Influenced by the recent unrest in Mitrovica, Milan Bigovic predicts the future of Kosovo with dead seriousness. "The situation cannot be resolved without a bloodbath," he says. "We are prepared for anything, including war."
Bigovic, a Serb, is not just anyone. He is no rabble-rouser or nationalist dreamer. He is the senior district attorney for north Mitrovica, the Serbian part of the city. His prognosis, delivered shortly after the unrest in Mitrovica, is ominous and, in a sad way, perhaps even prophetic.
According to Bigovic, northern Kosovo, which is populated primarily by Serbs, will be integrated into Europe's newest nation "not in a decade, nor even for centuries." Although he deliberately uses provocative language, his words reflect the irreconcilable mood currently prevailing in Kosovo. If Bigovic is certain of one thing, it is that the eight-hour eruption of violence last Monday will not be the last.
Crossing the 'Red Line'
On that day, at 5:30 in the morning, special officers from the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the UN police force, arrested 53 former court employees. The employees had spent three days occupying the court building in the center of north Mitrovica, with the alleged hope of negotiating the terms of their being rehired. One of them was Bigovic's deputy, Slavco Trifunovic, a man with glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard.
Of course, says Trifunovic, part of the group's goal was to stand in the way of the UN's plans to make it the first official administration building of an independent Kosovo on "Serbian territory." But after the arrest, he lost his bravado for a short time. "I was afraid of being thrown into a cell with Albanians in Pristina, where I would have been lynched," he said.
Waiting for the transfer to the prison, Trifunovic, peering through the bars of the police vehicle, could see the anger boiling up among his fellow Serbs. Furious people blocked the motorcade. A Serbian owner of a gambling office threw himself in front of a UN vehicle, giving the mob -- armed with stones, Molotov cocktails and pistols -- time to free 21 people from the custody of the intimidated international security forces.
Soldiers of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) then used tear gas and stun grenades to try to regain control, but their adversaries used a clever ploy: Ambulances that were allowed to pass through the barricades -- under the assumption that they were there to attend to the injured -- were used as rolling depots full of weapons for the street fighters.
The demonstrators included dozens of plain-clothes Serbian police officers and hooligans who had infiltrated the crowd. Foreign observers claimed that Belgrade had organized the violence, which would lead to the death of a police officer from Ukraine and more than 100 wounded.
The political message was that Kosovo's sovereignty did not solve its problems, but instead only intensified the never-ending hatred between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Pacification of the country, which is still under UN protection, is a only reality for the distant future. Meanwhile, Kosovo remains an experiment for an uncertain period of time and with an uncertain outcome.
A Cyprus in the Making?
Trifunovic was released from the prison in Pristina late in the afternoon, as were all the other detained protesters. He sees a solution based on the Cypriot model as being the only feasible approach. "We do not recognize the Albanian southern section," he says, "and the Albanians do not recognize our Serbian northern Kosovo. International troops are protecting the borders between the two."
Serbs still living in enclaves in southern Kosovo have been written off like people stranded on inaccessible islands, and some predict that it will take a number of years to resolve their fate. The Serbian Orthodox monasteries near the site of the historic Battle of Kosovo, which symbolizes Belgrade's claim to the land that is now within Kosovo's territory, have fulfilled their propaganda function. For the time being, at least, protecting the monasteries is no longer an issue for Kosovo Serbs.
But how should such contentious issues be addressed when the unrest at the beginning of the weekend has shone a less-than-favorable light on the foreign peacekeepers, too, who are meant to be the country's stabilizing force? After the embarrassing release of prisoners by a few dozen protestors, UNMIK and the Kosovo police even had to transfer control of north Mitrovica to KFOR.
That organization reiterated its resolve to respond harshly to any future outbreaks of violence. " The Serbs crossed a red line when they fired on our soldiers," French KFOR Commander Xavier Bout de Marnhac said angrily. But there is almost no evidence of his patrols on the streets of north Mitrovica. Authority has a different face.
A bridge divides the Albanian southern section from the Serbian northern section of the city. At night, a single soldier stands guard on the bridge, which seems eerily empty in the moonlight. Anyone who climbs over the rolls of barbed wire marking where the Serbian side starts is greeted by a banner stretching across the street that reads "Kosovo is Serbia" and a sea of red, blue and white Serbian flags. Images of Tomislav Nikolic, the vice president of the ultranationalist Radical Party, are plastered onto building walls. Kosovo's Serbs expect Nikolic -- despite his continued hesitancy -- to send in military support if his party scores a victory in May's Serbian parliamentary elections.
The "Office of the Serbian Government" is located on the banks of the Ibar river. To claim its right to administer Kosovo, Belgrade sent a governor to the former southern province long before it declared independence.
The governor's name is Momir Kasalovic. He is a friend of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, and he accuses the West of a fatal error in judgment. As he sees it, the West feared that the ethnic Albanians would revolt, so it gave them their own state on a silver platter. However, a Serbian northern Kosovo, not unlike the Republika Srpska in Bosnia, would be acceptable to him, although he prefers not to speculate over whether this solution would be amenable to Belgrade.
Ethnic Serbs chased away ethnic Albanian customs agents at Kosovo's northern border crossings weeks ago. Since then, a lot of roads and paths here have been unguarded, allowing weapons from a nearby Serbian military barrack to be brought in unchallenged to the "threatened brothers" -- in an act that aggravates the conflict even further.
The stabilization of the Balkans that Western politicians had expected as a consequence of Kosovo's independence has not materialized. But this was predictable, and there is no doubt that Europe and the United States knowingly accepted the problems.
The Kosovo Albanians' persistent demands for their own nation had become a nightmare. Serbia, the proponents of independence had hoped, would be outraged at first but would eventually relent in return for fast-track membership to the European Union. This has proven to be naïve, as has the assumption that other minorities would not cite Kosovo as a precedent.
The Kosovo crisis has also overburdened Serbia's politicians. For lack of a feasible approach, the fate of their fellow Serbs in the south will be used primarily as a talking point for capturing votes, at least until the Serbian elections. Prime Minister Kostunica wants to see the country close ranks with Moscow. President Boris Tadic, along with his Democratic Party, is accused of being a traitor because of his pro-European stance. The strongest force, the Radical Party and its candidate Nikolic -- whose boss, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial at the Hague for war crimes -- can expect to provide the new prime minister.
None of this will change much of anything. Kosovo will remain a trouble spot.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan