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Battle for legitimacy in Kosovo escalates

NATO soldier at Jangjenica, scene of the most serious incident during recent clashes in Northern Kosovo. Photo: Staff Sergeant Florian Reichenbach, German Army.On January 7th, the feast of the Christian Orthodox celebration of Christmas, Serbian Prime Minister Boris Tadic made a highly publicised visit to Kosovo, to visit two important Orthodox religious sites. Visiting a country which his Government refuses to recognise, Tadic's visit necessitated a massive security operation involving the Kosovar Police, EULEX (the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo) with NATO led KFOR troops on stand-by.

The visit was sanctioned by the Kosovar Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, on the basis that it was a religious visit and Tadic was not to engage in any political debate or make any political statements. Then, outside the monastery of Istok, a journalist asked the Serbian Prime Minister if his government would ever recognise Kosovo as a nation? 'Never', was his succinct reply. He also vowed not to dismantle Serbian institutions which remain in Kosovo, arguing that they were vital for the Serb minority in the country. The next day, Kosovar Deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuci told Kosovar television that the Serbian Prime Minister would not be welcome again in Kosovo following his comments.

This swift verbal battle, played out via the media, is just the latest salvo in a continuing escalation of hostilities in relations between Pristina and Belgrade. The situation in Kosovo is reaching a critical phase. Aware that Serbia is eager to receive a roadmap to EU membership, the Pristina Government has, since late Summer, being trying to enforce its Northern borders in ethnically Serb areas. The first attempt to do so left one Kosovar police officer dead and another wounded, along with three civilians. Since then, Serbs have blockaded the region with a series of roadblocks and stand-offs with both NATO troops and both both EULEX and Kosovar Police.

On November 28th, KFOR troops, having completed a road-block removal operation were attacked and fired upon by Serb protestors, who also used Molotov cocktails and other missiles. Protestors say that NATO aggravated the situation by using rubber bullets and tear gas without provocation. There were two soldiers shot and 27 were injured. NATO were sanctioned to respond with lethal force but chose not to do so. At the site of the incident, near the village of Jagnjenica, I spoke with Commandant Dan Harvey, a member of the Irish Defence Forces  who works in the Public Affairs Office with KFOR. “Under KFOR's rules of engagement, given that lethal means were used against us and with KFOR soldiers already wounded it would have been within the remit of our troops to respond with like force but in light of our concern, which is to defuse, not exacerbate, the situation, we chose not to on this occasion.” Protestors say that NATO troops opened fire with rubber bullets at point blank range. Commandant Harvey responded; “Small arms fire, M75 hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, other missiles and means were used against KFOR troops by hardline criminal elements posing as legitimate demonstrators. As a result, 30 KFOR soldiers in all, suffered gunshot and fragmentation wounds, burns and broken limbs. KFOR responded to these criminal acts with non-lethal means, using water cannon, rubber bullets and tear gas. At all stages this response was restrained, measured, disciplined and appropriate.”

The aftermath of exchanges like this has created a hugely tense atmosphere in Northern Kosovo. Serbs in the north refuse to allow Kosovar law enforcement, be they EULEX or Kosovar Police and Customs to establish checkpoints in the region, denying them freedom of movement. In turn, KFOR, which does have the capability to move freely in the region, has instead insisted on freedom of movement for all. Commandant Harvey explains; “KFOR do have the military capability to enforce the removal of these roadblocks, and we have removed them in some cases, but this is a problem which the Kosovar government says must be best handled through political dialogue. We respect this, and so, there is currently no freedom of movement for EULEX, Kosovar Police or Customs in Northern Kosovo at present.” I watched a joint EULEX and KFOR convoy travel to a roadblock in the village of Zubin Potok, before being turned back by a Serb roadblock. The predominantly Kosovar-Albanian population in most of Kosovo are eager to see NATO flex its muscles and forcibly remove all of these impediments to establishing a functioning Northern border, but at present KFOR are waiting for the political process to yield results.

The situation in Kosovo is accelerating with Serbian elections of the horizon, in May 2012. The recent actions by Serbs in the north of Kosovo earned Belgrade a reprimand from Brussels for doing little to improve relations with Pristina. Indeed, the Serbian Prime Minister has asked for the roadblocks to be removed. But the fundamental stumbling blocks remain, crystallised by Tadic's comments on January 7th. However, it could also be clearly argued that the actions of the Pristina government have been less than laudable. The country declared independence in 2008, divesting itself of the the UN protectorate status it existed under since NATO acted in 1999 to stop Serb actions in the province. A conflict which left approximately 12,000 people dead in a territory half the size of Northern Ireland. Pristina's recent actions, to gain control over a region in which neither they, or indeed KFOR, have ever exerted any control could be viewed as brinkmanship. The Kosovar government, backed by the US and the EU, seem prepared to take the gamble that the Serb Government, desperate for a roadmap to EU accession, will eventually give up Northern Kosovo.

“The absence of political solution manifests itself in problems on the ground,” says Commandant Harvey, referring to the current situation in Northern Kosovo. “The Serbs in the region see the attempt to establish border posts as a physical representation of the Pristina government. The Government of a country which they absolutely refuse to recognise. Removing barriers on the roads is but one issue, removing barriers in the mind is the real challenge.”

Ruairi Kavanagh travelled to Kosovo under the Irish Aid sponsored Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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