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Daniel Hamilton: Winners and losers on Kosovo's third birthday

 By Daniel Hamilton

Kosovo169Three years ago today, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.  Within hours of the National Assembly’s unanimous vote to secede from Serbia, the United Kingdom, France and Germany joined the United States in recognising Europe’s newest member state.

To great international fanfare Kosovo’s inaugural Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi declared Kosovo would be a country in which there were no "winners or losers" in the battle between the country’s Serb and Albanian populations.

Three years on, such a vision has failed to materialise. 

The situation in Mitrovica, a town of 110,000 located along the province’s northernmost frontier with Serbia, neatly encapsulates the stark realities of life in today’s Kosovo. 

Since the end of the war, Mitrovica has been almost entirely ethnically divided.  On the north side of the River Ibar, a sludge-coloured stream working its way to the Black Sea, are ethnic Serbs, on the south side, the Albanians. 

Like the iconic example of the divided city of Mostar in Bosnia, the two groups are kept apart by NATO troops who patrol the gaudy modern bridge supposed to link the two communities. 

Unlike Mostar, however, where divisions between Bosnians and Croats were created by war, such divisions already existed in Kosovo long before a single shot had been fired or drop of blood had been spilled.  While Bosnians and Croats spoke the same language, intermarried and studied together, no such kinship has ever existed between Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians.  The division of the two ethnicities is – and was – absolute.

Twelve years on since vast tracts of the city were destroyed by Serb and KLA gunfights, South Mitrovica is basking in its new-found independence – and considerable international investment.  While official unemployment remains close to 70%, glistening new buildings with gauche electric-blue glass facades are springing up alongside mosques at a rate of noughts, while the city’s packed cafes hum to the tune of Albanian Euro-pop.  In the town’s main square, statues of KLA war veterans loom large, while groups of university students smoke cigarettes nearby. 

However, in reality, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about South Mitrovica.   It’s just an ordinary Eastern European town which, for Kosovo, is a success story in itself.

On the other side of the bridge, an area internationally recognised as part of Kosovo yet still under the control of local Serbs, the picture is anything other than one of normality. 

Looking up at the Tito-era buildings which cling to a hillside on which the sparse foliage shares the same sludge-grey hue, the only flashes of colour come from the mass of red, white and blue Serbian flags fixed to every structure.  Walking through the streets, there are almost no detectable signs of commerce – or indeed, people. 

At the top of the valley, the spectacle of Trepča industrial complex looms large over the city, a reminder of the wholesale economic collapse which haunts the town.  Once the largest mine in Yugoslavia, churning out hundreds of tonnes of iron ore, zinc and lead each month and providing employment for more than 20,000 people, a combination of war damage and a lack of investment means Trepča has been virtually abandoned.  Its mines have been rendered unusable as a result of flooding and the once-state of the art industrial machinery now lies rusting in the open air.   Today, the mine employs nobody and produces nothing. 

A total of 66,000 Serbs, many of whom realised the game was up and fled their homes to avoid reprisal attacks by Albanians returning to their homes at the end of the war, remain in the region.  Their prospects are bleak.

Despite being physically adjoined to Central Serbia and separated from the rest of Kosovo by the Ibar, they are citizens of a country with a 92% ethnic Albanian majority and whose borders are enforced by NATO.  While previous generations of Serbs and Albanians had spoken each other’s languages, the apartheid between the two communities means the two groups are now barely able to communicate with one another. With more than 50% of Kosovo’s overwhelmingly Albanian population under the age of eighteen, job prospects for Serb-speakers are non-existent.  Primary and secondary education is widely available, yet in order to access higher education, Serbs must travel north to Belgrade.  Most never return. 

Neglected by their ‘brothers’ in Belgrade and discriminated against by the ethnic Albanian administration in Pristina, it’s difficult to see how the country’s current borders can deliver a viable future for the Serbs of Northern Kosovo.

In order to remedy this situation, a ‘land swap’ has been proposed by former UN diplomat Gerard Gallucci, with the areas north of the Ibar being returned to Serbia in exchange for Kosovo gaining the majority-Albanian Preševo Valley in the south of Serbia. Gallucci’s plan, however, has received limited support from either the international community or President Tadić’s administration in Belgrade who have to vowed never to surrender their claim on Kosovo.

There is little doubt that the existence of the Serbs in Kosovo’s northern provinces is an isolated one, yet the physical division between the two communities does ensure a sense of safety and stability for both communities.  The same cannot be said for both Serbs and other ethnic minorities living south of the Ibar’s banks.

In early 1999, the Serbian population of Pristina was almost 40,000.  Today, only a few hundred mainly elderly Serbs remain in the city, many of whom receive threats of beatings or arson attacks on a regular basis.  Reports suggest that the Kosovo Police Force, formed out of the remnants of the KLA, is often unwilling to help Serbs, while NATO security forces in the province have been powerless to stop the desecration and total destruction of more than fifty Orthodox churches across the province. 

Walking through the centre of Pristina one cannot help but notice the impressive display of flags on show outside the office of the Government of Kosovo.   Most prominent among them is the new flag of Kosovo, showing a map of the province with six stars above it in order to represent the country’s Albanian, Serb, Turkish, Gorani, Roma and Bosniak ethnic groups.  Directly next to it, however, is the red and black flag of Albania.  While the flags of the UK, US and Germany are also displayed, a Serbian flag is noticeably absent.  

Tonight, Pristina will be alive with music and celebration.  Despite the cold weather, fireworks will illuminate the night sky as thousands of Kosovars pack Bill Clinton Boulevard to celebrate the three years of independence from their hated Serb oppressors.  

Beaming down on the bacchanalian crowd from his prime position on the city’s Palace of Culture will be the image of Adem Jashari, the KLA commander whose violent death inspired thousands of young Kosovars to fight for the establishment of an Albanian state.  They are right to celebrate – the dream they shared with Jashari has been realised.

Meanwhile, in North Mitrovica, the Serbs will be content to have survived one more year.


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