At the end of the Kosovo war many Serbs had to fly. The purges were worst in the cities. Except for Mitrovica none of the larger cities in Kosovo has more than a few hundred Serbs left. The remaining Serbs are concentrated in Serb majority villages and the North of Kosovo.
Since then not much has improved. The killings have stopped. But low level violence (throwing rocks at cars, beating people up, systhematic thefts, etc.) still continue. The situation is bad enough that many people don't venture outside their villages and don't dare to work their land. As the Kai Eide report highlighted: the situation is bad enough that Serbs keep leaving. And many more plan to leave once Kosovo becomes independent.
Kosovo's Serbs are perfectly aware that many of Kosovo's Albanians believe that the departure of all of them would be a very good thing. They believe that that will stop all Serb claims on Kosovo territory. I think this Albanian attitude is rather naive: patent injustice may fire nationalist sentiments for a long time to come. For that reason I believe it is essential to get a reasonable solution for Kosovo.
The level of violence in Kosovo is rather low at the moment. But that is mainly because it suits the Albanian side to give the internationals a moderate impression. The march 2004 riots showed that there are still large numbers of Albanians who are prepared to violence against Kosovo's Serbs. Even more significant was that hardly any Albanian condemned the attacks, including the politicians. This showed itself also in the aftermath of the attacks: under international pressure there were an official investigation and criminal prosecutions. But the investigation went nowhere and the criminal prosecutions ended in a few low sentences.
The Serbs know what independence will bring them. Still less protection against aggression and still more discrimination. The proposed privatisation of the Brezovica ski resort is good example. Everyone knows that in the present uncertain circumstances no Serb will invest in them. So the new owner will be Albanian - probably supported by some international consortium. And as Albanian employers tend to discriminate against Serbs it can be expected that soon the majority of the employees will be Albanians instead of Serbs as is now the case.
Another politically correct excuse for making life hard for Kosovo's Serbs is "integration", like proposals to make Northern Mitrovica a showcase for integration by establishing there new institutions. This means that the area will be flooded with Albanians. As many Serbs still don't feel safe in mixed environments the expectable outcome is a flight of the Serbs - what is very probably the real purpose of the proposers.
So it can be expected that half of the remaining Serbs will flee immediately after independence. And that a continuing hostile climate will soon induce most of the other half to leave too. These circumstances give the negotiations in Vienna a surreal character. All the proposed minority rights will do nothing to change the hostile environment. It reminds me of a prisoner convicted to death who may choose his last meal.
Yet there is one thing that could change the whole situation. It is the split of Mitrovica and the allocation of a special autonomy to the area north of the Ibar. Such autonomy should make sure that the area can resist efforts to Albanisation from Pristina. By allowing such autonomy the Kosovo government would make clear that it is prepared to accept a multi-ethnic Kosovo for the long term.
I believe that this reorganisation should have been introduced several years ago - as soon as was clear how problematic the return of refugees was - specially to the larger cities. It has been proposed many times - most recently in the American "South Tirol" proposal (South Tirol got its autonomy after it protested against an Italianisation policy). However, due to Albanian resistence it has never been implemented.
The uncertainty that is the consequence this non-implementation are clear to everyone. Kosovo's Serbs don't invest in their properties - even north of the Ibar - and enterprising people leave. This comes down to soft ethnic cleansing - with the UN as an accomplice.
Starting the negotiations without this issue being solved was a mistake. This should not be a matter of negotiations but a precondition.
I don't know what moves Belgrade to want to postpone the subject of Mitrovica until the end-negotiations. However, it is clear that making such an essential issue a part of the negotiations puts Belgrade in an awkward position. By agreeing on any solution for Mitrovica they would throw it away as a subject for further negotiations. But on the other hand they want to keep their options open so that they can demand border changes or more far-going autonomy as a price for independence. But this is an all-or-nothing strategy that may fail. And it means giving up on the Serbs south of the Ibar. In this light it is not surprising that Kosovo's Serbs have walked out of the negotiations.
But the main blame for this awkward situation should go to the international community for creating a situation where basic human rights are the subject of negotiations.
I find the recent recommendations from the Contact Group not encouraging. Their talk about "rights to all citizens" seems to imply equal treatment for Serbs and Albanians and to deny this area recognition as a special - Serb majority - case. However, all Western countries with several equal langauges have language borders, and I believe that Kosovo needs one too - that designates the north as Serb speaking with minority rights for the Albanian speakers. The promise of the Contact Group that the international community will stay engaged is not encouraging either: it implies an instable situation without the hard guarantees that real autonomy would offer.
Several objections have been raised against granting the North autonomy:
- "it will leave the Serbs south of the Ibar in the cold": Actually it will strengthen their position. It will covince them that the Albanians are really prepared to live with the Serbs. It will also guarantee them that they will have a Serb city with urban services closeby for a long time.
- "it will reward ethnic cleansing": you may call it the lesser evil. I think it is a necessary step to prevent the cleansing of all Serbs to succeed.
- "the Albanians in Macedonia will demand the same rights": I am sure they will. In fact they do already occasionally - this will be just one more argument. The rashed independence of Yugoslavia's republics has left us with weak countries with which the minorities don't identify. It will take endless negotiations and perseverance to make those states succeed.
The long term
The modern society is not very suitable for living as an ethnic minority. So I expect that even in the best circumstances the size of the Serb community south of the Ibar will continue to decrease... Until at the end only the monastries with some small surrounding communities stay, serving as a tourist attraction that brings Kosovo much money. But under good circumstances this process may take centuries. Only Strpce seems to have a chance to survive as a Serb community. It is the largest remaining Serb settlement south of the Ibar and it lies rather isolated in the mountains. Kosovo's Serbs would like it to have similar autonomy as the North.
I believe that a democratic society should be based on equality. Unfortunately Kosovo has not known equality for centuries. Always either the Serbs or the Albanians dominated. The present situation is not different: the Serbs are completely at the mercy of the Albanians with the UN in between as a weak buffer. And this mercy is not great: discrimination is widespread. Under these circumstances any minority in a Western country would press for strengthening their position just as the Serbs now do.
Of course there are Serb extremists who believe that one of the two has to dominate and who believe that it should be them. But I believe that it would be a big mistake to discard because of them the justified desire of other Serbs to be treated as equals.