Kosovo Goes it Alone

Mother Teresa Boulevard is a street pregnant with symbolism. At one end of the wide, pedestrianized thoroughfare that runs through the centre of Pristina, an imposing statue of Albanian hero Skanderbeg stands in the shadow of Kosovo’s parliament building. A couple of hundred metres south sits the Communist-era Grand Hotel. When war broke out in 1999, notorious Serb paramilitary leader Arkan reputedly made his base here, in what was the Kosovan capital’s most opulent hotel.

Mother Tersea Boulevard was the obvious location for a ‘peace concert’ held last month to celebrate the end of the four-year long supervision of Kosovo’s independence. On a warm September evening, after politicians and diplomats had declared ‘chapter closed in the Balkans’ and executive powers were formally transferred to the Kosovan Assembly, local musicians played for free on a specially constructed stage halfway down the Boulevard. By 10.30pm, only a couple of dozen had turned out to watch.

It’s not that Pristina was quiet, far from it. All along Mother Teresa, cafes and bars were thronged with young Kosovans waving red and black Albanian flags and shouting — in support not of independence, but of the Albanian national team, who were taking on Switzerland in a World Cup qualifier. The Swiss side had three players of Kosovan descent in their line-up, Albania half a dozen. For Kosovans, with no national team of their own, this was the biggest game in a generation.

The boycott of the peace concert was not, however, simply a reflection of poor scheduling and Kosovo’s passion for football. Many, particularly the young, have grown steadily disillusioned with life in Europe’s youngest state. Unemployment is high; wages are low; so, increasingly is turnout at elections. Stability has not solved the problem of corruption – Kosovo placed just 112th in the 2011 Transparency International Corruption Index. The country remains internally divided, with a restive, Serb-dominated north rejecting Pristina’s writ.

‘There is dissatisfaction among the young,’ Dren Pozhegu, a youthful policy analyst, told me over a coffee on George Bush Street in downtown Pristina. ‘I feel this apathy among people, they have lost the belief in change.’

Kosovo’s declaration of independence, in February 2008, was greeted with scenes of joy on the streets of Pristina. As British journalist Tim Judah recounts, a huge cake in the shape of Kosovo appeared on Mother Teresa Boulevard; a nearby lingerie shop even dressed its scantily clad mannequin in Albania’s colours.

Such patriotic displays were absent last month, when the decision by to end the international supervision of Kosovo’s independence was formally ratified. However, politically Kosovo is inching closer to full independence.Previously, the International Civilian Representative had the right to override legislation passed by the elected Kosovan assembly. The ICR’s mandate is now finished and the International Civilian Office (ICO) will close by the end of the year.

For the first time in its history the Kosovan assembly has unfettered legislative power. ‘Now Kosovans can do stupid things and the only way we can stop them is through persuasion,’ said Robert Wilton, the ICO’s former head of policy. ‘Before if they did something stupid an international could change it’.

‘Kosovo is fully independent,’ former International Civilian Representative Pieter Feith told the Sunday Business Post at a conference to commemorate the end of supervised independence in Pristina last month. ‘(Kosovo) has its own legal and constitutional frameworks, but more importantly it is a country with a European perspective,’ the Dutch diplomat said, after a testy press conference with Serbian media in which he was probed about war crimes allegedly committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army during the 1999 war and chided about the failures of EULEX, the EU the rule of law mission in Kosovo.

The small Balkan nation of around two million people, roughly 90 per cent of which are ethnic Albanian, is now recognised by almost a hundred states around the world, including 22 of 27 European Union countries. But the United Nations does not recognise Kosovo’s six-starred flag. Relations with Serbia remain frosty. Serbia, which Kosovo was a formerly province of, refuses to countenance Kosovan independence. Wary of its own restive regions, Russia has remained unwavering in its support for the Serbs on the issue of Kosovo.

It’s a popular position among early morning espresso drinkers in La Dolce Vita, a café-cum-bar that overlooks the main bridge over the river Ibar, on the northern bank of the town of Mitrovica. ‘No-one here recognises the government in Pristina,’ says a middle-aged man. ‘Everyone wants Belgrade to be their centre.’

The Ibar provides a natural barrier between Serb-dominated north Mitrovica and the largely Albanian south. Our friendly waiter wears a t-shirt with Cyrillic lettering emblazoned across the front. Nearby a red, blue and white flag hangs limply from a lamppost. A little further up the street, a rusting Yugo drives past a billboard proclaiming a smiling Russian president Vladimir Putin ‘Our Honorary Citizen’.

The economic powerhouse of Kosovo during the Yugoslav regime, Mitrovica, around 40km north of Pristina, was effectively split in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 war. After 78 days of NATO bombings succeeded in driving Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb troops out of Kosovo, Mitrovica became a battleground. Troops from the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) were unable to prevent population expulsions on both sides. Now around 17,000 Serbs live on the northern lip, divided from the 50,000 Albanians in south by the Ibar river.

The north is ‘the biggest challenge’ facing the young Kosovan state, says Robert Wilton, former head of policy at the ICO. KFOR, which Ireland remains a small part of, has designated the security situation in Kosovo ‘calm and stable’, with one exception — the ‘tense and fragile’ tract of territory, roughly 500 square miles, north of the Ibar. Home to over a third of Kosovo’s 100,000 Serbs, ‘North Kosovo’ takes in urban north Mitrovica as well as three less densely populated municipalities that lie between the town and the border with Serbia proper.

On a bright, fresh morning, I am the only civilian the bridge. Walking from south of the river, as close as an Albanian taxi driver will take me, I pass graffiti in praise of UCK (the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the disinterested eyes of uniformed Italian Carabinieri stationed on the bridge. High up on a hill a beautiful Serbian Orthodox Church glistens in the sunlight. Below it, a commanding socialist monument to the nearby Trepca mine marks the main Bosniak and Albanian neighbourhoods that remain in north Mitrovica. On the Serb side of the bridge, middle-aged men sit smoking, huddled around a makeshift tent ringed with Serb flags. These are the ‘bridge watchers’, whose unofficial job it is to monitor who enters, and leaves, the north.

The bridge watchers’ task has been much easier since July of last year, when Serbs blockaded the bridge, in protest at the decision to send KFOR troops to implement customs policies at the northern border with Serbia. Interpreting this as attempt to enforce Pristina’s control in North Kosovo, Serbs revolted, erecting roadblocks, attacking customs posts and even firing live ammunition at personnel from KFOR and the EU rule of law mission, EULEX. One officer was killed.

Almost all of the barriers have been removed, but a ten-foot high mound of rocks and stones still blocks the Ibar bridge to vehicular traffic. This barricade will only be ‘removed by the people themselves as a result of a politically agreed solution’, one KFOR officer told this correspondent.

Such a solution looks unlikely, in the short term at least. ‘It is much more important that Pristina feel that they cannot break us by using force,’ said Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent Serb politician in north Mitrovica and erstwhile state secretary in the ministry of Kosovo in the Serbian government in Belgrade. ‘(If they did) the reaction would be furious.’

The scene of a fabled battle against the invading Ottomans in 1389, Kosovo holds a special place in the symbolic imaginary of Serb nationalists. For many Kosovo is, and always will be, part of Serbia. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in North Kosovo.

In February, an unofficial referendum asked residents in the municipalities north of the Ibar,“Do you accept the institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo?” Almost 100 per cent of voters said ‘no’, according to a Balkan Insight report. Just nine people in the whole of north Mitrovica turned out to vote during last year’s Kosovan elections.

Practically every government service in North Kosovo is administered from Belgrade, from schools and hospitals to road sweeping. ‘Mitrovica doesn’t have a parallel municipality, it just has the Serb municipality’, says former head of the International Civilian Office in Mitrovica, Miranda Hochberg.

The ICO was largely failed to extend its authority into North Kosovo. Civil servants are paid by Serbia; the local currency is the Serb dinar (although the Euro, official tender in the rest of Kosovo can be used, too); cars carry old Serb licences plates or, more commonly, none at all, after Pristina issued an edict banning Serb plates.

