Comment: Belgrade's Kosovo Policy Endangers Local Serbs

Serbia has improved its relations with the UN but does not disguise its attempts to control Kosovo through local Serbs

Comment: Belgrade's Kosovo Policy Endangers Local Serbs

Serbia has improved its relations with the UN but does not disguise its attempts to control Kosovo through local Serbs

Since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, Belgrade has improved its relationship with the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK. But it still tries to control the Kosovo Serbs, even though this policy may ultimately endanger the latter's position.

Recent statements by the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, have stoked fears that Serbia aims to regain control of Kosovo affairs. In February, he called for moves to bolster Serbian influence over the judiciary, education, health and security in those enclaves in the region where Serbs remain.

A subsequent crisis in Kosovo drew criticism of this policy. It blew up after the Kosovo Serbs, following Belgrade's recommendation, refused to take part in the region's government unless they received an extra ministerial post.

The UN chief administrator, Michael Steiner, defused tensions by offering the Serbs a government post and a position in the UNMIK office dealing with the return of more than 200,000 displaced members of their community.

No sooner was that crisis solved than the older crisis in Mitrovica, close to the border with Serbia proper, flared up again. Unrest in the Serb-controlled north of the divided town has raised the question of whether Belgrade still accepts Kosovo's territorial integrity.

Serbs in northern Mitrovica refuse to cooperate with UNMIK. Belgrade's reluctance to cut off support for their local institutions, such as the municipal council and the judiciary, hints at a carve-up strategy that would see the far north of Kosovo join Serbia proper.

These developments have disappointed hopes raised after the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, took over in autumn 2000.

Although DOS overturned Milosevic's policy of total obstruction in Kosovo, progress has not been as straightforward as the international community expected.

At first, Belgrade signaled goodwill by endorsing Serbian participation in Kosovo parliamentary elections in November 2001. This was after protracted negotiations with the UN administrator resulted in the signing of the Common Document, which affirmed both sides' "determination to address actively the justified concerns of the Kosovo Serbs".

But Belgrade has continued to try to direct the Kosovo Serb's policy, not least because they expect nothing else.

Belgrade's dealings are conducted largely by deputy premier Nebojsa Covic who backed Serb participation in the protectorate's elections. However, Belgrade has sent its minority mixed signals, which encourage division rather than a united Serb strategy.

The official policy has been to exercise influence through Kosovo's institutions with the aim of keeping the province "de jure" part of Serbia and forestalling its independence.

At the same time, Belgrade continues to hint that it may accept Kosovo's partition, despite official denials of such strategy. Indeed, Covic recently spoke of his preference for Kosovo's division into Bosnia-style entities, at the UN in New York.

In fact, Belgrade appears to be playing to both Serbian camps in Kosovo, the one in Mitrovica that seeks union with Serbia and the second in enclaves such as Gracanica, near Pristina, which fears the consequences of partition.

Rada Trajkovic, the head of the Return Coalition in the Kosovo parliament, belongs to the second camp and supports cooperation with Kosovo institutions. But she is battling against the northern Mitrovica faction under Marko Jaksic, vice-president of the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS.

While Belgrade tries to exert influence through the Return Coalition, its failure to rein in the northern Mitrovica Serbs threatens the alliance's very survival.

Belgrade's failure to control the Serbs of northern Mitrovica has fed suspicions in the international community that it wants to split Kosovo along the line of the Ibar river, which flows through the town.

This policy is undermining Serbia's relations with UNMIK and may diminish its influence over Kosovo affairs in the long term.

But it is UNMIK that controls the fate of the Serbs in Kosovo: they only receive token material support from Belgrade. The most vital matter - security - is entirely in international hands.

Steiner has set his face firmly against partition. "We have managed to unite Germany and we will achieve the same thing in Kosovo," he said.

Belgrade must, in short, dispel any illusion about a restoration of Serbian domination over the whole of the region and encourage community leaders in northern Mitrovica to cooperate with UNMIK. Any alternative policy may isolate Belgrade and leave the Kosovo Serbs out on a limb.

Denisa Kostovicova is a junior research fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge.

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