Sunday, August 13, 2006

Mitrovica: it is time to stop procrastinating

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.

Living together
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.


WARchild said...

Hey Wim,

There are some major factual errors in your writeup.

1) Kosovo government has apologized for the March 2004 riots and has accepted responsibility for the failure to stop them. Accordingly, it has given out funds for the reconstruction of homes and religous objects.

2) The movement of one or two ministries to Mitrovica was seen as a way for Serbs to participate in the institutions, not as a way to relocate Albanians there. I think you're giving too much credit to Albanian ingenuiy - Albanians, much like Bosnians are too naive to be capable of such level of criminal thinking. The challenge right now is to return those Albanians that have been cleansed by Serb gangs in the north.

3) In Vienna it is political rights that are being discussed. Specifically, Serbs want a de-facto seperation while Albanians are offering the highest level of minority rights in the Balkans but not seperation. Human rights are not on the table.

4) There is nothing patriotic in the privatisation process. A company from Serbia (Genex, if I remember right) has already expressed interest in investing in Brezovica.

Wim Roffel said...

Hi Warchild,

Thank you for the corrections. As they say: two know more than one.

However, on a few points I disgree with you:

1) The Kosovo government has done the bare minimum of what was imposed by the international community. But it has done nothing to prevent something similar from happening again. It is generally believed that it can happen.

Of course it is not just the government: it is a mentality problem that shows itself for example in a lack of results in the juridical area. But it is the governments task to change that mentality. But it doesn't even try.

You can still see the results of the riots for example in Svinjare, where many Serbs don't think it is worth the trouble to refurnish their rebuilt house and rather sell it. Obviously they don't see a future for them there: due to a lack a convictions the intimidation of 2004 is still working.

2) I wouldn't be so certain. This kind of considerations is usually not publicly discussed. But key people are certainly aware of the consequences.

Than there is that mysterious sentence "The challenge right now is to return those Albanians that have been cleansed by Serb gangs in the north.":
- the first thing that strikes me is the term "Serb gangs": I always get suspicious when in discussions people use rather insulting terms like "gangs".
- many of the Serbs who have resettled in the houses of those cleansed Albanians in North Mitrovica come from elsewhere in Kosovo. So I am a bit puzzled that you believe you can solve their problem without solving the problem of for example the 30.000 Serbs who used to live in Pristina.

3) Sure, officially in Vienna political rights are discussed.

But with many Serbs afraid to leave their villages or to work their fields and with hardly any refugees returning their basic human rights are obviously not sufficiently guaranteed. And so that becomes inevitably part of the talks.

I agree with Kai Eide: It can take ages before Kosovo has its human rights correct and we can't wait so long before we start talking about about Kosovo's future. My point is that more concrete measures should have been taken.

the highest level of minority rights in the Balkan: obviously you are talking about the present and forgetting the past (Yugoslavia!). I think there is on the whole Balkan only one situation that is a bit comparable: the Hungarians in Romania. And even there the relations between the two groups are much better than in Kosovo.

4) Good news that a Serb company is interested too. Maybe I am too pessimistic. But I think that the opposition from the local Serbs indicates that they don't trust it (for my democratic beliefs a very important point). Privitisation in Kosovo doesn't have a very good reputation regarding transparency and honesty.

Wim Roffel said...

I want to add a comparison of the position of the Serbs in Kosovo and the Albanians in Macedonia:

On paper there is not much difference, but in reality the Albanians in Macedonia have much influence on the national government and are considered equal - if smaller - partners. In contrast the influence of Kosovo's Serbs on the Kosovo government is neglectable. In Macedonia it would be absolutely unthinkable that the government decides to privatise a major employer in an Albanian city without Albanians consent - like happens in Strpce. Similarly the Albanians in Macedonia got largely what they want regarding to municipal reorganisation while the Serbs in Kosovo are still struggling to get more than a token gesture.

That the Albanians in Macedonia have so much more power is due to at least 3 factors: they are more numerous than the Serbs in Kosovo, they have guns and occasionly threaten with them and the international community supports them.

As it is power that counts and not paper I believe that concrete steps should be taken to give the Serbs in Kosovo more real power.

