Despite some notable advances in the region NATO’s original mission can, for most part, be judged to be a failure with the situation in Kosovo more accurately reflecting one of frozen conflict than a successfully functioning sovereign and multi-ethnic state.
As such, rumours over the past weeks that NATO is considering a phased reduction in its current troop numbers in the province from the present 10,000 down to 2,500 should be viewed with alarm. Indeed, this view has been forcefully expressed in recent days by both Kosovan President Fatmir Sejdiu and Serbian Defence Minister Dragan Šutanovac, two individuals whose vision for the future of the territory are as different as night and day.
The first problem the state of Kosovo faces is the lack of formal governing structures. Despite the considerable support the province is receiving from international organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kosovan civil society institutions are woefully underdeveloped and constantly liable to collapse.
In the case of the criminal justice system, for example, obtaining convictions continues to be complicated by the need to prosecute cases on the basis of law of the time at which an offence was committed. Confusingly, this has resulted in judges and jurors having to adjudicate convictions for crimes committed under three separate criminal justice systems: Yugoslavian, Serbian and, since 2008, Kosovan national law.
As such, ongoing trials for war crimes committed by both ethnic Serbs and Albanian remain mired in complexities which often lead to clashes in ethnically mixed communities.
The constitution of Kosovo which enshrines into law the symbols of the nation, promises robust rights for ethnic minorities and explicitly outlaws union with any other country is now nearly two years old. This has not, however, been enough to win the hearts and minds of province’s 92% ethnic Albanian population who look to Tirana for their future rather than their own government in Pristina. Indeed, even the imposing Government of Kosovo building in the centre of Pristina prominently flies the Albanian flag alongside the symbols of statehood designed for the country by NATO officials.
As Tim Judah argues in his fascinating book ‘Kosovo: War and Revenge’, “we have severed the head of Greater Serbia only to discover that Balkan nationalism is hydra-headed... in its place we now stand confronted by the evil specter of rabid, expansionist Albanian nationalism, which [is aimed at creating] either a Greater Albania or at least a Greater Kosovo”.
While the KLA - the Kosovo Liberation Army – has technically ceased to function and many of its leading figures now holding senior positions in the province’s government, the group’s operations have now extended further afield. The fight for Kosovo’s independence having largely been won, elements of the group continue to ferment unrest in the region among ethnic Albanian communities in Western Macedonia and the southern Serbian Preševo Valley.
The security situation on Kosovo’s immediate borders with Macedonia and the Preševo Valley remains tense.
In April, a substantial weapons cache and uniforms bearing KLA insignia destined for the Macedonian Albanian National Liberation Army (Ushtria Çlirimtare Kombëtare) was intercepted by NATO. Further investigation by NATO into the backgrounds of those arrested resulted in the discovery of weapons piles containing anti-tank mines, heavy machine guns, hand-held rocket launchers, TNT, plastic explosives and detonator timers. A further such discovery was made close to the border between Kosovo and Macedonia the following month.
The situation in the Preševo Valley is similarly tense, with large amounts of former KLA weaponry remaining in the region. The arrest in 2008 of ten members of the KLA’s ‘Gnjilane Group’ who organised the violent torture and killing of more than 200 Serb men, women and children in the grounds of a boarding school in the area in 1999 has reignited ethnic tensions and protests in the valley.
Put simply, it is imperative that NATO forces continue to possess the resources they need to combat the irredentist KLA movements operating in Southern Serbia and Western Macedonia by stopping the flow of weaponry from terrorist elements inside Kosovan territory.
Much has been written about the terrible crimes committed by elements of the Serbian armed forces towards ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Quite rightly, these crimes are now being punished with the full force of the law. Rather less has been said about the daily discrimination, harassment and humiliation of minority Serb, Roma, Gorani, Turk and Bosniak minority groups in Kosovo.
The old adage about the bullied becoming the bully is very much evident in Kosovo – sometimes with horrific consequences.
Since the end of the war in 1999, the majority of Serbian Orthodox religious sites have been razed to the ground with 35 churches and monasteries being destroyed on one day alone in 2004. Driving through the Kosovan countryside, one is often greeted with the site of a ruined church with the letters “UCK” (the Albanian lettering to denote ‘KLA’) spray-painted prominently on any remaining, charred walls.
On the road from Pristina to Mitrovica, small clusters of burned out homes stand testament to the sheer scale of human suffering. Amidst a sea of Albanian flags hanging from the awnings of newly-built homes, it’s not hard to imagine who once lived there. Heading into the Serb enclave of North Mitrovica, it’s similarly obvious who once lived in the now-flattened piles of rubble clinging to the hillside.
