Peace has been restored in Mitrovica, but it's deceptive. And an end to the escalation of violence in Kosovo doesn't appear likely in the long run. That much became clear on Monday. For hours, the ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo seemed to be in a state of war: Concussion grenades shook houses and tear gas was meant to disperse Serb protestors. But they struck back, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and firing shots.
What happened? The scene of the unrest was the court building in Serb-populated north Mitrovica. After a month-long protest, a few dozen former employees last Friday stormed the court, which had been closed by the United Nations administration. They seized the building and then raised two Serbian flags.
The employees had been laid off by the UN administration after Kosovo declared its independence. Now, they threatened to occupy the building until they got rehired.
Then, while Mitrovica slept, special police with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in armored vehicles drove through deserted streets to the court house. At 5:30 a.m., supported by troops from the NATO peacekeeping force KFOR, they arrived on the scene. And that's when the chaos began: The angry crowd fought back the security forces and the UN ordered the retreat of hundreds of police. Meanwhile, the KFOR troops took command and threatened to take drastic action.
In the end, the angry mob even managed to free 21 of the 53 former court employees who had been arrested from police vehicles. The others were released later that evening. A Ukrainian policeman was hurt so bad in the melee that he later died. The battle left an additional 100 casualties, including some with life-threatening injuries.
The Serb's motto seems to be provocation at any price -- because that is the only way they believe they can achieve their goals:
- for Belgrade to govern the predominantly Serb north Kosovo
- to resist, by any means, integration with the state of Kosovo, which declared its independence on Feb. 16
Most Serbs had hoped their ethnic dominance in the region would be enough, on its own, to ensure a virtual separation. But tactics used in earlier Balkan wars -- of forcing the international community to give in through violence -- have failed so far because of opposition from the international security forces seeking to keep peace in the region.
Although ethnic-Albanian police officers stationed in north Kosovo have been withdrawn and the EU mission, at least for now, will not move into offices in north Mitrovica, the head of the the UNMIK mission, Joachim Rückert, said a "red line" had been crossed during Monday's unrests.
Rückert was outraged that shots had been fired -- for the first time -- on KFOR soldiers and stated it would not be tolerated again. Among the injured were also around 25 international soldiers. The withdrawal of UNMIK and Kosovar police from north Mitrovica underscores just how serious the security situation is viewed by those in charge. From now on, KFOR soldiers will keep the peace -- resorting to military means if necessary.
Washington and Brussels are all too aware that any concessions to Belgrade would only serve to enrage Albanians, but also provoke them to take matters into their own hands. There is no lack of youths who would love nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of the legendary former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters. It's a nightmare for the international community, which naively supported the independence of Kosovo in the hope it would stabilize the Balkans.
According to the EU's special envoy, Peter Feith, and Kosovo's Albanian leaders, Belgrade is -- yet again -- the main culprit behind the unrest.
However, Serbia seems to be completely out of its depth. Its political leaders -- regardless of party -- are unable to offer a real solution to the plight of their close to 100,000 compatriots who have stayed behind in Kosovo. The appeals to stick it out bear an embarrassing resemblance to an election campaign that seems already to have begun. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica dissolved the governing coalition on March 8 because of "irreconcilable differences of opinion," and a new election has been set for May 11.
"Have faith in Belgrade. We will pay back the international community for what they have done to us," Serbia's Minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, said Monday. He added: "Only Serbia should be responsible for Kosovo." Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kostunica is planning to take advantage of support from Moscow. He said he had already held talks with the Kremlin on how they could work together to stop all future violence against Serbia.
Kostunica has also accused the international community of setting out to punish Serbs again, choosing the fourth anniversary of Albanian attacks on Serbian monasteries and villages.
The vice president of the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic, has demanded that pro-European Serbian President Boris Tadic to call on "his friends in the West" to stop their vandalism, killing and bullying of Serbs in Kosovo. The actions, he said, could no longer be tolerated.
This is exactly what the Serbs in Mitrovica are longing for. But until now, only Bishop Artemije has demanded a military attack on Kosovo and even welcomed volunteers from Russia.
But in Belgrade all the parties agree that an invasion is out of the question -- if for no other reason than its sheer futility. But that doesn't prevent the hardliners in the secret service, army and politics from supplying their brothers under threat in Kosovo with weapons and munitions and helping extremists infiltrate its former province.
They seem to be adhering to Slobodan Milosevic's philosophy: While Serbs under threat must defend themselves, Belgrade stands for peace.