‘(Pristina) cannot organise anything in the North,’ Oliver Ivanovic says with a smile. It is a busy morning in his smoke-filled north Mitrovica constituency office. On his desk, an Orthodox Serbian cross sits beside a computer with his Facebook page open. A miniature Serb flag on a piece of cork doubles up as a paperweight. ‘Ask any Serb here, they will tell you — Kosovo institutions are Albanian.’

Boris Drobac, a community worker in the neighbouring municipality of Zvecan, agrees: ‘Before the Serbian people (who Kosovo fled during the war) come back we cannot talk about independence or cooperating with Kosovan institutions’. Drobac describes Kosovo’s independence as ‘totally illegal, adducing UN resolution 1244, which was passed in 1999 and created the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.

Built in the shadows of the Trepca mines industrial complex, Zvecan was a prosperous town under Tito. With around 23,000 workers at its height, the mine was one of the biggest employers in the former Yugoslavia. In 1989, Albanian mine workers went on a mass strike against the loss of Kosovo’s autonomy within the Yugoslav federation. Now the mines are now largely empty, two giant cooling towers and an elongated black slag the only remnants of its former glory.

Displays of Serb nationalism abound in contemporary Zvecan. The entire gable wall of a house is given over to a massive mural of Radko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general currently on trial in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Half-removed concrete barricades litter the road on the short drive from north Mitrovica to Zvecan. Billboards proclaim ‘This is Serbia’, in Serbian and English (presumably for the benefit of international forces and foreign journalists).

The six majority Serb municipalities in south and central Kosovo all accepted extensive self-government powers in the wake of independence. These measures were introduced under the 2008 blueprint for a ‘multi-ethnic’ Kosovo, the Ahtisaari plan, named after its architect, former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. Laws protecting minorities were written into the Kosovan constitution; 20 of the 120 seats in the assembly are reserved for minority parties, including ten for Serb representatives.

Partly as a result of these stipulations, a Serbian party, the Independent Liberal Party (SLS), found itself holding the balance of power after the 2010 Kosovo elections. Formed during the long Serb boycott of Kosovan institutions in the years before independence, SLS is now the minority partner in a coalition government with onetime KLA fighters, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).

Politics in North Kosovo, however, is of a very different hue. Serbs here elect members to separate municipal structures run from Belgrade. Serb parties that cooperate with Pristina struggle in the north. In July 2010, SLS general secretary, Petar Miletić, was shot in both legs in north Mitrovica, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group. Serbs participating in the Kosovan system ‘are not representing the Serb community’, says north Mitrovica politician Oliver Ivanovic.

Wary of further antagonising Serbs in the wake of last year’s fractious attempts to secure customs posts, the international community have adopted a more subtle approach to North Kosovo. The ICO-backed Mitrovica North Administrative Office hopes to encourage Serbs to apply for Kosovan papers and other administrative documents.

Whether this strategy has been successful or not depends whom you speak to: officials in Pristina argue that gradually engaging northern Serbs with the Kosovan government will eventually pay dividends. My Serb fixer will not even take me to the Mitrovica North Administrative Office for fear of repercussions from watchful locals. ‘At least once a week someone gets punished for co-operating with the Kosovan institutions,’ he tells me.

Over lunch, I meet a group of Serb men in a dingy bar in downtown north Mitrovica. Over a beer, Dejan Antic confesses that he holds Kosovan papers, A nervous quiet descends on the table. A compatriot finally breaks the silence, in a deadpan James Bond-villain voice: ‘When we finish the conversation we will kill him.’ None of his drinking companions admit to taking Kosovo papers. ‘They want to force us to take the Kosovo documents but we won’t,’ says Boris Drobac.

Like many on both sides of the Ibar, Antic, a soft-spoken man in his late thirties, answers the question, ‘how long have you been in Mitrovica?’ with a date. In his case, March 18 2004. That was the day he was forced to leave Svinjare, a Serb village in north Kosovo that was razed to the ground by ethnic Albanians in the worst outbreak of violence since the war. The disorder followed the drowning of an Albanian child in the Ibar. By the time it was finished eight Albanians and 11 Serbs were dead, hundreds were injured and the sclerotic ethnic geography of the region had ossified further.

