Pristina’s attempts to inject its police into the north threaten to upset the status quo and provoke a response that may not only lead to the full partition of the Kosovo Police Service, but which could also derail talks between Serbia and Kosovo.
By Gerard Gallucci
The Kosovo Albanians expect little positive for themselves from the EU-sponsored negotiations with Serbia. They remain opposed to any “compromises” that recognize a continued role for Belgrade in the life of Kosovo Serbs. Despite hopeful sounds from both sides about impending progress, the most recent May round of talks again reached no agreements. Pristina may simply continue to stonewall while seeking to provoke a crisis – through threatening regional stability and seeking to inject its police into the north – that could derail the talks.
Hints in Belgrade about the possibility of a deal over Kosovo that includes partition or separation of the north prompted warnings from Albanians in Kosovo and southern Serbia about a reciprocal partition of the Presevo valley and the possibility of renewed war over ethnic boundaries. So far, the Quint has not quashed the Albanians’ veiled threats of violence.
Pristina’s latest ploy on the ground seeks to upset the status quo vis-a-vis the northern, Serb-majority Kosovo police (KPS). Since 2008, thanks to the efforts of UNMIK and local leaders, the northern KPS has maintained corporate links to KPS in the south. The northern KPS retained their Kosovo uniforms – despite fears that with “independence” they would remove Kosovo insignia and perhaps put on Serbian uniforms – and work within the overall KPS structure as facilitated by the international police (first UNMIK, now EULEX).
But Pristina, impatient with EULEX’s refusal to use force to bring the north under its control, removed the local commander in north Mitrovica last year. Now, Interior Minister Rexhepi has ordered the removal of commanders in all four northern municipalities and at the two boundary crossings in Zubin Potok and Leposavic. He is also sending ethnic-Albanian special police into the north. On May 19, these special police reportedly removed the Serbian license plates off a car being driven by a Kosovo Serb woman. They now are regularly patrolling the main road to the Serb-majority municipality of Zvecan. Seemingly on cue, EULEX police (supported by KFOR) arrested a local Serb in Zubin Potok for “involvement in organized crime….money laundering, smuggling of fuel, tax evasion and the fraudulent evasion of import duty and excise tax.”
Serb local officials have warned that they would not accept any change in local commanders ordered by Pristina. (At the time of writing, the commanders remain on the job.) Local Serbs are also protesting the arrest as they do not consider failure to pay taxes or customs fees to Pristina a crime. They question EULEX’s status neutrality in seeking to enforce Kosovo institutions in the north and have been blocking roads north, including at the Main Bridge in Mitrovica, demanding the man’s release.
EULEX has not explained why it used the mandate for rule of law under UNSCR 1244 to enforce collection of funds for Pristina. Meanwhile, Rexhepi has sought to raise the stakes further. According to the press, he has threatened that if EULEX cannot enforce the return of Albanian officials to the north Mitrovica courthouse, his police will do it. These moves by Pristina and EULEX threaten to provoke a response that might finally sever ties between the northern and southern police and lead to full partition.
Conditions along the Ibar River separating north and south have remained stable and calm despite the February 2008 UDI and the disastrous attempt to use force to reconquer the courthouse in March of that year. Few who live along the River want renewed conflict. But as long as the status of Kosovo and of the north remain unresolved, provocations can lead to violence. Some on the Albanian side seem to find renewed conflict a better prospect than having to face compromise through negotiation. But any violence along the Ibar could spiral out of control. This is the threat to regional stability, not a possible agreement on special status for the north.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Gerard is also a member of TransConflict’s advisory board. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the position of any organization.