Anonymous said...

Interesting how the fear of Serbs due to what the Albanians is done is always accentuated. How come you don't consider what the Albanian fear of the Serbs must be if you consider that proportionally the Serbs have killed more than 30 times as many Albanians? It's not a simple matter now is it. The Albanians should be ready to forgive the Serb crimes, but the Serbs should not do so? You talk about giving more power to the Serbs, how come those same Serbs didn't give those same rights to the Albanians when the Albanians were actually in the majority? Trust doesn't come easily from either side. At least the Kosovo Albanians are reaching out. The Serbs are slapping their hands away. You propose the partition of Kosovo, well then you can expect partitions of lots of other territories in the Balkans, including the Presevo valley and Vojvodina. No one in their right mind wants to go down that path. You seem to imply that the Albanians are restraining themselves and that after independence they would go on a rampage. What proof do you have of this? All the cases of violence are isolated. When so many people have suffered, it's understandeable that some will lash out and try to take out their pains on others. What specifically do you suggest the Kosovar Albanian government should do to prevent this violence? You can't prevent people from performing violent acts in a free society. It's just impossible. These are relatively few incidents. You don't seem to want to compare them with what the Serbs did to Albanians even before the 1999 war. I'm not making excuses here, all perpetrators should be arrested and they should be punished for their crimes. I just don't see these crimes getting worse after independence. They can only diminish. Though they'll never dissapear. You'll always have crime in a free society. I'm just saying look at it in the right scale.

Wim Roffel said...

- 30 times as many Albanians killed seems an excegeration to me. But I agree with you that the future should be built on what is fair, not on old pains and grudges.
- I did not ask for splitting Kosovo - for the simple reason that it internationally not feasable. Instead I proposed considerable autonomy for the north.
- If you read older posts on this blog you will know that I am in favor of partitioning Kosovo. My idea about changing borders is simple: don't do it, but if you must do it do it right. When we make Kosovo independent we are changing borders and we should negotiate how to do it right. And if Serbia asks for the north tip, Kosovo might very well ask for Presevo. That is a matter of negotiating. But this should have no further implications in the Balkan or elsewhere on the world.
- March 2004 was not an incident with someone lashing out. Neither is it an incident that quite a lot of Serb villages are afraid to work on their land. Yet the reaction of both the Albanian mass and the politicians is not one of shame that this is happening under their rule, but rather condoning. The typical reaction of Albanian politicians is to say that something is not helping the Albanians towards independence: a rather weak way to say that something is morally wrong.
- I am not saying that the Albanians will go on a rampage if Kosovo becomes independent. Rather I expect that those criminals who want to acquire Serb property will get even more freedom to get what they want. You can now already see it in some villages that are robbed of their agricultural machines and their cattle (see for example here on page 12. The only thing that the police does is disarm the villagers so that next time they will be unable to defend themselves. You saw the same attitude that Serb property is fair game in Svinjare in march 2004 when Albanians from neighbouring willages put their names as claims on the Serb houses. This same attitude was already reported in the enquete of the Serb academy of Sciences in 1986 and without it Milosevic might never have been such a problem for Kosovo in the first place.

In 1986 the reaction of the Albanian government was that the Serbs who left Kosovo were economic refugees. They were right in their way and they would be even more right nowadays. A bad security situation in itself can be "managed" by being careful. But when people are unable to make a living through discrimination and threats and when their possesions are regularly stolen or damaged they will find it impossible to survive economically. And that is what is happening in Kosovo.

Bg anon said...

There is another important difference anonymous - the current day situation.

The situation is that the JA have long gone and wont be allowed to return. That time has passed but incidents against Serbs continue today. Clearly the Serbs of Kosovo are repressed today. Clearly the Albanians in the 1990's faced repression.

To my mind the best thing for any moderate Albanians is to hope and condemn any act of repression against Serbs today. If there is no repression then Serbs in Kosovo wont be able to use this argument against Albanians any longer. Slappng Albanian hands away is much easier when every once in a while the same hand comes out in the night time to smack the Serbs of Kosovo. If those hands are clean instead you will see more moderation from Serbs and more pressure against Serbs from the international community.

Prevention has always been better than cure.