‘KFOR did nothing to stop it,’ says Antic, who was expelled from his home in eastern Kosovo as a child. During the 1999, he was forced to leave the town of Obilic, near Pristina.Serbs often point to desecrations of Orthodox Churches across Kosovo as evidence of a systematic campaign against them by ethnic Albanians.

As in many conflicts, the figures for casualties in the Kosovo war are often disputed. A total of 13,421 people were killed from 1 January 1998 up until December 2000, according to a 2008 joint study by Humanitarian Law Center, The International Commission on Missing Person, and the Missing Person Commission of Serbia. Of that sum, 10,533 were Albanians, 2,238 were Serbs, 126 Roma, 100 Bosniaks and others. Serbs argue that these figures neglect these kin killed in retaliatory attacks after the war.

Less disputed is the fact that North Kosovo has become an outlaw frontier in the centre of Europe. An area over 70,000 people and no effective customs and excise regime, North Mitrovica has become the centre of myriad smuggling rackets. Cigarettes are duty-free; petrol often sells at 40cents a litre less than south of the Ibar (or in Serbia).

‘The north is basically a tax free corruption zone’, says Miranda Hochberg, former head of the ICO in Mitrovica. North Kosovo, with its labyrinthine administrative structures, is ripe for graft. ‘There’s a lot of money flowing into Kosovo from Belgrade but it doesn’t go anywhere.’

Despite having its mandate extended for a further two years last month, EULEX, the EU’s rule of law mission, failed to address the problems in the north, says former ICO head of policy Robert Wilton. ‘EULEX basically sees the north as Mordor: “The north is a terrible place, we’re all going to die”. This creates an image, anyone sitting on the north side of the bridge see EULEX in short sleeves flirting with local girls, then they only comes into the north in armed people carriers.’

Over the bridge in south Mitrovica the atmosphere is noticeably less tense. It’s late afternoon and the cafes are busy with young people, drinking coffee and chatting freely in Albanian. Near the former Lux department store, a relic of Yugoslavia’s more free market variant of socialism, children queue to have their faces painted.

Bajram Rexhepi, an aging Albanian cigarette seller, lived in north Mitrovica for his entire life until February 2, 2000 when he and his wife were expelled. ‘People just took my property,’ he says. Previously Rexhepi worked as an economist at the Trepca mines, before losing his job in a mass expulsion of Albanians. He never crosses the bridge but misses his old neighbourhood, and his old Serb friends. ‘I’m nostalgic for that part of the city now, I miss it.’

Across the road from the onetime UN headquarters, just south of the bridge, sits Community Building Mitrovica. Created in 2001 by the Dutch charity Interchurch Peace Council, CBM ‘aims is to serve as a bridge between the two communities’ — but it faces daily challenges. For one project worker, a young Serb from north Mitrovica, the job interview at CBM was the first time crossing the bridge in 12 years.

‘In Mitrovica everything is political. To try and find common issues between the two communities is hard,’ says Aferdita Syla, CBM’s executive director. Community Building Mitrovica works primarily with young people, women, internally displaced people on both sides of the bridge. ‘But in the north, we’re seen as an Albanian organisation, in the south seen as an organisation that works with Serbs’.

Syla is highly critical of the tendency – both within and without Kosovo – to view Mitrovica’s problems as primarily a product of ethnic difference. ‘Politicians often tell us that Mitrovica is an ethnic problem, but it is not so much an ethnic problem as other problems; unemployment, social problems, water, electricity. Nobody mentions those – this is something that politicians should concentrate on.’

