Kosovo: Serbi's Involvement in Mitrovica's Crisis

Written by Stratfor


 Stratfor Today » March 19, 2008 | 1607 GMT
The United Nations on March 19 accused Serbian forces of being behind some of the recent violence in northern Kosovo. The incidents highlight both the problems the United Nations has in securing Kosovo’s future and the relative dearth of tools that Serbia has to attain its own goals.

Larry Rossin, the deputy U.N. administrator in Kosovo, on March 19 accused Serbian forces of actively destabilizing U.N. efforts to transition Kosovo to independent rule. The chain of incidents in question began March 14 when Serbs took over a U.N.-run court in the northern Kosovar — and Serb-majority — city of Mitrovica. On March 16, several hundred peacekeepers raided the court and arrested 53 people occupying the building. On March 17, Serbian irregulars — some using automatic weapons and grenades — attacked a U.N. convoy transporting the detainees, freeing 21 of them. That in turn triggered a riot and standoff that required regular NATO forces to quell and resulted in dozens of injuries and at least one death.

These clashes highlight the problems facing the forces trying to keep Kosovo in one piece — and those seeking to split it.

Rossin disclosed March 19 that the March 14 incident involved several “Serbian Ministry of Interior officers,” implying that the entire cascade of events was triggered — if not masterminded — by Belgrade. For the United Nations, the European Union and NATO — the institutions with the responsibility of managing Kosovo for the foreseeable future — facing paramilitary opposition from the Serbian government greatly complicates efforts to operationalize Kosovar independence.


Serbs make up roughly 5 percent of Kosovo’s population, and roughly half of them live right on the border with Serbia in the Mitrovica region. Combinations of civil disobedience, attacks on U.N. institutions and disruptions of U.N. border controls with Serbia are precisely the mix of actions that could lead to an informal partition of Kosovo.

For now the best that can be done to combat partition is for NATO forces to seal the border with Serbia and do all they can do to link the region’s economic life to the rest of Kosovo rather than to Serbia. Such sealing was implemented immediately after the March 17 convoy attack. However, the Ibar River provides a clear geographic barrier that makes administration of a hostile Mitrovica region difficult. Shy of an extended outright occupation by NATO military forces, there is little that those responsible for Kosovo can do to resist partition while the Serbs of Mitrovica seek it.

However, the United Nations, European Union and NATO can take some small solace from the fact that this is probably as bad as things can possibly get for them in the near term. The Serb military and Interior Ministry are controlled by two different factions in the government. Forces led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica hold the reins at the Interior Ministry, which claims 35,000 personnel whose jobs encompass everything from traffic control to counternarcotics operations. Their primary job is to maintain internal security as a police force, but they still possess equipment from the days of the Milosevic era when their role was more paramilitary. Considering that the last time they were used in such a capacity was during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, there is certainly more than a handful of personnel in the ministry with the training, first-hand experience and desire to stir up trouble in the Serbian portions of Kosovo — such as Mitrovica.

But forces led by President Boris Tadic, who seeks integration into Western institutions, control the military. While this is the case, outright military action is not a threat, and the bulk of Kosovo’s territory — populated primarily by Albanians — is secure.

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The bottom line is that the current situation — crisis in Mitrovica, but relative calm elsewhere — is going to be the status quo for at least several weeks. The United Nations, the European Union and NATO lack the ability to force the Serbs to want to remain in an independent Kosovo. But while the Serbs have sufficient options to complicate what is turning into an occupation of northern Kosovo — and even edge it toward union with Serbia — they lack the political, economic and military ability to impose a reality on the rest of Kosovo.

This balance of forces will hold until at least May 19, when Serbia goes to the polls to elect a new parliament. After that, a new balance will be established in Belgrade.
 ----------------------- SOURCE: Stratfor
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