Neither side can claim the moral high-ground when it comes to solidifying the grip of ethnic division in the country. For ethnic Serbs, it is simply too dangerous to return to their former homes for fear of retribution from Albanians, just as it is too dangerous for the Shqipëri expelled from Serb enclaves to reclaim their properties.
No improvement in this situation has been seen since 1999 – and neither is one in sight. NATO’s continued presence in the province is, for most part, the only reason casualty numbers have not been higher and the continued ethnic conflict even bloodier.
In the West, the territorial status of Kosovo as an independent country is often incorrectly viewed as a settled issue. Indeed, only 68 of the world’s 193 sovereign nations presently recognise the province’s independence with Russia, Spain, Greece and Romania being amongst those who do not. As such, international recognition of Kosovo remains a significant challenge for the administration in Pristina.
Much of the Kosovo’s failure to convince more countries to recognise their independence can be proscribed to the hyperactive efforts of Vuk Jeremić, Kosovo’s young Foreign Minister and likely next Prime Minister in putting Belgrade’s case as the rightful ‘owners’ of Kosovo.
While I do not wish to explore the validity of either Serbia’s or the ethnic Albanian administration’s claims on who has rightful ownership of the territory it is gradually becoming clear that, despite the bellicose language coming from Belgrade, many Serbians are now growing to recognise the reality and irreversibility of an independent Kosovo.
There is, however, a difference between “an” independent Kosovo of some sort and the independent Kosovo as current constituted – and it is here that a potential compromise can be found.
One of the major stumbling blocks to peace in the region is, ironically, the former Finnish President and UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari's ‘Kosovo Status Process Report’ which was published during 2005.
Ahtisaari's plan, which was supported by all parties involved in the negotiations on Kosovo’s future apart from Russia and Serbia, offered a roadmap for the creation of an independent state and banned any discussion of the partition of the state.
Arguably the most significant ‘flash point’ in Kosovo today is the city of Mitrovica, a grey and depressing town on the banks of the River Ibar (a place I have written about previously).
On the north side of the river one finds a plethora of Serbian flags, businesses whose windows are decorated with pictures of the Patriarch Pavle and graffitied walls bearing slogans such as “KFOR go home – Russian army welcome!”. Travel 200 metres across the bridge to the south and the graffiti reads “F**k Serbia!”. A little further into the Albanian part of town is a square adorned with statues of KLA fighters who lost their lives fighting in 1999.
Walking a few hundred metres between either side of Mitrovica bridge, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in two different worlds, let alone two different ethnic enclaves. Sporadic shootings between the two sides of the bridge are a weekly occurrence, although more violent clashes do occasionally flare up such as in the summer of 2008 when deadly clashes on the bridge claimed 20 lives and forced the withdrawal of UN troops.
The majority-Serb (99+%) areas to the north of the River Ibar are physically divided from the rest of the province and are directly adjoined to Central Serbia, with whom an artificial border is policed by KFOR troops. According to the Ahtisaari plan, however, this area is formally part of the 92% ethnic Albanian state of Kosovo. This situation is so unacceptable to the residents that, since 1999, the area has remained under the de facto governance of Belgrade with local public services directly financed by Serbian central government.
With more than 90% of ethnic Serb Kosovans living to the north of the River Ibar and utterly unwilling to accept orders from Pristina, the international community’s insistence on retaining Kosovo’s present boundaries is misguided to say the least.
The territorial division of Kosovo, formally recognising the areas to the north of the River Ibar as part of Serbia would not only benefit the Serb residents living there but also the majority of ethnic Albanians to the south who have long recognised the futility of the international community’s efforts to impose unity on the town.
As long as Kosovo’s borders continue to adhere to those approved under the Ahtisaari plan, it will be necessary for a strong NATO force to continue to reinforce an artificial state of unity between majority Serb and Albanian areas such as Mitrovica. On this issue, the international community has made its bed and must now lie in it.
I’m not naive. With too few troops, too little funding and the burden of unrealistic expectations on its shoulders, nobody could deny the pressure NATO is under at the moment – and Kosovo is simply not the priority it once was.
To scale back our military commitment in Kosovo would, however, be a very grave error which would likely plunge the province back into a era of rioting and tit-for-tat ethnic killings that would ultimately place even greater pressure on military resources to remedy than at present.
For want of a better phrase, NATO must “stay the course”.
Now is not the time to be scaling back our commitment to ensuring a peaceful, stable and successful Kosovo for all those who live there.