Until now, politicians have been preoccupied with Kosovo’s constitutional future. In 2011, current Serbian Prime Minister Ivia Dacic proposed the partition of Kosovo north of the Ibar river as a ‘realistic’ solution the dispute in the North. The notion of partition, potentially explosive in the ethnic patchwork on the Balkans, has been widely renounced by the international community. In Pristina recently, outgoing International Civilian Representative Pieter Feith rejected the idea outright, saying that Kosovans ‘rightly believe that the North is part of Kosovo. This is not only their view, it is shared in Brussels, in the (European) Commission’.

Calls for special autonomy for the North have fallen on deaf ears in Pristina, where politicians point to the extensive self-government powers that already exist but which northern Serbs have not taken advantage of. However, on the streets of Mitrovica the mood is very different. ‘The real problem is central Kosovo – you have 20 Serbs in Pristina, zero Serbs in Pec. That is the problem, not Mitrovica. Mitrovica is the solution’, says Dejan Antic, who works on a project to develop small businesses in north Mitrovica.

‘If the democratic will of the people is respected the North will never be part of this Kosovo but if the international community forces allows the Albanian government to extend Kosovo institutions in the North, we will have a situation like 1999’.

The prospect, however distant, of EU membership could yet encourage Kosovo and Serbia to reach a settlement. Speaking at the United Nations last week, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said that the two prospective EU candidates must normalise relations, although he added that partition ‘would never happen’. The EU, crucially, with the imprimatur of the US ambassador to Kosovo, is hoping to organise talks this month with a view to settling the question of the North.

Despite tensions on the ground, and between the two national governments in Belgrade and Pristina, the prospect of return to open hostility in Kosovo is remote. ‘With the exception of the north, which is largely EULEx’s fault, there is no security issue in Kosovo’, says Robert Wilton.

Even in North Kosovo, violence on the scale witnessed in March 2004 is considered unlikely. ‘I doubt there will be a big clash,’ says Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic. ‘There are so many weapons on both sides, it would be stupid to put the fire too close to the gasoline.’

There are measures the Pristina government could take to assuage an anxious Serb community. Widening public sector opportunities for Serbs would help: less than one per cent of the 12,000-plus workers in publicly owned enterprises are Serbs, according to the International Crisis Group. Many of Serbs expelled from Pristina, Prizren, and other Kosovan regions during and after the war have struggled to get their property back. Serbian is rarely used or understood beyond the handful of Serb municipalities, although it is an official language of the Kosovan state,

But the main stumbling block remains the economy. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and almost certainly the highest rate of unemployment — unofficial estimates suggest that as many of 40 per cent of the population are out of work. Among those aged 15 to 25 the figure is even higher. Kosovo needs to create around 25,000 new jobs every year just to maintain employment at its current level, says Lumir Abdixhiku, executive director of Reinvest institute, a Pristina-based think tank.

Last year, Kosovo exported just €300m, leaving it with a trade deficit of €2.2bn, according to Abdixhiku. Without remittances from Switzerland, the UK and, in particular, Germany, the economy would be in even worse shape. Typical annual interest rates on loans to Kosovan businesses run at 40 per cent. Crippling visa restrictions make foreign travel onerous, hindering young Kosovans in particular.

Petrit Selimi, the articulate, youthful deputy minister at the department of foreign affairs is confident that the end of supervised independence will mark a new chapter in Kosovan history. ‘Considering the enormity of the challenge I think we have coped very well,’ he says, citing Kosovo’s average annual GDP growth of around 4 per cent.

‘Kosovo is not a failed state. Kosovo is not a dark zone, We have been told so much by Serbian propagandists that sometimes we start believing it, but it’s not the case.’

Back in Zvecan, living in a de facto state is bad for legitimate business, regardless of ethnicity. ‘If I want to send anything in Serbia I need an export permit, it I want to sell anything in Kosovo I need an import permit’, say Milija Radenkovic, 60, who runs gas station and small farm in North Kosovo.

Radenkovic has been forced to lay off staff in recent months. His three sons have all moved to Serbia. He doubts they will ever return. ‘Our young people they finish their studies here but we don’t have opportunities for employment here so they are leaving for Serbia or the West’, he says.

‘For people who are thinking about themselves and their family, they don’t care about the politics, they only care about the economic situation’.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post October 7, 2012. 

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