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

Kosovo: Divided Mitrovica Rejects Reunification Plan

Albanians and Serbs agree on one thing – that the latest EU plan will not work.
By Tanja Matic

“You will have to remove your Kosovo number plates if you want to enter north Mitrovica,” the international police officer told IWPR. “It is dangerous to drive here with those, and even the police may not be able to help you.”

Five years after Mitrovica was split into Serbian and Albanian zones, the town remains bitterly divided, and the latest EU initiative to solve the problem is gathering little support.

On a visit to Pristina on February 24, Javier Solana, EU foreign policy representative, promised a rapid solution. “A lot of work is currently being done on solving the Mitrovica issue,” he said. “I believe it will be [resolved] before mid-2005.”

But the locals are less sure. Though military check points have gone and UNMIK claims it is functioning in the Serb-held north, neither local people nor their political representatives place much faith in international schemes.

The newest plan, drawn up by the European Stability Initiative, an EU advisory body, proposes creating two separate municipalities in Mitrovica on condition that property belonging to displaced people on either side is returned to its rightful owners.

The plan’s sponsors hope both sides will eventually forge new links through mutual trade.

But although the EU plan looks likely to be adopted as UNMIK’s official strategy, neither community in Mitrovica is displaying enthusiasm. As the largest ethnic group, Albanians dislike the very idea of a formal division, because they would dominate a re-united Mitrovica.

Serbs are more ready to accept the partition of the town, but are less ready to return property in the north that belongs to displaced Albanians.

“UNMIK should make north and south a single municipality and not let the north separate,” Mustafa Plana, Albanian mayor for the southern half of Mitrovica, told IWPR.

Local Serbs shudder at the thought. Many have no desire to return to their old homes in the south and want the current border to stay as it is.

“I would never go back,” said Svetislav Galjak, an engineer from the southern half who has lived in the north since June 1999, when thousands of Kosovo Serbs fled their homes following NATO’s air war with Serbia.

“I would just sell my flat if I ever got it back”.

Since 1999, when Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo, the Ibar river has functioned as a new border within Kosovo, separating both the town and the territory into two ethnic zones - the north linked to Serbia and the south with the rest of Kosovo.

The north has never really accepted UNMIK’s administration and remains under Serbia’s day-to-day control. With its own hospital and university, it has become the only urban centre for Kosovo’s remaining Serbs.

Despite UNMIK's determination to establish its own institutions in the north, Serbian-funded bodies operate as before. The presence of UNMIK police or courts there is symbolic and widely resented.

While local Albanians fear the Ibar river is turning into a new frontier, the current set-up is proof to Serbs that they still exist in Kosovo. It also gives the Serbian government a stake in deciding Kosovo's future.

“Too many people in Belgrade, Pristina and within international community see Mitrovica as a political game,” Gerald Knaus, ESI director, told IWPR. “We are trying to save a dying industrial town.”

Recent figures suggest Mitrovica has lost 20 per cent of its population since a census in 1981. Unemployment is high.

According to Musa Mustafa, correspondent for the Albanian-language newspaper Koha Ditore, who used to live in Serb-controlled north, ambitious residents are drifting out.

“Educated people are leaving for Belgrade and Pristina and are letting the town die,” he told IWPR

Since 1999, the two sides have evolved into different societies. On the southern side of Mitrovica, Albanians have built several-storey houses and restaurants, mostly without planning permission and with money sent from workers living abroad.

The north contains a mass of small kiosks and stalls in which former workers in the Trepca mining complex make a dismal living, selling second-hand goods.

The Serbian government is paying to keep up the number of Serbs in the town, offering staff in schools and hospitals double the salary that they would earn in Serbia. People on both sides also earn hard currency from renting apartments to international officials.

Although the external money supply will eventually dry up, and both communities suffer from the division, neither is ready to compromise.

Both insist they would take the first step, but accuse the other of not being willing to do the same.

“Most of the new plan would be acceptable for Serbs - it is the Albanians who will not agree,” Oliver Ivanovic, a Serb deputy in the Kosovo parliament from Mitrovica, told IWPR.

“The EU plan will not succeed because the Serbs are not interested,” declared Musa Mustafa.

But in the end, Mustafa fears the Albanians of Mitrovica may have to accept the division of the town as permanent, and as part of the price of Kosovo's eventual independence from Serbia.

”People are aware that town has been de facto divided and that there is no going back,” he said.

Tanja Matic is IWPR coordinator in Kosovo.