2 December 2007
Daniel McLaughlin reports from Mitrovica, chief flashpoint of the Albanian-majority province that is now determined to sever its ties with Belgrade
Surveying the secondhand musical instruments piled around his tiny office, Milos Drazevic takes a sip of strong coffee and wonders if they will ever be played. ‘Our organisation has been trying for almost six years to bring the Albanian and Serb kids together for a music class, but it still hasn’t happened. Now, who knows if it will?’
Drazevic lives among fellow Serbs in northern Mitrovica and crosses the Ibar river to work in the Albanian southern half of the town. He is one of the few who dare venture out of their ethnic stronghold in Mitrovica, the likely flashpoint for any violence sparked by the declaration of independence that Kosovo’s 90 per cent Albanian majority demands and Serbia vows never to recognise. ‘If trouble happens, it will happen here, around this bridge that was supposed to be a symbol of the link between Albanians and Serbs and now means the opposite,’ said the musician, 26.
‘The riots, the killing, they always start in Mitrovica.With the failure last week of a last planned meeting between Serb and Kosovar leaders, tension is building towards 10 December, when envoys from the European Union, the United States and Russia are due to report to the United Nations on months of talks that achieved nothing. It is also the date after which Kosovo has pledged to proclaim sovereignty, regardless of Serb anger and protests from Russia, which threatens to veto any UN resolution acknowledging Kosovo as the latest chunk of former Yugoslavia to break free from Belgrade.
‘Crossing the bridge in Mitrovica is always tense, there is always a feeling that things could explode, but it is getting more edgy as 10 December approaches,’ said Biljana Todorovic, another Serb who lives in the north of the town and works in the south. She and most Serbs with a job in southern Mitrovica are planning to stay at home on that day, fearing a repeat of the ethnic riots in 2004 that killed 19 people in the worst spasm of violence to grip Kosovo since the war of 1998-99.
‘Among Serbs there is fear, uncertainty and a huge lack of trust towards Albanians,’ said Todorovic. ‘Everybody expects violence, because it is the one constant here.’ Spilt blood runs through Kosovo’s history, from the defeat of Serb princes by the Ottoman sultan in an epic 1389 battle, to Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on separatist rebels that killed 10,000 Albanians, displaced 800,000 more, and ended with Nato bombing Serbia and replacing Belgrade’s oppressive rule with UN administration in 1999.
The aftermath saw Nato forces fail to prevent Albanian reprisals which forced 200,000 Serbs and Roma to flee Kosovo and left historic Orthodox churches in ruins. Only about 120,000 Serbs now live in a region their nation considers its historic and spiritual heartland and many more are expected to leave when Kosovo declares independence.
Few doubt that when Kosovo’s President or Prime Minister makes that historic speech – before the end of January, say senior officials – the Serb leaders in northern Kosovo will sever ties with the rest of the new country and declare independence or unification with Serbia. ‘You can be sure of that. It will happen the very same day or the next day,’ said Oliver Ivanovic, a moderate Serb politician in northern Kosovo. ‘Belgrade won’t openly support it, but will do so indirectly. Hopelessness among Serbs elsewhere in Kosovo will prompt at least 10,000 of them to abandon their villages. How could they stay? They don’t trust the Albanians who killed us or the western powers who bombed us. All Serbs in Kosovo are worried and in some way prepared to leave.’
In his cramped office by the bridge that divides Mitrovica, Drazevic agrees that the flight of Serbs from their villages – now isolated enclaves – is almost inevitable. ‘In northern Mitrovica, I’d say 99 per cent of Serbs have a bag packed or at least have documents ready in case they have to flee. Here we can easily get to Serbia, but it’s tougher in the enclaves, where they could be stopped from leaving by a blockade on a single road.’
For the fledgling state of Kosovo, thousand gathering their belongings and heading for the area around northern Mitrovica or Serbia would be a PR disaster, and a potential security and humanitarian nightmare. ‘Serbia will encourage a mass exodus from the enclaves. They want to win over world opinion, and they know how bad it will look for Kosovo if BBC and CNN are showing convoys of Serbs on tractors leaving home,’ said Dukagjin Gorani, a chief aide to Kosovo’s Prime Minister-elect, Hashim Thaci.
‘Serbia will also blockade us, there will be more power cuts because they will exclude us from the electricity grid, and there will be actions in northern Kosovo to cut it off from the rest of the country. Things are going to get worse here before they get better.’ The early months of independence will be a huge challenge for Thaci, whose journey from the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to political leadership has seen him dubbed ‘Kosovo’s Gerry Adams’.
‘The first half of 2008 will be a time of blockades, obstacles, threats of violence real or imagined, and we will survive it with the international community’s help, understanding of the situation and patience to see it through,’ said Gorani. The 16,000 Nato peacekeepers stationed in Kosovo will remain, but the UN administration will be replaced over a three- or four-month period by an EU mission, led by a powerful diplomat, to oversee the governance of Kosovo and its police and judiciary.
Despite fears in Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia that Kosovo’s independence could embolden their own minorities, officials say EU members will agree to send the 1,800-strong mission – including 1,400 police – even if they do not unanimously recognise a sovereign Kosovo. ‘Russia and Serbia will cast everything here in a bad light,’ warns Gorani. ‘But we need the West to give us hope, to invest in and subsidise our non-existent economy, to make sure we get through this period of change and massive political pressure with as few casualties as possible.’
Belgrade and Moscow are predicting instability across the Balkans and declarations of independence from separatist regions such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Transdniestria in Moldova – all supported by Russia. Kosovo’s breakaway is also likely to strengthen far-right forces in Serbia, where the ultranationalist Radical Party won this year’s election but has been kept out of power by a ramshackle coalition of more liberal groups that could collapse under the strain. Across Kosovo, a region blighted by 50 per cent unemployment, power and water shortages, creaking infrastructure and the legacy of war, independence could also seal the estrangement of two peoples who have lived side by side for centuries.
In Mitrovica, Drazevic hopes to run separate music classes for Serb and Albanian children next year and bring them together if independence comes peacefully. But he is also planning to leave Kosovo and start a new life in Serbia. Todorovic will keep trying to forge links between Kosovo’s communities, but is too scared to speak Serbian in 90 per cent of a region where a fast-growing Albanian population threatens to overwhelm an ageing Serb one.
For Albanians, whose fight for greater rights was crushed when Milosevic came to power in 1989, the long wait for freedom appears almost to be over. Gorani said: ‘I expect that between 15 December and 15 January a “we, the people of Kosovo” speech will be made. The word independence will be in the text, and its message will be clear for anyone who wants to see it. This uncertainty can’t go on any longer – no one wants Kosovo to become another Palestine.’
Source: The Observer