Kosovo’s Serbs Pressed to End Autonomy Push
By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER
MITROVICA, Kosovo — After years of impasse between the national government of Kosovo and ethnic Serbs demanding autonomy within their northern enclave in the new country, international pressure has intensified on the Serbs. And while the immediate result has been minor clashes, there is new hope for some movement toward a resolution for the last geopolitically unsettled chunk of the former Yugoslavia.
Frustrated by European-backed attempts to impose Kosovar police and customs officials in northern Kosovo last month, Serbian protesters set up road blocks — a common tactic here over the years. When troops from KFOR, the NATO-led international force in Kosovo, moved on Tuesday to tear down the barricades, they said they were met by Serbian protesters who fired on them with small arms and threw rocks and pipe bombs. Sixteen protesters were reported injured, as were nine soldiers.
But behind the scenes, political support for Serbian autonomy within Kosovo, particularly from neighboring Serbia, may be ebbing. And ethnic Serbs here are for the first time being forced to contemplate a future under governance by an ethnic-Albanian-dominated central government.
“It’s the very first time in 12 years that the pressure against the Serbs in the north has been so strong from both Pristina and the international community,” said Tatjana Lazarevic, 41, a native of Mitrovica who is a project manager at a nongovernment community development organization here. “And while at the same time, the support from Belgrade is weakening.”
Pressure from the European Union has been a key factor. During a visit to Belgrade in August, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany bluntly warned that in order for Serbia to join the European Union, it must dismantle the institutions, financed and governed by Serbia since the 1999 war, that have allowed Serbs in northern Kosovo to live separately from the dictates of the Kosovar government.
While the European Union does not require Serbia to recognize Kosovar statehood — 5 of 27 current members of the bloc do not — it does expect candidates to have normal relations with neighbors. Cutting off Serbian institutions in northern Kosovo is seen as a key to that.
Serbia is hoping to receive an invitation for candidacy to begin negotiations for European Union membership at the European Council meeting in December. But few expect Serbia to make any drastic moves on Kosovo before Serbia’s parliamentary and local elections next April.
Still, the carrot of possible membership in the European Union is forcing a thaw in the frozen conflict between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo.
“I think Serbian civilians will not integrate because they want to, but because they have no other choice,” said Albin Kurti, leader of the Kosovo opposition movement Vetevendosje — self-determination in Albanian. “We have to block Serbia’s intrusion into Kosovo,” he said in an interview in Pristina. “There is no other way.”
While the Kosovo government and much of the international community view northern Kosovo’s institutions as “parallel,” or as simply illegal, Serbs here see themselves as living normally under the laws of Serbia, which still regards Kosovo as a province, not accepting its unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, which Belgrade and its allies, including Russia, regard as illegal. The Kosovar Serbs flatly refuse to live under any system governed by Pristina.
“The Albanian institutions are parallel, not ours,” said Vladimir Jaksic, 25, reflecting a widely held belief here as he enjoyed a glass of chardonnay and a cigarette in a cafe in the Serbian part of Mitrovica, a major northern city divided into Serbian and Albanian portions by the Ibar River.
Mr. Jaksic said most of his fellow Serbs would flee if there were any change from Belgrade’s institutions to those of Pristina. Others vow to fight using civil disobedience or violence. Some said they would prefer war.
Milos Subotic, in charge of international outreach at the University of Pristina, whose Serbian faculty members have decamped to Mitrovica, said that if Kosovo were permitted to secede from Serbia, northern Kosovo should be permitted to secede from Kosovo. “If the right of self-determination is given to Kosovo Albanians, I don’t see why I shouldn’t have the same right,” he said.
While ethnic Serbs dominate in northern Kosovo, about 11 percent of Kosovo’s territory, about two-thirds of Kosovo’s estimated 110,000 Serb residents live in the south, under Pristina’s control.
Although Serbs make up only slightly more than 6 percent of Kosovo’s 1.7 million residents, the Serbian language can be used in all state institutions, and of 16 government ministers in Pristina, three are ethnic Serbs. Ethnic violence is rare.
Nonetheless, tensions in the north remain high, and Serbs there have rejected the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement, proposed in 2007 by Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish statesman who received the Nobel Peace Prize the next year for his work on the conflicts in Kosovo and elsewhere.
“I wouldn’t buy that ‘war’ business,” Engjellushe Morina of the Kosovar Stability Initiative said of the fears of northern Serbs. “The Serbs are constantly manipulated politically and financially by Serbian politicians. That’s where their anger comes from. They don’t know what Ahtisaari has to offer. They don’t even want to hear the name because it irritates them.”
Albanians are believed to make up about 5 percent of the population of the north. An Albanian teacher, Adem Mripa, 65, living in Mitrovica, said that in recent years his house had been fired at with small arms and attacked with firebombs and a grenade.
“I deeply believe we can live together,” Mr. Mripa said. “That’s why I decided to stay in the house where I was born.”
“Everything is in Belgrade’s hands now,” Mr. Mripa said. “By stopping financial support to these structures, they could help dismantle them. These are not the real representatives of the Serbian people here.”
The executive authority carrying out the Ahtisaari plan is the International Civilian Office. Pieter Feith, 66, the Dutch diplomat heading the office, said he was working with Pristina to set up institutions that Kosovar Serbs would voluntarily choose when Belgrade eventually cut off the parallel institutions.
The first step would be to hold local elections in which Serbs chose leaders to represent them under new municipalities. The plan spells out a “special relationship” between Kosovar Serbs and Belgrade, in which Serbia directly finances and manages ethnic Serbs’ health care and education under loose regulatory control by Pristina.
Six Serbian municipal governments have been set up in southern Kosovo, with 47 percent voter turnout by Serbs in local elections, according to the statistics of international authorities.
“We have not yet managed to create similar institutions in the north,” Mr. Feith said in an interview in Pristina. “We have not yet because of the local resistance.” He said the Serbs in the north needed to be informed and approached carefully because they “are terrified.”
“They have serious concerns, and there are still open wounds from the war,” he said. “They fear retribution and revenge, and they need to be assured and encouraged to think creatively.”