Priština, 4 December 2007 – “When I travel through Albanian areas, I use my Kosovo license plate and when I reach Serbia or I’m back in Strpce I change it [to the Serbian plate],” says Milorad, a small retail shop owner. “I need to take these precautions, I don’t want to endanger my family,” he says.Milorad is from Strpce, one of the most southern Serb enclaves in the majority Albanian province of Kosovo. Strpce can only be reached by passing through a Kosovo Police Service (KPS) checkpoint and another manned by Ukrainian troops that are part of NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR).Milorad travels every two or three months to Serbia with his wife and children to visit his parents, who fled Kosovo in the aftermath of the March 2004 riots. But he lives in fear, and every time he ventures outside his Serb enclave he switches license plates, a survival strategy employed by many Serbs.

Meanwhile, after four months of negotiations have failed to resolve a stalemate between Belgrade and Pristina, the clock is ticking ahead of the Dec. 10 deadline for international mediators to report back to the U.N. Security Council with a proposal for finalizing Kosovo’s political status. The province’s Albanian leaders have threatened to declare unilateral independence, sparking fears across Europe that such an action could provoke a destabilizing conflict and the mass exodus from Kosovo of more than 100,000 minority Serbs.

Since NATO’s 1999 intervention to end ethnic violence between Albanians and Serbs, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has administered Serbia’s southern province as a de-facto protectorate. Stability remains underwritten by KFOR’s 16,000-strong international force and, apart from an upsurge of anti-Serb unrest in 2004 — which left 19 dead, 954 wounded, more than 4,000 displaced, 550 homes destroyed, and 27 Orthodox churches and monasteries burned — Kosovo is seen as an intervention success story.

But life for ethnic minorities who venture out of their protected enclaves remains fraught with danger and uncertainty. High on the list of unresolved issues in any final status deal would be the lack of freedom of movement for minorities.

UNMIK tends to write off the problem as a perceived rather than real threat. But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has recognized the danger for Serbs, Roma and other minorities living in areas surrounded by the Albanian majority. Kosovo’s low level of minority returns since the war is further evidence of the effects that unresolved housing and land disputes and limited freedom of movement can have on minorities’ economic prospets. The volatile security situation surrounding the Kosovo independence debate compounds such problems.

Ethnic minorities continue to “suffer from low scale ethnically motivated security with incidents such as physical and verbal assaults/threats, arson, stoning, intimidation, harassment, looting, and high-scale incidents such as shootings and murders,” reports UNHCR. It says most incidents go unreported because victims “fear reprisals or lack confidence in the institutions and in the effectiveness of the remedies.”

Trapped in Enclaves

Jelena Drinic, an ethnic Serb who lives in the eastern enclave of Kamenica, recounts the story of the last time she drove to Pristina, in May, to sort out some personal documents. A friend working for an international NGO offered to escort her by leading the way in his agency jeep while she trailed behind in her car with a Serbian license plate.

“Suddenly, a black BMW caught up with us and tried to run me off the road,” Drinic said. “He started waving a gun at me and making threats.” Her four-year-old son, who was traveling with her, started crying and she was forced to stop the car. “Finally, he sped off, satisfied that he had scared us.” Her friend filed a report on her behalf with the KPS, but Drinic has not yet received a response, and doesn’t expect to. After eight years under UNMIK control and KFOR protection, such assaults continue.

Since 2000, UNHCR has escorted a number of “go and see” visits to Kosovo by refugees from Serbia and Montenegro (where most Serb and Roma refugees from Kosovo fled during the war). The visits are meant to help displaced persons decide whether they want to resettle in their pre-war communities. But only 16,000 of the more than 200,000 minorities who escaped Kosovo in 1999 have gone back, and such returns have recently ceased because of the unstable situation ahead of the upcoming final status decision.

The Patriarchate of Pec, the spiritual seat of Serbian orthodoxy in western Kosovo, is surrounded by thick barbed-wire and KFOR tanks. Nuns, the only remaining Serbs in the center of the once multi-ethnic town, live as if in jail inside and can only exit the impressive 13th-century monument in armored vehicles or KFOR convoys.

Next Page: Get on board the ‘Freedom of Movement Train’

Despite such ongoing dangers, UNMIK hails Kosovo’s “Freedom of Movement Train” as an example of multi-ethnic interaction. The train became operational under U.N. auspices in 2002 and was recently handed over to Kosovo railway authorities. It travels daily from Pristina to various destinations outside of Kosovo. Most passengers are Serbs, with some other minorities as well as Albanians, but different ethnic groups sit in different compartments and hardly interact.

