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Border Tensions

Interview: Nick Amies
March 26, 2008

Tensions continue on the streets of Mitrovica a week after rioting Serbs clashed with police and NATO troops in the town on Kosovo's northern border. DW-WORLD.DE talked to a Balkans expert about the latest developments.

A burning car in Mitrovica
The UN and NATO accuse the Serbian government of inciting the violence in MitrovicaImage: AP

The violence in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica last week was the worst since Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority declared independence on Feb. 17. Hundreds of United Nations peacekeepers and NATO soldiers pulled out of the frontier region that abuts Serbia after coming under fire from automatic weapons and hand grenades. A Ukrainian police officer was killed during the unrest.

Three days after the withdrawal, the UN and NATO mounted an operation to retake a courthouse taken over by ethnic Serb protesters and restore military control over the northern border region around Mitrovica. The town is now once again under UN control.

In the days since the violence, the rhetoric coming from Belgrade has increased in its bellicosity as accusations of armed provocation fly between the Serbian government and the Western powers in Kosovo.

DW-WORLD.DE spoke to Professor Stefan Wolff, a political scientist and director of the Center for International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution at Nottingham University, about the latest developments.

DW-WORLD.DE: Who is behind the current unrest in northern Kosovo? Is it public anger or do you think this violence is orchestrated by organized powers with an agenda?

Stefan Wolff: The violence in northern Kosovo over the past several weeks is both an expression of public anger by local Serbs and something that is at least encouraged by Belgrade. Similar to the violence that happened in the immediate aftermath of Kosovo's declaration of independence when the American and other Western embassies were targeted, the government in Belgrade is not doing enough to send a strong message to the rioters, nor does, for that matter, the Serb Orthodox Church. Quite clearly, the resulting instability serves Serbia's, and to some extent Russia's, agenda well, offering, as it were, proof for the claim that Kosovo's independence is the source of unrest and insecurity.

What is the goal of those who are behind or are carrying out these violent protests?

Serb protesters throw stones and other missiles at French NATO peacekeeping troops
NATO and UN troops came under attack from armed SerbsImage: AP

Many of those participating in the violence undoubtedly feel very strongly about Kosovo and the fact that Kosovo's independence has no basis in international law and is a violation of Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Having said that, those people are also deluding themselves somewhat in believing that any other "solution" would have brought any more stability or that their violence will affect any change for the better.

Attacks on the UN in northern Kosovo, or on Western embassies in Belgrade, merely confirm to Kosovo Albanians and many others beyond Kosovo -- and in my opinion wrongly -- that peaceful coexistence with Serbs and Serbia is very difficult to achieve. Making things difficult for the UN, the EU, NATO and other international organizations in Kosovo and the region is ultimately a futile strategy that may pay off for some politicians in the short term but will harm Serbs and Serbia as a whole in the long term. Thus was the case with [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic, who built a reputation on "standing up" against the West. The sooner Serbs realize that Kosovo was lost some 20 years ago when its autonomy was revoked and Milosevic and his allies brutally asserted their control, the sooner they can move on with building a viable, democratic, European state.

Are we watching the beginnings of a new conflict in the Balkans?

It is unlikely that the situation in Kosovo itself will escalate into a new conflict in the Balkans, but in combination with the instability that Macedonia is experiencing in the wake of the fall of its government and the increasing belligerence of Serbs in Bosnia, it is difficult to see how the region would achieve greater stability in the near future. The strong international presence in the region will hopefully prevent anything on the scale of the wars of the 1990s, but similar to the events then, we must be realistic about the limitations of organizations like the EU and NATO to resolve the self-determination conflicts that have persisted since the break-up of Yugoslavia. The best we can hope for, at the moment at least, is effective containment.

The UN has put parts of northern Kosovo back under military control. How can Kosovo hope to be an independent state when its government can be so easily over-ridden?

Members of the special UN police unit protect the UN court compound
The northern region was soon reclaimed by UN forcesImage: AP

The problem with northern Kosovo is that this region has never been under any kind of control from Pristina since the late 1980s. After the end of NATO's humanitarian intervention in 1999 the area around Mitrovica became a military sector of its own, and gradually Belgrade established its own control through its links with local Serbs, paying, for example, all local administrators a salary from Belgrade in addition to what they received from the United Nations Mission in Kosovo [UNMIK]. Belgrade also discouraged local Serbs from participating in elections in Kosovo and from taking up their reserved seats in the Kosovo Assembly.

This has created a situation in which we have almost complete segregation of Serbs in the north from Albanians. While close links between Belgrade and Mitrovica exist, these are links that Belgrade can now exploit in its strategy to effectively partition Kosovo. This has, so far, been resisted strongly by the international community, and it is difficult to see that this position will change any time soon.

So who is actually in control in Kosovo?

