Thousands of people packed the streets of Pristina this past weekend, celebrating as Kosovo marked five years of independence. But in the municipalities of northern Kosovo, few people were rejoicing.
Thirteen years after Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader whose nationalist crusade set off the Balkan wars, withdrew his army from Kosovo, and three years since Serbia’s government agreed to enter a normalization process with the former province, Serbian communities in North Kosovo may still be a major obstacle on the path to finally settling the borders within the former Yugoslavia.
The estimated population of Kosovo’s northernmost counties of Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok is around 68,000 people, of whom 95 percent are ethnic Serbs. These communities have rejected the ethnic-Albanian Pristina government. Instead, a local central governing body was created, and Serbian flags are raised on its buildings as well as roofs of many homes in the region.
Since the mid-1990s, the Serbian government has been providing tax benefits to encourage Serb citizens to live in Kosovo. Serbia’s president, Tomislav Nikolic, told the United Nations General Assembly this fall that his country would never recognize the independence of Kosovo but is “committed to achieving a lasting peace between Serbs and Albanians.” Serbia has agreed to hold a dialogue with Kosovars to advance its bid to enter the European Union, but with those expansion plans still vague, the Serbs – who are backed by Russia – might put off any compromises on the Kosovo issue.
The UN maintains a civilian “interim mission” in Kosovo, abbreviated as UNMIK, to help stabilize the region, acting as a modified version of an earlier UN mission that was once involved in running the country, so the UN is still attuned there.
Meanwhile, North Kosovo remains tense. On Feb. 4, two Serbian children in the town of Mitrovica were injuredwhen a hand grenade was thrown into their home. The attack appears to be ethnic based, though the attacker has not been identified. Spurts of violence have continued in the region ever since Kosovo declared its independence. In February 2008, Serbs set fire to outposts of the Kosovo Police Service, injuring 19 people. In the second half of 2011, a series of clashes between Serbian protestors and Kosovar police resulted in one dead officer and dozens of injured on both sides.
David L. Phillips, an independent American negotiator, has been involved in diplomatic efforts in the Balkans for nearly three decades, working as a senior adviser to both the United States State Department and the UN Secretariat. He is also the director of the program on peace-building and rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He says the current normalization process – which peaked with the first-ever meeting between the Serbian and Kosovar presidentson Feb. 7, 2013, in Brussels – will be fruitless if the issue of North Kosovo stays off the negotiating table.
“As long as Kosovo remains a divided territory, it will not be possible for there to be a negotiated agreement,” Phillips said in an interview this week with PassBlue. “Kosovo whole and free needs to be the outcome of those political talks, and without pressure Serbia is not likely to accommodate.”
In a poll conducted by the Serbian European Integration Office among Serbian citizens, the majority said the Kosovo issue is the most important factor in Serbia’s accession to the European Union. In general, Serbian public opinion is against Kosovo’s independence, but Serbs also know that it is a de facto reality that they have to live with it, even though they do not approve of it. More important, Serbs have tremendous economic problems – the country’s 2012 gross domestic product growth rate was 0.5 percent, ranked 192 among the world’s countries – so the Kosovo issue takes a back seat in light.
What is not clear is whether the Serbian National Council for Kosovo and Metohija (SNV), the governing body in North Kosovo, which is largely more nationalistic than Belgrade, will accept a Serbian decision to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Henri Giscard-Bohnet, head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung office for Serbia and Montenegro, a think-tank associated with Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party, says that Belgrade does not have full control of the population in the disputed region.
“I think that any solution has to involve the concerns of the people on the ground and they are in majority Serbs,” Giscard-Bohnet said in a phone conversation from Belgrade. “The Serbs there have so far not felt the authority of the Kosovo government, so in that way it is understandable that they are skeptical towards it.”
After the Feb. 6 meeting in Brussels, Catherine Ashton, Europe’s foreign policy chief, said the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia had vowed to continue their talks. The issue of North Kosovo is to be discussed between Serbia’s prime minister, Ivica Dacicm, and his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci, in a not-yet-set date. The US and the European Union have made clear that after Kosovo’s independence there should be no more boundary changes in the West Balkans.
On the other hand, Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council – as well as dozens of other countries – still view Kosovo as part of Serbia. Finding a compromise on the North Kosovo issue, one that would be agreed upon by Serbia, Kosovo and the Serbs who live there, remains crucial for preventing reoccurring violence in the region, experts insist.
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Yermi Brenner reports on migration and other sociopolitical issues for Al Jazeera, Global Post, Deutsche Welle and other publications. He is based in Berlin and is a graduate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @yermibrenner.