Serbs in Kosovo enclaves fear future as Belgrade, border see violence

By bne IntelliNews February 22, 2008

Beth Kampschror in Leposavic, Kosovo and Dejan Kozul in Belgrade -

In the latest spasm of nationalist nastiness surrounding Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia, several hundred hooligans broke into the US embassy building in Belgrade on February 21 and set fire to part of it, while others roamed the streets of the Serbian capital shouting slogans and drinking beer.

The violence against property in Belgrade - and one badly burned body was found inside - came just hours after Czech troops with the Kosovo peacekeeping force, or Kfor, managed to turn back some 300 Serbian army reservists that had attacked 100 Kosovar Albanian police at the Merdare border crossing into Kosovo.

A trail of black smoke from what less than a week ago ago was declared the world's newest international border was an obvious sign that Kosovo is likely in for a bumpy ride on its road to independence.

What for Kfor?

In a field just two miles south of the torched Jarinje border crossing between the newly independent state of Kosovo and its former master Serbia, a 14-vehicle strong contingent of Polish UN riot police and about one dozen French peacekeepers with Nato's Kosovo mission drank coffee and waited for orders on northern Kosovo's main road, hemmed in by a mob of Serbs burning the border crossing to the north, and another mob in the south making their way to the town of Mitrovica.

The unrest in the north, coming just days after Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians declared independence from Serbia, prompts the question of whether Kosovo can keep its Serb-dominated north, or if the partition of the world's newest country is a matter of days.

Other signs that all is not well in the new country's Serb north included a complete lack of control by the province's only security forces - Nato peacekeepers with Kfor, UN police and the Kosovo Police Service. UN police abandoned both the Jarinje border post - and were evacuated by a French KFOR helicopter - and another border in the north when attacked by mobs of Serbs streaming in from Serbia proper. Serb police officers with the Kosovo Police Service in the north, meanwhile, did little besides wave at the wave of cars, vans and buses from towns in Serbia creeping through the one lane of traffic at what was supposed to be a police checkpoint towards the northern Kosovo town Mitrovica.

"Kosovo is Serbia," chanted the mostly male, mostly shaven of head and leather of jacket crowds hanging from car windows. They waved flags and gave a Serb KPS officer named Nebojsa the thumb-and-two-fingers Serb salute as they drove past. "It is and always will be," Nebojsa replied, waving them through. The stream appeared well-organized; a senior UN security official later confirmed that it was, and that among the crowd were dozens of former or current employees of the Serbian interior ministry.

French Kfor in one armored personnel carrier on the scene did not stop or search a single vehicle, and in fact retreated south just before the final wave of vehicles passed through the gravel pile. Other French Kfor stationed towards Mitrovica could not keep a crowd from massing near a road block the soldiers were trying to build with a bulldozer, though a French soldier fired a warning shot into the air.

Hours later, when the Polish UN riot police and French Kfor stuck near the torched border post pulled out south, the gravel pile had been swept aside and Nebojsa and his two colleagues were no longer there. Two other spots at which attempts at earth-moving to make other road blocks were visible along the road, but the road was largely deserted but for one French Kfor roadblock and one Greek roadblock, both erected after the last stream of Serbs passed through south to Mitrovica. The Serb KPS officers had also apparently left for north Mitrovica after waving their Serb brethren through; the hundreds of Serbs then led a protest in the town, on the river that divides the Serb north from the Albanian south.

Kfor's presence on the main road north before the incidents had been limited to a handful of US troops, and three similar-sized groups of Belgians, Greeks and Ukrainians. From the ground, the presence did not appear to be large or coordinated enough. Though the potential for unrest or violence was enormous following Kosovo's declaration of independence, neither Nato peacekeepers nor the UN police had made a contingency plan. "There was no plan - they did not anticipate that at all," says one international security official. "They were told that the Albanians were going to come up and put a red (Albanian) flag at the border and be there, and that did not happen."

The unrest could continue. The Mitrovica Serbs - both domestic and imported - have promised daily protests until March 17, the fourth anniversary of rioting and Serb-Albanian violence that left at least 19 people dead.

Where to go?

Given there is little the Serbian government can do about Kosovo's declaration of independence, Belgrade has clearly decided to strengthen its presence among Kosovo's Serbs in the northern part of the province and try to keep what they have - 15% of Kosovo territory. New investments are being announced and new institutions connected with the Serbian government are being established. The northern part of Kosovo with Mitrovica at the centre may not feel many changes following independence.

But the real problem is not in this northern part of Kosovo, because it accounts for only one-third of Kosovo's Serb population. The rest of them live south of the river Ibar in the so-called Serbian enclaves, comprising some 70.000 people surrounded by ethnic Albanians. If Kosovo were a normal country, this would not be a problem, but it isn't. The Serbs in those enclaves argue they only have electricity for a few hours only every day - though shortages are common throught the new state - and claim the Albanians terrorize them. These Serbs are losing patience and many are thinking about leaving for Serbia or at least the northern part, but the problem is that Mitrovica and its surrounding area doesn't have the capacity to house another 70,000 people.

Oliver Ivanovic is one of the leaders of Kosovo's Serbs and he comes from the southern part of the province. He has boycotted Serbian politics and elections boycott. "Serbs do not have representatives in Kosovo's institutions because of that. They could stand against Kosovo's independence declaration and their voice about situation in enclaves is stronger then the voice of any Serb from Serbia. The situation in those enclaves is catastrophic and it worries me. Nobody cares about us. Serbs are selling their real estate around Pristina and Caglavica cheaply and very soon a highway will be built in this area and the prices will become much higher. People are in a panic, without support from Serbia. We don't ask for much, only encouragement to stay," Ivanovic says.

The Serbs in those enclaves feel deserted by Serbia, but some of them haven't stopped working with the Albanians, because breaking off that cooperation would mean losing their incomes and they can't survive without money.

Meanwhile, the eyes of the Serbs in the enclaves are turned to what is happening in Belgrade and Mitrovica. Every scrap of information about the riots could be crucial for them. If something bad should happen to any member of the Kosovo police force or an Albanian civilian, revenge is likely.

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Serbs in Kosovo enclaves fear future as Belgrade, border see violence

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