Mitrovica, the northern city of Kosovo, was the scene of a violent encounter last week between Serb protesters and UN police/KFOR troops. At stake was the by Serbs occupied court house . KFOR planned to remove all the occupiers from the court house and arrest them in the early morning of Monday 17 March, exactly four years after the eruption of violence referred to as the March 2004 riots. It resulted in one dead Ukraine police officer and dozens of wounded on both sides. KFOR was furious.
The city of Mitrovica that is divided by the river Ibar, became the symbol for the ethnic conflict and the aftermath between the Kosovar Albanians and the Serbs that had its peak in the brutal war of 1999.
Forced separation between the two groups by KFOR in 1999 led that the northern part is inhabited by mainly Serbs and the southern part by Albanians. Only few dare to cross the notorious main bridge. Restored houses on the lower south bank lack windows over viewing the river and the higher North. There was the fear for snipers in the first years after the war. In March 2004 Mitrovica had been the starting point of the riots after the death of three Albanian kids. Rumours soon circulated that Serbs had been responsible for drowning three Albanian children. The violence rapidly spread across the region and Serbs and their property were attacked. In 2006 all eyes were on Mitrovica again after a 15 year old Albanian threw a grenade inside Dolce Vita bar near the bridge.
Ever since the Albanian unilateral declaration of independence, the Serbs in Mitrovica have demonstrated against this in their eyes illegal act. At exactly 12.44 PM, named after UN Security Council resolution 1244, Serbs would gather at the main square in front of the bridge. Besides minor incidents, this has been rather peaceful. The riots from last week therefore came somewhat as a surprise as one KFOR commander says. There is a real possibility there has been a leak.
Where the Serbs say they were provoked by the large amount of military force, Alastair Livingston who is the head of the OSCE mission in Mitrovica sees this different. In an interview with the Dutch radio he says: “The violence was clearly provoked by the Serbs who did not want the court house occupiers to be arrested. They are the ones that started throwing grenades, Molotov cocktails and even a mortar shell! This is what KFOR responded to at one point. Most of the occupiers of the court house had nothing to do with the juridical system. They came from the region and possibly even from Serbia. This can be part of an action plan by the Serb government to deny the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo.” Blaming the Serb government directly goes too far he thinks. “I don’t think anybody genuinely knows except the ones who participated,” Livingstone says.
The Albanians responded rather careless to the violent encounter in Mitrovica. “Good news for us!” one even said. Meaning the Albanians show their good side and are not provoked at all. Ethnic violent has been absent so far. In Mitrovica south and Pristina life continued its daily routine. But the incidents in Mitrovica, the resistance by the Serbs in both Kosovo and Serbia to recognize the independence of Kosovo leave a stalemate. With the coming EU mission, the role of UNMIK is currently heavily debated. All options and scenarios are currently explored and it seems the most plausible one is that UNMIK will stay present in the Serb enclaves while the EU takes over the control of the Albanian parts. If this would be the case, Kosovo is one step closer to separation. An option that should be open for negotiation as the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Verhaagen brought up in late 2007, but who got heavily criticised for this. But today even the Serbian Minister of Kosovo, Slobodan Samardžic, presented a plan for a so called “functional” separation. The proposal got published today in Serbian newspapers and says Belgrade will acknowledge the jurisdiction of UNMIK in Kosovo. But in 15% of Kosovo’s territory where the Serbs constitute a majority, they want only Serbs to work in the field of police, justice and customs. The proposal is send to the UN in New York.
When one looks at the demographic statistics of Kosovo, it is arguable whether the Serb enclaves will even exist in say ten or twenty years from now. Where the Albanian population in Kosovo is growing, the Serb population is decreasing. Young people move out of the enclaves to either northern Kosovo or Serbia for work or higher education. The average age of Albanians is somewhere in the twenties, where the average age of the Serbs in Kosovo is estimated much higher. Serb enclaves are at risk of dying out. Although ethnic separation and with that, the dividing of Kosovo is the last thing the international community or the Kosovar government want, it might be the only realistic solution for peaceful coexistence and reconciliation in the future. So far Kosovo’s future remains uncertain.