Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Belgrade Ended Mitrovica Resistance

Serbia agreed to Mitrovica accord in order to bolster its prospects of joining international organisations.
By Daniel Sunter

Belgrade persuaded Kosovo Serbs to abandon their resistance to UN administration in the hope of clearing the way for Serbia to join NATO's Partnership for Piece and the Council of Europe.


An agreement on November 25 established administrative control by the UN Administration for Kosovo, UNMIK, over the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica, the largest Serb-dominated region in Kosovo and symbol of Serb resistance. "It starts a new chapter for Mitrovica and establishes UN authority throughout Kosovo," said UNMIK chief Michael Steiner.


International officials hailed the agreement as the beginning of the end of the so-called parallel structures - controlling municipal administration, health, education and the police - which members of the Serb minority in Kosovo set up to operate in defiance of the UN administration.


Until now, Belgrade had staunchly supported the parallel bodies. The sudden about-turn was believed to have been motivated by Serbia's eagerness to speed its own reintegration into the international community and a realisation that Serbian interests in Kosovo would be better served by putting responsibility for protecting local Serbs in UNMIK hands.


Belgrade analysts believe that Serbian deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic should get most of the credit for these achievements. In the last couple of months, he marginalised Serb radicals in Kosovo who were opposing collaboration with the international community, providing the space for moderate politicians.


When NATO pushed Serbian forces out of Kosovo in 1999, some 200,000 Serb civilians fled. The remainder stubbornly refused to acknowledge UN authority. Exposed to everyday revenge attacks by radical Albanians, they didn't trust the international community and maintained strong ties with Belgrade. In this climate they set up the parallel institutions of government, which the Milosevic regime openly supported.


The new authorities officially agreed to cooperate with UNMIK but informally continued to back the parallel institutions. As a result, Serbs from north Kosovo, and especially Mitrovica, boycotted all elections and snubbed the international authority.


The Mitrovica Serbs formed their own para-militia forces, so called "protectors of bridges", who guarded bridges that connect the northern part of town, mostly populated by Serbs, with the south part where ethnic Albanians form a majority.


Dissatisfied with the turn of events, the international community led by Washington decided to enlarge the list of requirements Belgrade had to fulfill in order to get support for joining western institutions like the Council of Europe and the NATO Partnership for Peace and to receive much needed financial aid.


Other terms included cooperation with The Hague Tribunal, ICTY, ending military cooperation with Republika Srpska, RS, and ceasing the arms trade with Iraq and other countries under UN embargo. To this list was added termination of parallel Serb institutions in Kosovo.


Fulfilling this last demand meant the Belgrade leadership had the difficult task of persuading radicalised and sceptical Serbs from Kosovo to change their views. Officials started to carry out that policy step by step from the middle of 2001 by forming the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, FRY, Coordination Centre for Kosovo, led by Covic who had previously managed to resolve the crisis in the ethnic Albanian-dominated Presevo valley in south Serbia.


Analysts think that Covic's charisma and energetic work won over many leaders of the Kosovo Serbs. He persuaded them to form their own political coalition called Povratak (meaning Return), which became the third largest political force in Kosovo's parliament. Covic also included some in the work of coordination centre and gave legal help to Serbs under investigation by the Kosovo judiciary.


What he is believed to have told them was that only cooperation with the international community could enable them to improve their conditions and play a significant political role in the protectorate.


Having won over most of the Serb leaders in Mitrovica, Belgrade was able make the agreement with UNMIK on disbanding the Serb municipality in the north part of town, a formerly powerful symbol of the parallel institutions. "The idea of UNMIK taking control of northern Kosovska Mitrovica has been around for some time now and the new agreement makes it reality," Oliver Ivanovic, Serb member of the Kosovo Presidency, told reporters.


He said the UNMIK administration there would have a six-strong board comprising of representatives of local Serbs and headed by UNMIK representative Ramesh Abhishek.


Ivanovic said the Serbian community will be integrated into the UNMIK municipality and that its members, including some of the "bridge protectors", would soon join the Kosovo police force, which is under control of the international administration.


Ordinary Serbs in Mitrovica, used to isolationism and anti-UNMIK attitudes, received the new accord with mixed feelings.


"We have so many everyday problems and so far the only help we have got is from Serbia," said one local. "We will see. Maybe UNMIK has really decided to help us. I think we should trust them and cooperate"


"We don't trust UNMIK, we only trust the Serb institutions. I'm not expecting any improvements. Slowly but surely they are carrying out their plans and no one is asking us anything," said another.


Local observers, however, think the support of Belgrade and local Serb leaders for the agreement, combined with the determination of UNMIK to guarantee people's safety, would win people round.


Analysts in Belgrade believe the breakthrough gives Serbia and UN mission reason to be pleased, with the former moving a step closer joining international institutions and the latter at last managing to establish administrative control over all of Kosovo.


Daniel Sunter is IWPR's project manager in Belgrade and Olivera Stojanovic is an independent Kosovo journalist.