By slapping an embargo on imports from Serbia and occupying two northern border crossings, Kosovo seems set to ignite an already tense situation.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 – but Belgrade refuses to recognise the move and maintains close ties with the Serb community in northern Kosovo, which has never accepted the Kosovar government’s authority.
The two border crossings in the Serb-dominated north were previously controlled by the EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) and ethnic Serb police officers. Pristina banned all imports from Serbia earlier this month in response to Serbia’s ban on goods from the Republic of Kosovo.
But violence erupted after Kosovar police went to enforce their side of the blockade.
Ethnic Serbs responded by setting fire to the Serbia-Kosovo border crossing in Jarinje and shot at the NATO peacekeeping mission (KFOR).
“Most people south of Mitrovica are angry. They are seeing the same scene as in 2008 when the same border crossing was attacked by ethnic Serbs,” said Amra Zejneli, a Pristina-based journalist. “But everyone is happy the Prime Minister sent Kosovar police to the border crossings – they see it as late, coming three and a half years after independence – though as a final, positive step,” she added.
The EU and the US criticised the Kosovar police operation at the border crossings, as ‘provocative’ but the Kosovan Prime Minister defended the police actions as a legitimate attempt to establish control over the northern border with Serbia.
The move is also regarded as a means of reducing Serbia’s effective de facto control over northern Kosovo and also, of enforcing and upholding Kosovo’s embargo on Serbian imports.
On Thursday, the UN Security Council’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) held closed consultations on Kosovo as NATO peacekeepers moved to stabilize the crisis by seizing the two border crossings with Serbia at the centre of the tensions.
But the Council rebuffed calls by Serbia for a special meeting on heightened tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.
Talks between Serbia and Kosovo are scheduled to resume in September. Subjects of the talks will inter alia be travel documents and recognition of qualifications - but not the thorny issue of Kosovo’s status.
Where is Kosovo now?
A Dutch person can make the claim that Kosovo is a country. This is because the Netherlands has recognised Kosovo. KFOR, the NATO force in Kosovo, cannot say this. They must refer to ‘governing institutions’, not government, and ‘boundaries’, not borders.
A number of NATO and EU members, such as the Czech Republic, Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovenia do not recognize Kosovo as a country. Jolyon Naegele, Director of the Political Department at the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), says the problem is “organisations are only as strong as their member states”.
What is a country?
According to the Montevideo criteria, which outline the rights and duties of statehood, a country has a defined territory, a permanent population, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. But to what extent do the ‘governing institutions’ effectively govern?
In Kosovo much of the work that would usually be performed by a functioning government is done by international organizations: KFOR ensures freedom of movement, security; EULEX ‘helps’ governing institutions to establish the rule of law and a judicial system; while the EU Police Mission (EUPOL) secures the borders.
Lastly, since 1999 the UN has also helped to run Kosovo through UNMIK, the interim civilian administration.
There is no transfer of these responsibilities and roles to the government of Kosovo or its governing institutions. They are being transferred to other international organisations – a process some say impedes Kosovars from taking control of their own affairs.
North Kosovo and Mitrovica
Kosovo is failing to control or govern in its northern region bordering Serbia. So are international organisations. Serbia effectively controls this part of Kosovo territory, north of the river Ibar.
The river divides the town of Mitrovica where Serbs inhabit the northern half Albanians the southern half. “This means de facto that in this area the rule of law is missing,” said Dutch MP Henk-Jan Ormel, after an official visit to Kosovo earlier this year.
The paradox of Kosovo
If Kosovo wants to be a bona fide country, it has to be able to govern itself. Following a long history of being conquered (by Romans, Ottomans, Bulgarians, Albanians, Serbs, and international organisations), it does not yet know how to do that.
The judicial system is in need of development, with its uncomfortable mixture of Yugoslav, Serbian, international and local laws. “In civil law one can still find remnants of Turkish law”, says Jenny Schokkenbroek, EULEX Civil Judge at District Court level.
Experts say that the population of Kosovo has learned to create a 'shadow society' where on the surface they obey and follow the ‘oppressors’ – but underneath they have created their own laws, rule of law and police.
This is known as the clan structure. These clans are considered to have now turned themselves into political parties, which may seem to the outside world to be proof of a democratic system. But critics say it is in effect still the same oppressive, bullying and threatening clan structure.
The International Court of Justice - the UN's highest legal body - ruled last year that Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 did not violate international law. Now it is up to the UN Security Council to decipher ways of reuniting the clans and promoting unity in Kosovo – their country.