With the confines of UNMIK’s offices, the international community has succeeded in promoting co-existence by recruiting staff from all ethnic groups. And through the creation of “Provisional Institutions of Self-Government” (PISGs), UNMIK has pushed the multi-ethnic agenda at the local and national levels in Kosovo. In most cases, however, such relationships remain strictly professional rather than social.

Some resourceful individuals have found ways to move undetected and freely. Dragana Radic, a Serb physician, makes a daily commute from the small enclave of Gracanica to Pristina. Sitting at a popular café in the capital, she orders a coffee and sandwich, exchanging pleasantries with the waiter in fluent Albanian.

“I have no other choice if I want to live here. And you can’t imagine how my Albanian colleagues appreciate the fact that I’m learning their language,” she claims. Radic is determined to stay in Kosovo. She began to study Albanian a year ago, and is optimistic that “once independence is declared, the minority communities will benefit from additional funding” and safeguards.

Adio Tours, a private agency that operates a daily bus line from Belgrade to Serb enclaves in Pristina and other towns, has operated for two years. Four months ago, during the renewal of the Kosovo talks, one of its buses was stoned en route to Gracanica.

“We didn’t stop working, but decided to alter our travel schedules and to hire more Albanians,” said a driver. Although most passengers are Serbs, ethnic Albanians, Roma and Gorani also use the line on a regular basis. Adio Tours’ tactics for maintaining a low profile consist of having a Serbian drive the night route from Belgrade to Pristina, which travels mainly through Serbian territory, and using an Albanian driver for day trips within Kosovo and to the border, where drivers and license plates are once again swapped under the watchful eyes of UNMIK and Serb border police.

Albanians also have trouble moving freely. One photojournalist living in Pristina takes precautions whenever he travels to Serb enclaves for work. “I call my contacts at KFOR or KPS and if I have friends living there I also call them so they can inform the local authorities,” he said. When Serbs ask him where he’s from, he simply says that he’s from Prizren, a multi-ethnic town in the south, or “I change the subject.” Although he speaks fluent Serbian, he normally communicates in English with Serbs. “It helps me keep the distance and avoid touchy subjects.”

Kosovo remains an ethnically segregated society, with separate Albanian and Serbian education, health and social systems. Most international observers argue that ethnic integration is the only viable solution for Kosovo’s minority communities. To that end, UNMIK and its local and international partners have instituted a complex legal and regulatory framework.

“Many Kosovars and internationals call this place Unmikistan,” said an OSCE official who requested to remain anonymous. “After all, what they see most of the time [are] thousands of internationals paying high rents, receiving exorbitant salaries . . . and traveling across the country in expensive SUVs.”

He questions the demands placed on an economically depressed nation where local salaries average 250 euros and where the healing process, eight years after the war, has hardly begun. “The way in which [UNMIK is] forcing [local authorities] to meet some standards that are not even applied in many of our own countries is sometimes unrealistic.”

Ironically, the same organization that promotes ethnic confidence-building often alienates itself by sending the wrong message. In the northern town of Mitrovica, where UNMIK has created a “confidence zone” to promote dialogue between Albanians and Serbs, UNMIK’s regional headquarters in the former Jugobanka building remains heavily guarded and inaccessible to all.

Admittedly, UNMIK has a daunting and difficult mission: to ensure security, institute a functioning government, enforce the rule of law and reinstate tolerance in a region marked by ethnic hatred. To ensure that all ethnic groups are adequately represented in the government, UNMIK established the so-called PISGs. However, the bodies have administrative responsibilities but no real decision-making authority, which still rests with UNMIK. And the complexity of the UNMIK bureaucracy makes it incomprehensible for much of the population it is meant to serve.

Drinic argues that having minority communities contained in enclaves has led to a situation in which the status quo of segregation is enabled by the governing system. Instead of acting to prevent and penalize breaches of freedom of movement, UNMIK and the PISGs tend to respond to documented violations with additional laws to regulate minorities, he says.

Weary of employing elaborate gimmicks to avoid becoming a target, Milorad is determined to join his parents in Serbia. He’s waiting to sell his business and house to earn enough money to leave Strpce.

“I don’t feel safe anymore, and I don’t want my children to grow up here. They don’t speak Albanian, and they won’t be able to go to university in Pristina, so it’s better that we move now before we’re forced out.” He’s wary that, come independence, Albanians will not protect him or his family or, worse, that a fresh campaign of ethnic cleansing will ensue.

Tina Wolfe, World Politics Review