How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
Report 165 / Europe & Central Asia

Bridging Kosovo's Mitrovica Divide

The international community has properly decreed that Kosovo's final status must not involve division of its territory. But this declaration has not been followed by sufficient action. Belgrade's policy of pursuing some form of partition is far advanced in the restive northern city of Mitrovica and its hinterland, and a major security, political and financial effort is required to save the situation.

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Executive Summary

The international community has properly decreed that Kosovo's final status must not involve division of its territory. But this declaration has not been followed by sufficient action. Belgrade's policy of pursuing some form of partition is far advanced in the restive northern city of Mitrovica and its hinterland, and a major security, political and financial effort is required to save the situation. Capacity should be built immediately, and its implementation should begin once the Contact Group has declared its support for Kosovo's future as a functional, conditionally independent state within its present borders.

Territorial integrity is the correct policy because partition could provoke further population exchanges inside Kosovo and instability elsewhere in the Balkans, especially in neighbouring Macedonia. But division remains a live issue, not least because in Mitrovica, where Kosovo is increasingly divided at the Ibar River, the UN mission (UNMIK) and NATO-led security forces (KFOR) have failed to carry out their mandates. In north Mitrovica and the neighbouring communities up to the border, an area that contains perhaps a third of all Kosovo's remaining Serbs, Belgrade exerts its influence through parallel government structures, including a police presence that contravenes UN Security Council Resolution 1244.

Settling Mitrovica early in the final status process pre-supposes foreknowledge of Kosovo's overall destination. But it is time for Contact Group member states to stop talking of final status as a process open to a wide range of results. In fact, behind closed doors international consensus is taking shape. Making that manifest near the outset, and cementing it in Mitrovica, would contribute to a virtuous circle of stability and predictability. Letting Mitrovica drift would risk making realisation of that consensus unlikely.

Despite the six-year standoff, Mitrovica is not impenetrable to transformation that would increase the chances for a unified Kosovo. The international community should put more resources and energy behind a clear, articulated program of compromise between each side's maximum demands. A first step should be the appointment of a Special Commissioner for Mitrovica for the status determination period, with the rank of Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and power to coordinate the effort.

UNMIK and KFOR must quickly regain the security initiative north of the Ibar by increasing force levels and assertiveness, under the Special Commissioner's direction. KFOR should explicitly make Mitrovica and the north its primary operational focus and restructure accordingly. Belgrade's illegal police stations should be removed from north Kosovo, and the Special Commissioner should negotiate the replacement of the obstructive hardliners who head the regional hospital and university there. Plans for devolving the brittle, ethnically divided Mitrovica regional police command to local control should be delayed until the Special Commissioner can secure a viable Albanian-Serb security consensus for the north that squares territorial integrity with Serb fears of being overwhelmed.

With the security situation under better control, the framework of a solution that needs to be pursued with greater commitment and sense of urgency could include creation of a new municipal authority for north Mitrovica, which should furnish both the security and accountability for addressing Albanian returns, and creation of a central administrative district shared between the current Mitrovica municipality and the new north Mitrovica unit that could house a common city board to receive donor funding for the city's development.

The strategic need is to encourage the Serbs of north Kosovo -- and Belgrade -- to think increasingly of north Mitrovica becoming the hub of an effort to provide services for all Kosovo's Serbs. The central district's broader uniting purpose could be reflected by hosting two or three ministries relocated from the capital; the similarly relocated Supreme Court; possibly a Kosovo-wide Serbian-language television station; and some elements of Kosovo central government that would accommodate an autonomous, Kosovo-wide system of education, healthcare, and other social services for Serbs. Both the international community and Kosovo's government should aim to incorporate Belgrade's parallel structures into this system within a specified time frame by offering matching funds and a guaranteed cooperative role for the Serbian government.

Without conceding it formal entity status on the Bosnia-Herzegovina model, the Serb north should be offered the substance of autonomy, including devolved powers for municipalities, freedom for municipalities to associate on a voluntary basis, and the coordination and resource role made possible through the proposed Serb units of Kosovo's government ministries. Albanians should be persuaded that support for participation in these initiatives by viable new Serb-majority municipalities elsewhere in Kosovo would dampen pressure for division on the Ibar line.

In short, if facts on the ground in Mitrovica and even new violence are not to destroy the prospect of a stable final status settlement for Kosovo, the international community needs to work harder and creatively to change Serb strategic thinking and get Albanians to recognise the need to participate in a constructive offer. The no-partition dictum is, unfortunately, not self-executing.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 13 September 2005

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