When I stopped blogging last April, it was because I thought I saw a change in the approach to the north from the countries supporting Kosovo independence (primarily the Quint of the US, UK, Germany, France and Italy). It appeared that they had given up the idea of using force to subdue the northern Serbs and make them accept rule from Pristina. The evidence appears to be, however, that while the Quint may have momentarily put aside the use of force, they have opted for a strategy using political pressure as war by other means.
I've noted Pristina's effort to subdue the northern police and its pressure on Trepča. A host of other items also suggest this new Quint strategy. It seems to have two parts: to gradually extend the border of independent Kosovo on the ground as far north as it can go without using violence (pre-emptive partition?) and to support Pristina's institutions, especially in the contested zone of north Mitrovica.
On the first track, there was the combined EULEX/KFOR support given to the unilateral move by Albanians to “return” to the sensitive Brdjani area of north Mitrovica last year. I observed Brdjani on my recent visit to Mitrovica and was amazed at the extensive construction of residences in an area that would be among the first to be the scene of violence should ethnic conflict be renewed. Now, Kosovo police from the south are stopping all vehicles at the Kosovo Customs checkpoint (established in 2008) between Mitrovica and Zubin Potok to inform travelers about regulations issued by Pristina tax officials that will, beginning in July, subject them to tax on all goods crossing between north and south in that area. EULEX will monitor collection. The same will occur at the Customs checkpoint between south Mitrovica and Zvecan to the east. Also, EULEX has reportedly decided to have its staff, working at the boundary point in Leposavic (Gate 1), move into residences in that town. (EULEX had not allowed this previously for security reasons.) Some locals welcome the rentals they will collect, especially from high value sites near the Kosovo police station. But most wonder whether the move presages an effort to reimpose Kosovo Customs at Gate 1 (burned down by local Serbs in February 2008 after the UDI). Leposavic is already home to the only KFOR base north of the Ibar.
The second track compliments the first and includes rather bellicose and one-sided comments from the German general commanding KFOR. In May, he reacted to peaceful demonstrations by Serbs in Zubin Potok by expressing little patience for such things and warning of use of force to end temporary road blockages. This week, General Buhler reminded everyone that the northern boundary is under KFOR jurisdiction and a chief undecided political issue. He also visited the north Mitrovica office of the Municipal Preparation Team (MTP) meant to implement the Pristina/Quint plan to introduce a new municipal government there to replace UNMIK and the local Serb institutions. (When the office was opened, violence led to one death.) He expressed “full support” for this effort to subject the people of north Mitrovica to rule by Pristina and praised the professionalism of those working in the office. This represents blatant disregard of status neutrality and the UNSCR 1244 mandate under which NATO is present in Kosovo. It is not NATO's mission to support the implementation of the Kosovo state. While NATO internal politics – like the EU, it includes recognizing states and a smaller number of non-recognizing ones – may dictate things like support for the KSF, going into the north to support extension of Pristina's authority is well beyond the necessary. Buhler should either disown his comments or face reprimand from NATO HQ.
Local Serbs fear that EULEX and KFOR are acting with Belgrade's approval. The feeling is that President Tadić has already given away Serbs in the south and would do the same with the north to gain favor with Brussels and ease the way to candidate status and a date. But as I was reminded during my recent visit, the northern Serbs still have their red lines: customs and any effort to make the administrative line a border, imposition of a Kosovo court, and actions to remove local police and introduce Albanian security forces. Even if Belgrade did agree to EULEX and KFOR's latest aggressive tactics, the Quint is still playing with fire.
Brdjani, June 2001 (Albanian houses to the right)