Tensions are flaring up again as minority Serbs who live in the northern part of majority ethnic-Albanian Kosovo intend to take part in Serbia's general elections set for May 6 despite strong opposition from Pristina.
Uncertainty prevails in Kosovo these days. At the beginning of April, a man was killed by a bomb attack in northern Mitrovica, while several of his family members were seriously injured. He was a Kosovo Albanian living in the Serb-dominated northern part of the divided city. The investigation has not yet led to the perpetrators or the reasons behind the attack.
Rumors, however, were quick to spread: the attack had been allegedly committed by radical Serbs, who want to expel "Albanians" from "their" part of the city. Since then, tensions in northern Kosovo have intensified.
The mayor of Mitrovica, Avni Kastrati, called on his fellow ethnic Albanians to prepare themselves to protect their families. In Kosovo, such a call means one thing: "Keep your weapons ready." And since then, Kosovo media have reported on unidentified armed groups appearing suddenly in northern Kosovo, where more than 40,000 Serbs live.
Kosovo Serbs, backed by Belgrade, reject Kosovo's 2008 secession and effectively live as if still in part of Serbia.
Belgrade lost control of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombed Serbia to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces fighting a two-year counter-insurgency war.
On May 6, local, parliamentary and presidential elections are taking place in Serbia. Tensions in Kosovo at the time of important events in Serbia are nothing new. But, according to Sabine Freizer of the International Crisis Group (ICG), the situation is particularly unstable this time.
"Until the end of March, Serbia and Kosovo participated in EU-mediated talks which resulted in some important successes," Freizer said. "This dialogue was cut short because of the forthcoming Serbian elections. At the same time, the security situation has been rapidly deteriorating, particularly in northern Kosovo."
More international troops
Many observers fear that ethnic violence could break out again in Kosovo. For this reason, the contingent of the international Kosovo peacekeeping force (KFOR) has increased: 700 more troops - 550 of them from Germany and 150 from Austria - will be deployed by May 1 to assist with a possible escalation of ethnic tensions. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said earlier this week in Brussels that this step was necessary to keep the situation under control.
The KFOR is now increasingly present - especially in parts of Mitrovica with mixed Serb-Albanian population.
"The arrival of additional troops from Germany and Austria is very welcome because it provides greater security on the ground," said the Albanian mayor of Mitrovica, Avni Kastrati. "We noticed a positive effect immediately after the reinforcement of KFOR presence in the North."
According to Kastrati, KFOR should be present everywhere in order to fulfill its mission of creating a peaceful and safe environment.
"In northern Kosovo, this is not happening, and consequently we have the present situation, in which many non-Serb citizens can not move freely," Kastrati said.
The problem of northern Kosovo is primarily a political one. For 13 years, North Mitrovica has been governed by Serbian political and economic structures that are financed from Belgrade. The EU's Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, EULEX, has little influence in the north of Kosovo.
Sabine Freizer says the situtation in Kosovo is extremely volatile
The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that the Serbs who live in northern Kosovo are increasingly ignoring the authority of Belgrade. They are determined to hold their own municipal elections, although Belgrade has strongly advised them against doing so, and Pristina threatened to prevent those elections using any means.
Freizer said she believes the Serbs in northern Kosovo are afraid of being abandoned by the government in Belgrade. For them, the refusal of the Serbian government to hold local elections in the Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo could have far-reaching consequences.
"Even if these elections were held, they would have no validity," Freizer said. "The big question would be what Belgrade would later do with these communities, which it, too, would consider illegal."
According to Freizer, the situation in Kosovo will not improve until Pristina, the Serbs in northern Kosovo and Belgrade start talking.
Freizer added that Serbs in Kosovo should be allowed to vote in the Serbian presidential and parliamentary elections. Citizens with dual citizenship can cast their vote there - similar to the way the diaspora can vote in other countries.
It remains unclear, however, who could organize these elections. Talks between the OSCE and the parties involved have so far brought no tangible results.
Author: Auron Dod / tt
Editor: Sean Sinico