Formally, the UN remains in charge, but as we have seen recently, it depends heavily on NATO's military muscle to assert its control. This gives more and more weight to NATO in Kosovo, and through NATO's member states to the EU, which has formally committed to playing a major role in supervising and facilitating Kosovo's transition to full independent statehood.

NATO has threatened to come down hard in Kosovo. What could this mean? Where could NATO's power be directed and against whom? What would it achieve and what could be the consequences?

UN special police forces check a burning border station
NATO will crack down in response to further attacksImage: AP

If there is more violence of the kind recently experienced in Mitrovica, NATO is clearly able to respond swiftly and decisively in restoring law and order. More importantly, NATO needs to assert full control of Kosovo's borders to prevent an influx of radical extremists from Serbia bent on destabilizing the situation further.

At the same time, NATO will need to make sure that any unrest in Kosovo does not spread to other volatile areas of the region, such as Bosnia and Macedonia. It is highly unlikely that there will be prolonged and open hostilities with Serbian forces, but there is always a chance that localized violence might occur especially in border areas. The worst case scenario would be that, following parliamentary elections in Serbia in May, a new government deliberately provokes such incidents. This would be a vey dangerous scenario, and an unwise strategy for any government to follow.

What effect is the current unrest likely to have in the wider Balkan region? Is there any chance that the unrest will spread beyond the region's borders?

We have already seen the negative effects of Kosovo's independence in the region: Bosnian Serbs have, unsurprisingly, become more assertive about their own aspirations of eventual unification with Serbia, and even though the Serbian government itself has kept relatively quiet in this respect, it is an open secret that many politicians and ordinary people in Serbia would welcome any developments that brought Bosnian Serbs closer to them.

The collapse of the coalition government in Macedonia has once again raised the specter of further separatist violence there as well. If anything positive has come from the recent unrest, it is NATO's obvious determination not to tolerate any kind of violence that would put into question the borders that exist now or undermine the constitutional frameworks that were put in place in Bosnia in 1995 and in Macedonia after 2001.

Russian TV still of the aftermath of a car bomb in the Caucasus
Separatists in the Caucasus apply pressure on RussiaImage: AP

On the other hand, international effects are more difficult to gauge. While several separatist movements -- for example in the Caucasus and in Moldova -- have intensified their rhetoric in the wake of Kosovo's declaration, and its subsequent recognition by so far over 30 states, it is important not to overestimate the "Kosovo effect" --separatist movements existed in these areas before, and they are unlikely to receive any greater degree of international recognition now than they did before.

Could Kosovo's declaration of independence be linked to the pro-independence protests in Tibet? Where could this lead? Could there be a knock-on effect all around the world where separatist organizations and oppressed minorities rise up, emboldened by the Kosovo declaration?

What goes for the South Caucasus and Moldova, equally applies to Tibet and other separatist conflicts. The unrest in Tibet is much more closely related to the international attention that China receives now in light of it hosting the Olympic Games this summer.

Protesters gather around burning debris in the streets of Lhasa, Tibet
Unrest in Tibet is unlikely to be linked to KosovoImage: AP

This is not to say that protesters in Tibet may not have good reason to protest against China, but it is equally a reality -- and a sad one -- that international media attention increases with the level of violence present. This was the case with Kosovo in the late 1990s, with Darfur since 2003, and with both of the Palestinian intifadas.

In this sense, it would be wrong to blame any other violence and unrest merely on Kosovo. We must not forget that it still takes political leaders to decide on a path of violence and their supporters to follow them before we can see the kind of violence that Tibet has experienced again of late -- and this is true for separatists and the states they challenge alike.

If this is the start of a wave of empowered separatist uprisings, who could be next to demand their independence?

Everyone who wants independence probably has demanded it already, and several times over. There have been almost 80 separatist movements worldwide since the 1950s which pursued their goals with violence. At the moment, we have about 25 active armed movements and another 50 or so who pursue their aims by peaceful means. What matters is not whether they declare or demand their independence, but rather how the international community reacts to this.

Short of consensual separation, as was the case with Czechoslovakia, for example, it is unlikely that any declarations of independence would be met with widespread recognition. Turkey is the only state to have recognized Northern Cyprus, and not even Armenia has so far recognized Nagorno-Karabakh even though it fought a long and bloody war with Azerbaijan over this area.

Thus, Kosovo is unique in that its declaration of independence has been followed by significant international recognition. This is unlikely to be the case in relation to almost every other separatist movement. As a consequence, states challenged by separatists, as well as the international community, need to continue looking for other ways to resolve the conflicts that result from these demands. This demands vision, skill, and determination on the part of local political leaders and the international community, yet these qualities are all too often missing when personal agendas turn legitimate political struggles into a tug-of-war over personal power, status and wealth.