Reuters, October 07, 2004
Last exit to Serbia. No U-turns
By Matthew Robinson
MITROVICA, Serbia and Montenegro, Oct 7 (Reuters) - From the mountainous Serbian border, the River Ibar flows gently into Kosovo and slices through the town of Mitrovica.
With the end of the war and deployment of NATO troops in 1999, it offered a convenient natural barrier between the town's warring sides -- Serbs to the north, Albanians to the south.
But five years later the river runs through Mitrovica like a border fence, sharpened by razor wire and patrolled by edgy French soldiers.
The West has signalled mid-2005 as a likely date to decide the future status of Kosovo, a U.N. protectorate still formally part of Serbia and Montenegro but whose 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority demands outright independence.
North Mitrovica, a Serb stronghold in an Albanian-dominated province, has become a battleground for two opposing visions of that future, one of them based on partition.
U.N. officials frame the issue as one of political will.
"Any form of reintegration must be based on the will of the people," said U.N. spokesman Gyorgy Kakuk.
"Either the international community tries to take over north Kosovo and forcefully reintegrate -- and we face another huge refugee crisis -- or we try to deal with this situation peacefully."
Unemployment fuels the palpable tension here, as bored men in cheap tracksuits lounge in cafes looking out over the river.
Mitrovica has hosted some of the worst clashes since the war. In March, Serbs and Albanians fought pitched battles on the bridge and traded automatic gunfire from balconies.
"The world should stop thinking about one Mitrovica," says Vladimir Rakic, a Serb leader in the north and co-founder of the "Bridgewatchers", a group of men which until last year was paid by the Serbian interior ministry to guard the main bridge.
Backed by Belgrade, Rakic and others have rebuffed successive attempts to bring north Mitrovica under the control of the United Nations and Kosovo's Albanian-dominated institutions.
Serb leaders say the north's hospital and university provide essential services to Serbs, particularly the young, whose freedom of movement is otherwise severely curtailed.
They warn that any attempt to unite the town under a mainly Albanian council would prompt a Serb exodus from Kosovo.
"With no Serbs in north Mitrovica, there will be no Serbs in Kosovo," says Rakic, a huge man in a shiny leather jacket and drainpipe jeans.
U.N. authority effectively ends at the river. All the way to the Serbian internal boundary in the north are swathes of Serb-populated land, home to 30,000 people or a third of Kosovo's remaining Serb population.
As the last urban centre for Kosovo Serbs and a gateway to the homeland, north Mitrovica is key to Belgrade's proposal to create "Serb autonomy within an autonomous Kosovo".
Western diplomats say this means partition and brings back memories of the ethnic carve-up of the former Yugoslavia.
For Albanians, north Mitrovica is an impertinent outpost and a launch pad for an attempt by Belgrade to divide the province. They demand a fully independent, united Kosovo.
The U.N. mission "is primarily to blame," says south Mitrovica's Albanian mayor. Faruk Spahija says the United Nations has "accommodated" Belgrade-funded parallel structures that provide services supposedly in the domain of Kosovo's own institutions.
"Through parallel structures, Belgrade still exercises great influence on life in that part of the town," Spahija says.
Staff at the crumbling hospital and university in the north answer to the Serbian health and education ministries, and receive double salaries to keep them there.
Cars carry Serbian licence plates, not the U.N.-issued "KS" plates, and the Serbian dinar is favoured in place of the euro used by Albanians.
With the decline of the area's once mighty Trepca mining complex, Mitrovica lost a major source of employment. Serbia now provides 60 percent of income in the north. The private sector is dominated by street-side kiosks.
"It's impossible that northern Kosovo could be part of an independent Kosovo," says Rakic. "Not one Serb in the north would accept that. Either you separate northern Kosovo, or you drive Serbs out".
Serbs "won't acknowledge anything that isn't going to lead to an independent north Mitrovica," said a senior Western diplomat. A U.N. official agreed: "They're digging in."
Serbia's education ministry recently made former Slobodan Milosevic supporter Radivoje Papovic rector of Mitrovica University, reinstating a man who in the early 1990s helped strip Albanians of influence over Kosovo education.
The United Nations called that move illegal. A Western diplomat said it was Belgrade "shoving two fingers up to the international community and showing exactly where they're going".
He agreed with independent analysts that the United Nations had "turned a blind eye" in the five years since stepping in to run the province, after 11 weeks of bombing by NATO drove Serb forces out in the world's first "humanitarian intervention" war.
The West went in with 60,000 troops in 1999 and 18,000 peacekeepers are still there. The top U.N. powers who are at the helm appear to have no clear political exit strategy.
"The repercussions if they did something, and did it wrong, don't bear thinking about," the Western diplomat mused. "The Serbs would have nothing."