard for them to admit. Within the last 10 years a completely different country has emerged south of the Ibar. Anyone crossing the bridge in Mitrovica would be shocked how different the two parts of the town are considering how similar they were not so long ago. Now the local Serbs are trying to save what is left of Serbian Kosovo, and even if they do not officially support the division of Kosovo, it is hard to believe that they would not be happy if it actually happened.

Even high ranking officials in Belgrade are unofficially starting to support this idea. President Boris Tadic himself stated that he would consider such a proposal if it ever was to emerge. This would be a perfect opportunity for Serbia to get out of the cul-de-sac and still stand relatively tall: Belgrade may even recognize the government in Pristina, which is crucial for the further integration of Serbia into Europe. But Pristina says “no”. And more importantly, the West also says “no”.

NATO diplomats, when asked, always tell the good old tale about Pandora’s Box. The Presevo Valley is an Albanian region in southern Serbia just next to the border of Kosovo. What would happen if it wanted to join Pristina? What about other ethnically divided regions? For example neighbouring Sanjak or the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia? What about the Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro?

Actually, the international community is trying to speed up the integration of these two parts of Kosovo and NATO has started to push Kosovo Serbs to dismantle the parallel authorities in the North. Clashes began in late July 2011 when the Kosovan police officers and Kosovan customs officials were sent to the North Kosovo-Serbia border to supervise the effectiveness of the trade ban which Pristina and Belgrade had enforced against each other. As happened in the past, the Serbs set fire to the border checkpoint and started constructing barricades in order to prevent the Kosovo Police and KFOR from moving freely through the region. The clashes between the Serbs, the Kosovo Police and (less often) KFOR continued for some time and resulted in one death and several wounded. The Kosovo Police eventually withdrew and the Serbs dismantled some of the barricades. When the Kosovo Police supported by KFOR and EULEX forces re-entered North Kosovo in September, the riots erupted again and new barricades were erected. This time the Serbs mainly clashed with the international forces.

Almost simultaneously, however, talks between Pristina and Belgrade were also taking place in Brussels. The envoys discussed technical issues such as mutual recognition of university diplomas, land registries, birth and death certificates, and energy supplies. Life goes on and has to go on. Western officials insist that “the North Kosovo problem” should be solved by dialogue and integration, but it is becoming clearer to everyone that the Kosovo Serbs are not willing to integrate and live under the rule of Pristina. According to the Russian and Serbian press, around 20,000 Kosovo Serbs have applied for Russian citizenship in order to drag the Serbs’ traditional ally into the conflict in a style already practiced by Russia in the Caucasus. Even if this action should not be treated seriously, it shows how desperately Kosovo Serbs do not want to become citizens of Albanian Kosovo.

NATO diplomats know this. They also know that they are lucky they have anyone in Belgrade to talk to at all: President Boris Tadic is an open-minded man of dialogue, but the harder the West pushes him, the weaker he becomes in the internal playground. The supporters of Vojslav Seselj and his nationalist Serbian Radical Party are waiting in the wings of power, and it is very likely that there would be no dialogue with them at all.

The West should know it even better, the generally pro-European coalition of Tadic’s For a European Serbia and the post-Milosevic Socialist Party of Serbia are starting to shake. Ivica Dačić, Minister of Internal Affairs and the head of the socialists broke the taboo and said to the press that the Serbs cannot exclude fighting another war for Kosovo.

The Pandora’s Box argument for keeping Kosovo intact is as convincing as ever. But what if Pandora’s Box has already been opened?

Ziemowit Szczerek is a Polish journalist for the Web portal Interia.pl specialising in Central/Eastern European and Balkan affairs.

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