Kosovo: After Independence
Mar 15, 2009

2007/2008 What a Difference a Year and a UDI Makes

Mitrovica is Europe’s most divided city – Belgrade’s last bastion of influence in Kosovo – a thorn in the side of both the newly sovereign Kosovo Assembly in Pristina and the international community overseeing Kosovo’s new status. It is the flashpoint of most post-independence violence and demonstrations, and the seat of power for the illegal ­“parallel-institutions” that divide Kosovo’s internal governance with that of Belgrade’s.

Crossing the Ibar River from South to North Mitrovica, one experiences the veritable partition of the new Kosovar state. This partition is adamantly denied by the United Nations, European Union and Kosovo Assembly despite being all too real.

While Kosovo’s new flag is symbolically emblazoned with what had been Kosovo’s entire landmass as a Serbian province, in practice, partition along ethnic lines has legally taken place. In response to Serbian attacks on national border and ­customs buildings ­following Pristina’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), the customs borders (but not “official geographic borders”) of Kosovo were redrawn. Goods entering the country of Kosovo from Serbia are now declared at new customs crossings approximately 30km south of the Serbian/Kosovar border running along the Ibar River. It is only safe for customs agents to carry out their work south of the river (despite being a half hour drive to the Serbian border).

Guarded by KFOR, these new customs structures serve as the true border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia, symbolic certainly, but so too in legal practice. In a region where borders are all important for national cohesion among the young countries of the former Yugoslavia, it took Kosovo mere months to redraw theirs. Worse still, the border division was carried along ethnic lines between Serbs and Albanians, much to the chagrin of the internationals.

The concept of partition is not a new one within Kosovo, but its occurrence for customs purposes represents a loss for UNMIK, KFOR and other in-country international groups. Partition was always avoided by the internationals who wanted to keep the geography of Kosovo intact – if only to symbolize their complete victory for the Albanians. The once minority Albanian population within Serbia held fast to their rights to the entire province, and the internationals secured the province’s borders accordingly.

Those who tended to the ­creation of the Kosovar state therefore scoff at entertaining a partitioned Kosovo, be it now or in the future, official or unofficial. The international community’s denial of partition is rooted in their need to propagate the image of having created a multi-ethnic Kosovo over the past decade. Under the luminescence of Independence Day fireworks, it was the UN and NATO, more so than the Albanians, who smiled at the world’s ­cameras, proudly proclaiming they finally had a success story in the Balkans. In attempting to save face by announcing the construction of a new nation, the international community only served to polarize already bitter and suspicious ethnic groups.

Kosovo-Albanians (and 52 of the world’s other sovereign states) recognize the Kosovo Assembly as the legal government of Kosovo, while Serbs inside Kosovo’s borders respond only to Belgrade and its satellite offices within Kosovo. These offices mirror official Kosovo ministries in areas such as education, justice, infrastructure and telecommunications. For the time being they are funded directly by Belgrade. How long Serbian taxpayers (in “Serbia-Proper”) will pay out to Kosovo-Serbs is unknown, however the reliance of Kosovar-Serbs on Belgrade’s handouts is very much the present reality for Serb communities. Currently Belgrade is happy to bolster its countrymen in Mitrovica with superior-to-Albanian infrastructure like a new sports arena; efficient garbage collection, fiber-optic phone lines, and government salaries double those of the Kosovo Assembly. Should Belgrade’s funding ever cease, the Kosovo-Serbs will face even greater hardships, the ultimate extension of which may well be the disappearance of a Serb minority in Kosovo all together. Despite nationalistic fervor keeping Serb pockets lined for the time being, eventually Belgrade may have to choose between entry into the European Union and relinquishing its rights to Kosovo all together. Faced with such a choice, especially after the initial shock of loosing the province has faded into national memory, the Kosovar-Serb future becomes all the more bleak, with Belgrade likely electing for economy over pride.

The post-war tensions I had seen simmering in 2007 became fully actualized in 2008. The new state is a far cry from the homogenous Kosovo that the internationals would project. Walking the bridges of Mitrovica, one straddles the line between two factions that in a pre-independence Kosovo were at odds, are now truly segregated. Admittedly, Mitrovica has been a symbol of Albanian and Serbian tension since the war’s end in 1999, however, walking the same bridges in a pre-status Kosovo, I was able to move freely and without concern between the two groups. The Kosovo-Serb hatred and exaggerated nationalistic reactions resulting from the UDI are as disheartening and damaging to the reconciliation process as they are disturbing to an outsider.

"Kosovo is Serbia" stickers and t-shirts are sold in markets.

Meandering though the North-Mitrovica streets, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the Serbian nationalist imagery, much of which was absent in 2007, pre-UDI. Serbian flags hang in every store window and from every traffic light, “Kosovo is Serbia” stickers and t-shirts are sold in markets. Most striking of all in North-Mitrovica are the “death’s head” flags of Serbian regiments, renowned for their involvement in ethnic cleansing campaigns that adorn shop entrances. While frightening in their intent, such symbols reveal the actual insecurity of the Serb population itself within this new Kosovo.

The visible reactions to Kosovo’s independence give way to greater, and ultimately more detrimental, societal and political changes. In 2008, to have an armed Serbian Kosovo Police Force (KPS) officer warn me upon crossing to the Serb side of Mitrovica that, “You need to shoot your pictures and leave quickly. I’m telling you right now that I can’t protect you here,” was a staggering break from the ease and cordiality with which I moved between communities in 2007. Indeed it was a warning I should have heeded. Later I was accosted by Serbian “plain clothes police” from Belgrade who spotted me taking video of nationalistic propaganda at a Serb ­government building. Interestingly, while NATO forces and UNMIK are happy to dissuade Belgrade’s illegal security forces in Kosovo (it is impossible to confirm to what extent such forces operate within Kosovo), they don’t dare stop them outright, for fear of escalation. It was this ­incident that prompted a return visit to North-Mitrovica under NATO guard. I was later told by a local that members of the same police group had attacked Serbian journalists weeks before. For a population that sees itself unjustly painted as a war-mongering, genocidal nationality by the foreign media, journalists are especially hated.

What I took from the Serbian actions against me, and the overall environment of anger and inflated nationalism, was not that the Serbs were playing into an aggressive stereotype, nor that they were proving why they had lost the rights to govern this piece of land. Being showcased were the shortcomings of the internationals to break the climate of ethnic suspicion and escalating aggression that has cursed the Balkans for hundreds of years. The prophetic warning of the KPS officer (the KPS being a creation of UNMIK), represented a failed opportunity, a failed mission, and worst of all, a failed people (both Serbians and Albanians).

The main bridge dividing the Albanian and Serbian sides.

In a region already wrought with the scars of violent nationalism resulting from both perceived and real ethnic attacks, it is the most unwise of climates to have created. Indeed, the internationals too are having to adapt to the new Kosovo they unleashed onto unwilling Serbs and unready Albanians on 18 February 2008. Mitrovica is but the most apparent example of the drastic Serb reactions the international community produced by their irresponsible action of granting Kosovo an immature independence.  

Christopher Bobyn is a video journalist working on a documentary of Kosovo.
© FrontLine Security 2009