Kosovo's Serbs feel heat
from all sides


New Serbian government hints of new priorities, particularly
with respect to UN and EU; the matter of Kosovo seems to
be taking second place to Serbian membership in the EU

Patrick Jackson

BBC News, Mitrovica
July 14, 2008

In northern Mitrovica, the capital of Serb-populated north Kosovo, you could be forgiven for thinking yourself in any Serbian town.

You pay for your coffee in Serbian dinars, cars roll by with Serbian number plates or none at all, and posters advertising Serbian political parties cover the walls.

There are usually no border checks when you travel from Belgrade - only the occasional NATO patrol provides a reminder of the region's special problems.

We are a bit worried
  --  Nebojsa Jovic, of the Serb National Council

For the Serbs of northern Kosovo, these problems have been gathering steadily in recent months.

The ethnic Albanian leaders who control the rest of Kosovo have declared independence, the new state has been recognized by some 40 countries, and now a new Serbian government is hinting at big changes of policy.

"We are a bit worried about the new government," says Nebojsa Jovic, president of the north Mitrovica Serb National Council, an umbrella group representing Kosovo Serbs

"This coalition includes some who are of the opinion that Kosovo is already lost," he says, sipping water at a cafe near a bridge over the river Ibar, which divides Mitrovica's Serb and Albanian communities.

"The previous government's top priority was Kosovo and now it is EU membership with Kosovo taking second place.

"We would appreciate it if they did more to convince us that they believe Kosovo should be preserved within Serbia."

Mutual coexistence

On the river bank beside the bridge stands a newly erected obelisk engraved with the names of Serbs killed during the 1998-99 war.

It looks as much a marker of territory as a memorial.

Despite Mr. Jovic's concerns, most parties in the new coalition government insist Kosovo belongs to Serbia. Ministers say their push to join the European Union within four years will not come at the expense of the country's territorial integrity.

But beyond that red line, they are signaling a new approach. Moderation, flexibility and dialogue are at the heart of it.

I think there will be some discreet talks between Belgrade and Pristina  --  Dejan Anastasijevic

Foreign minister Vuk Jeremic has said it is time for "more agile and constructive activity and co-operation with all factors in the international community".

The ministry's officials, meanwhile, have been quoted as saying that ambassadors withdrawn from countries that recognized Kosovo will be returned within a year.

"The new government is going to put Kosovo on the back burner, at least for a while," predicts Belgrade journalist Dejan Anastasijevic.

"However, Brussels does insist on some sort of dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and some agreement, which does not necessarily have to be formal, on mutual coexistence.

"I think there will be some discreet talks between Belgrade and Pristina."

He foresees tensions between Belgrade and the Serbian authorities in northern Kosovo.

While nationalist parties lost the election on 11 May in the country as a whole, the hardline Radical Party and former prime minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia won huge support in Mitrovica, and they dominate a newly-created local parliament.

"The elected local leaders in north Kosovo will very quickly find out that they cannot expect the unconditional support from Belgrade that they used to have under Mr. Kostunica," Mr. Anastasijevic says.

A 'lawless space'

Political analyst Dusan Janjic goes further, predicting a struggle for control, between the government on the one hand, and the new Kosovo Serb parliament and hardline local councils on the other.

He points out that the new Serbian government is weakened by being a diverse coalition, including the Socialist Party once led by Slobodan Milosevic.

Mr. Janjic also sees no easy victory when the government attempts to crack down on the corruption for which north Kosovo is notorious.

"I think it is very important for the aid meant for Serbs [in Kosovo] to reach those who really live there with their families," the new Minister for Kosovo, Goran Bogdanovic, was quoted as saying last week.

A Western diplomat in Pristina describes northern Kosovo as a "lawless space" where embezzled money can easily end up funding hardline politicians.

"The international authorities are happy with Serbian funding for northern Kosovo as long as it's transparent - but it's being diverted," he said.

A crackdown on corruption would therefore have the added benefit of earning credit with the EU.


Hints that the new government might soften its opposition to an EU role in Kosovo add another potentially explosive element to the relationship between Belgrade and Mitrovica.

An Albanian doctor told me I should go to Belgrade for radiotherapy.  --  Kurta Saltan

Both Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic and President Boris Tadic have talked in the last few days about their desire to take part in negotiations on "reconfiguring" the UN's role in Kosovo.

The reconfiguration already being implemented by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will see the EU operating in Kosovo under a UN umbrella.

Mr. Jeremic and Mr. Tadic say they want the final shape of the change in the UN's role to be settled in the UN Security Council, after Serbia has had its say, but in their latest interviews they have not explicitly ruled out an EU role.

Up to now, Serbia has regarded the EU mission as an "instrument of Kosovo's independence", in Dejan Anastasijevic's words.

This is how it will continue to be seen by most Serbs in northern Kosovo, but for the first time it now seems possible that attitudes in Belgrade could change.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2008/07/14 08:15:05 GMT