COMMENT: Governing Mitrovica: A Critical Crossroads

What lies in store for northern Mitrovica - gradual reintegration into the rest of Kosovo or institutionalised separation?

COMMENT: Governing Mitrovica: A Critical Crossroads

What lies in store for northern Mitrovica - gradual reintegration into the rest of Kosovo or institutionalised separation?

For almost three and a half years, the troubled city of Mitrovica has been a thorn in the side of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK. Rocked by frequent uprisings and an apparently unbridgeable gulf between Albanians and Serbs, the city epitomises the ethnic fault-line that characterises Kosovo.

The northern part of the city has been run by an illegal parallel administration supported by Belgrade, and is viewed by Albanians as an island of unchallenged Serb power, influence and control. On November 25, the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Kosovo, Michael Steiner, announced an agreement reached with Belgrade whereby illegal administrative and security structures in the north of the city will replaced with direct UNMIK rule.

The agreement represents a victory for UNMIK, which can finally claim to run the whole province, and a setback for those in Belgrade who hoped that the continued division of Mitrovica would provide them with an invaluable argument for the partition of Kosovo during final status talks. It has placed Mitrovica - and maybe even Kosovo - at a critical juncture, and so deserves the support of the international community.

But such support cannot be unequivocal until UNMIK demonstrates that this agreement will form a pragmatic step towards the reintegration of Serbs and Albanians, and not serve to institutionalise the existing separation of the two communities.

In a report issued in June this year, the International Crisis Group, ICG, argued that the continued division in Mitrovica was enabling Belgrade to stake out a de facto partition of the province. Such a partition would be destabilising for Kosovo and would set a dangerous precedent in a region already torn apart by a decade of conflict. We argued that concrete steps to tackle the division in Mitrovica were possible, with the right combination of political will and international muscle could be brought to bear.

We recommended that the international community put pressure on Belgrade to play the role of honest broker in the north and outlined a multi-track approach that addressed security issues, recommended the establishment of a specially-administered area governed by UNMIK assisted by a local council, and outlined a plan for a gradual integration of this area into the larger municipality.

The November agreement followed months of difficult negotiations between the deputy prime minister of Serbia, Nebojsa Covic, and Michael Steiner. Both deserve credit for demonstrating the courage and will to tackle the Mitrovica problem. Mitrovica's Serbs were initially offered a substantial decentralisation of existing municipal powers, plus various economic development initiatives, on condition that they turned out to vote at the October 26 local elections.

When less than one hundred people in north Mitrovica cast a vote, UNMIK's strategy failed. Instead, a fall-back plan was implemented, with UNMIK assuming administrative control in the north of the city.

Michael Steiner hopes the new administrative arrangements will bring normality to the north. The barbed wire checkpoints on the bridge over the Ibar river which divides the city have already been dismantled. The notorious paramilitary-style Bridgewatchers, who guarded the bridge from the Serbian side, will be replaced by the Kosovo Police Service - whose officers will include both former Bridgewatchers and Serbian police.

KFOR will adopt a less visible and less intrusive presence in the area and UNMIK is relocating some of its own institutions to the north. These include the new Kosovo Trust Agency that will oversee the privatisation of formerly state-owned enterprises, which should provide a small economic boost to the area.

The new UN Deputy Municipal Administrator for Mitrovica will have 70 employees, and an advisory board composed of local Serb, Albanian and Bosniak representatives. This arrangement closely reflects the recommendations outlined by the International Crisis Group. With Belgrade's cooperation, UNMIK has established a special UN-administered area in the north, set up a council composed of local leaders and brought local Serb police officers into the new fold.

But UNMIK's move into north Mitrovica may have come at the price of legalising a previously de facto division. It remains unclear what relationship north Mitrovica will have with the rest of the municipality, what strategy exists to reintegrate it into the wider area, or what will replace the parallel services, currently provided by Belgrade in sectors such as health or education.

The future of parallel institutions such as the Mitrovica hospital run by Milan Ivanovic has not been clarified. UNMIK has even offered assurances that there are no plans to take control of the education and health departments in north Mitrovica. This begs the question of what level of authority UNMIK will exercise in practice.

Mitrovica was intended to become UNMIK's decentralisation showcase, as the mission embarks on a wider decentralisation programme across the province. When the Serbs in north Mitrovica did not vote, thereby forfeiting the decentralisation package on offer, direct UNMIK rule followed. This is undoubtedly a step forward, but as Michael Steiner understands only too well, it cannot be the final step. UNMIK's efforts to govern Mitrovica must not come at the price of sacrificing the goals of multi-ethnicity and integration.

Since 1999 the entire thrust of international effort in Kosovo has been to create a unified multi-ethnic province under the provisions of Security Council Resolution 1244, which sealed the end of the NATO action. Kosovo Serbs would like nothing better than to redraw the municipal boundaries in Kosovo along ethnic lines, arguing that only ethnic segregation can guarantee them a future in the province.

Mitrovica is now at a critical crossroads. Northern Mitrovica could begin a gradual process of reintegration into the rest of the municipality and into Kosovo. Or it could be granted an institutionalised separation from the rest of the municipality, laying the foundations for the cantonisation of the province. If the aim of integration is abandoned here, the impact will be felt in other municipalities facing similar, albeit less daunting, ethnic tensions. If multi-ethnicity remains our goal in Kosovo, we must not let this provisional solution in Mitrovica, however well-intentioned, become the first step towards institutionalising the ethnic divide.

Valerie Percival is Kosovo Project Director for the International Crisis Group.

Serbia, Kosovo
Support our journalists