Weekly demonstrations against Kosovo’s declaration of independence continue on the Serbian side of the divided city of Mitrovica, and all signs point to violence breaking out in the area once again. Serbia’s government fell in March 2008 after an inability to reach an internal consensus on how the government should relate to countries who had accepted Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. On May 11th, both the parliamentary and municipal elections will be held across Serbia despite the UN and Kosovo government’s oppositional positions in Serb dominated areas within Kosovo, such as Mitrovica.
On April 30th, 2008 the Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić from the Democratic Party (DS), along with party leader and Serbian President, Boris Tadić signed the Stabilization Association Agreement (SAA) document which pushed the volatile environment of Serbia and Kosovo to further extremes. The leading and oppositional party, the Serb Radical Party (SRS), was outraged by the signing, calling it ‘the seal of Judas’. They, along with nearly all other opposition parties argue that the signing of the SAA is unconstitutional, as it will jeopardize Serbia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Mitrovica, or Kosovska Mitrovica as it is called on the Serbian side, is a small city divided by the Ibar River, which has seen its economy destroyed since the closure of the Trepca mine in 1999 after the UN took over the administration of Kosovo.
Mitrovica’s Serbs – approximately 30 percent of the population – continue to reject independence for Kosovo. Traditional Serbian songs declaring undying love for Kosovo are a regular feature at daily demonstrations, pledging allegiance to Serbia.
On the other side of the Ibar, for the Albanian community, life continues as before the declaration, without any major demonstrations, in hopes of keeping their side of the town calm and stable. Earlier this month there was one day of rallying in front of the UNMIK office in southern Mitrovica, demanding that UNMIK regional representative Gerard Gallucci leave town for criticizing UNMIK’s decision to restore order around a courthouse in the north last month. The women had threatened to protest every morning until he left but quickly gave up after it became obvious that Gallucci’s resignation would not materialize.
On March 17th clashes between hundreds of Serb rioters and international forces involved in an operation to retake the UNMIK-controlled courthouse in the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica left many civilians severely injured. The conflict also resulted in the death of one peacekeeper from Ukraine. Up to 300 local Serb demonstrators had seized the building by force three days earlier, refusing to leave the premises.
Milosh Milutionivic is a restaurant worker from Kosovska Mitrovica who explained to me how the tension has been rising: "The situation nowadays is not safe. In the night there’s a lot of shooting, you cannot sleep. It’s a really critical time. The army is constantly around you, and you’re suspicious all the time. You are not safe in your own surroundings, because there’s the army around, and there’s more to it."
The army that Milutinovic is suspicious of is NATO’s Kosovo stabilization force, or KFOR, who work in conjunction with the UN. Mitrovica’s Serbs place little faith in NATO protection. Many cite a 2004 incident, when the drowning of an Albanian child led to weeks of arson, murder and bombings by the Albanian majority against their neighbors. Later investigation found the drowning was an accident that never involved any Serbs. Mitrovica’s Serbs bitterly remember having to defend themselves as KFOR did little to prevent the attacks. The two sides of the city have had little interaction since then.
Miljan Shcepanovic, a baker, is certain there will be more violence in the town he has grown up in.
"This is just the calm before the storm. The Albanians have calmed down just so that their independence could be recognized, but it’s just a matter of time, just like 4 years ago… Another month or two and the new conflict will occur. I think they (the Albanians) are going to chase away people from Central Kosovo. Every year, at springtime, it has become annual event already, with many provocations. Now we see that they (Albanian government) fired every Serbian police officer, and we can only speculate, but from previous experience we can expect new attacks."
Most Serbian police officers across Kosovo continue to be suspended. They walked off the job in late February, refusing to work under the command of the new European mission, which will oversee the Kosovo Police Service. For the Serbians, to accept the new EU command is also to recognize the new state of Kosovo.
Serbian members from Pristina, of the police force one of the few ethnically integrated institutions in Kosovo – have slowly been returning to work since they resigned on mass in March, refusing to work under the new authorities.
Veton Elshani, the Kosovo Police Service spokesman, was quoted as saying in Koha Ditore on March 11, that a small number of 296 suspended Serbs returned to work, that they were from the region of Pristina, and that although suspended all KPS members were given their salaries for the month of March. The paper added that Serbs working in the Kosovo Police Service who walked off the job would also receive a second payment of salary from the Serbian federal budget. But this claim made in the largest Albanian language daily in Kosovo, are dubious when viewed alongside the interview recently broadcast on KIM Radio, the authoritative voice for Serbs living in Kosovo.
Milo ivković, one of the Serb policemen that recently returned to work, said to KIM Radio that he has family to support. "One of the main reasons is that this salary is my only income. Another is that I plan to stay and live here. First I left KPS in solidarity with my colleagues. However, during the month long period under suspension, none of the promises given to us by the government of Serbia has been fulfilled".
One must ask: If they get double the pay from Serbia not to work and continue their protest, why would they return to work?
Koha Ditore reported on April 7th that Serb officers in the KPS closed up their bank accounts, refusing to receive their paychecks from the Kosovo administration budget, arguing that they still do not recognize the state of Kosovo and don’t want their money. However, not all Serb KPS members were able to express their patriotic feelings through this action, as banks refused to shut down the accounts that have pending loans.
The police force has been one of the few integrated institutions in Kosovo. The dispute leaves Serbs with little or no representation in the new state’s functioning.
The European Unions mission EULEX began the take over of the institutional responsibilities, including policing, in late February in Southern areas of Kosovo. A recent demonstration in Mitrovica saw the residents protesting against Serbia’s plan to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement – largely viewed by the townsfolk as a manipulative acquiescence to the plans of the European Union, which include having Serbia recognize Kosovo.
Participants of the rally shouted slogans agitating that no alliance can be made ‘with countries that have recognized the monstrosity of the state called Kosovo, nor with the EU (as they set up the EULEX mission)."
Mitrovica is expected to be a divided city for many years to come. The upcoming municipal and parliamentary elections of Serbia, set for May 11th, could easily bring more violence to the area; the UN is against having the elections while Serbia is poised to go ahead and set up voting stations.