Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Valerie Percival
Kosovo Field Representative / Author - International Crisis Group


It is an honor to appear before the Helsinki Commission this morning, and share the analysis of the International Crisis Group (ICG) on the situation in Kosovo. ICG recently released a report, entitled UNMIK’s Albatross: Tackling Division in Mitrovica. This morning, I will provide you with some background information on how this city came to be divided and outline the recommendations in the report. These recommendations highlight the vital role of the international community in helping the United Nations to exercise its administrative control throughout the province.

Mitrovica, as I’m sure you are all aware, is a city in the north of Kosovo that is split in two by the Ibar River. Mitrovica municipality currently has a population of over 100,000 people. North of the river, the population is currently 12,000 Serbs, 3,000 Albanians, 2,000 Bosniaks, 600 Turks, and 500 Roma. Within the Serb population, there are approximately 5,000 IDPs. Approximately 9,000 Albanians and 3000 Serbs remain unable to return to their homes on both sides of the river.

In the summer of 1999, the river became a line of separation between the Albanian dominated south and the Serb dominated north. This division was the result of several factors including the attacks by Albanian extremists against the Serb population, the deliberate policy of Belgrade to establish a defacto partition of Kosovo, the failure of KFOR to take sufficient measures to control the city, and the inability of UNMIK to asset their authority in the north.

Political leaders in Mitrovica north formed the Bridgewatchers, a group of young men whose ostensible purpose was to “protect” the north from extremist attacks. While membership is fluid, estimates place the group at 150 to 250 people. The Bridgewatchers are financed through support from Belgrade, extortion of the local population, and the proceeds of extortion and organized crime. They hold the average citizen in the north hostage – by threatening those who wish to work or cooperate with the international community, preventing UNMIK from providing effective services, intimidating and extorting the average citizen, and creating a climate of criminality and impunity.

As a result of this division and the activities of the Bridgewatchers, Mitrovica has become a frequent flashpoint for confrontation and a source of instability. Early in February 2000, a rocket propelled grenade attack on a UNHCR bus carrying Serbs near Mitrovica killed three and wounded many more. In the revenge attacks that ensued in Mitrovica north, ten Albanians were killed. In February 2001, the murder of an Albanian youth in the north led to attacks on French KFOR by the Albanians. In April of this year, a routine traffic check escalated into an armed assault by the Bridgewatchers on UNMIK police officers, which wounded twenty-two. This was the worst act of violence against UNMIK personnel since the inception of the mission. Despite clear video evidence that identifies the perpetrators, no-one has been arrested for this attack which reinforces the impression that a climate of impunity exists in the north.

The situation in Mitrovica is not sustainable. It destabilizes Kosovo as it plays on Albanian fears of partition. It maintains a climate of fear and instability for the Serb population. It also undermines the success of the UN and KFOR missions in Kosovo, and the efforts of the international effort more generally. A safe and secure environment, the rule of law, and a meaningful civil administration have not been established in the north.

However, the situation is also not intractable – solutions can be found. In our report we advocate a multi-track approach, with four inter-related elements. No single initiative will be successful on its own. This approach is guided by the principles of full implementation of UNSCR 1244, the need to maintain unity of the Mitrovica municipality, and the importance of taking Serb concerns seriously.

1. International Pressure on Belgrade
The evidence presented in our paper shows that the actions of Belgrade work to destabilize the north. Among some political circles in Belgrade there is a deliberate strategy to partition Kosovo, with the northern three municipalities and north Mitrovica remaining part of Serbia. This strategy underlies Belgrade’s demand that UNMIK create a separate municipality in the north of the city, and its maintenance of parallel structures in the north.

ICG has received evidence that the Bridgewatchers are employees of the Serbian interior ministry. Other illegal parallel institutions exist: the MUP arrests people and tries them in Serbian courts operating in Kosovo, and Kosovo Telecom was recently replaced by Serbian Telecom in the north. As a result of these activities, UNMIK is not able to fully implement its mandate to administer the north.

Nationalist polices advocated by Belgrade not only affect the ability of UNMIK to implement its mandate. These policies also damage the interests of Kosovo Serbs: they affect their ability to receive services from UNMIK, and they impact on the security situation of minorities in the rest of Kosovo.

The international community must take the problem of Mitrovica seriously, and should view Belgrade’s contribution to destabilizing the city as a violation of UNSCR 1244. UNMIK and KFOR will only succeed in fulfilling their mandate when Belgrade cooperates and implements their commitments in good faith. This cooperation will not be forthcoming without serious international pressure. The international community should send a clear message to Belgrade that partition is not a final status option; that UNMIK will not accept a separate municipality; and that Belgrade must dissolve parallel structures, accept UNMIK’s authority (including the Kosovo Police Service), and cease negative interference in Mitrovica.

Countries such as the United States can ensure that Belgrade implements its commitments in good faith by applying pressure equivalent to that used to secure cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. The FRY (or its successor) should be denied membership in the Council of Europe and NATO’s partnership for peace; and a Stabilization and Association Agreement should not be signed, until Belgrade cuts support for parallel structures and cooperates with UNMIK’s efforts to establish civil administration in the province. Moreover, direct international donor support for Serbia’s budget should be conditioned on Belgrade cutting off its financial support for parallel structures.

2. Rule of Law and Safe and Secure Environment:
A safe and secure environment does not exist in the north of the city. The 8 April attack against UNMIK police shows that weapons are readily available. Security is impeded by the existence of the Bridgewatchers, the failure to secure the presence of the KPS within the city, and the continuing poor coordination with KFOR.

The role of KFOR in establishing a safe and secure environment is crucial. KFOR should oversee the dissolution of parallel structures, monitor the border between Serbia and Kosovo, and ensure security for UNMIK. French KFOR inherited the most difficult operating environment in all of Kosovo. As a result of this difficult environment, and because of accusations that they have not taken sufficiently robust measures in the north, we recommend that they should be rotated out of north Mitrovica with the upcoming force rationalisation process.

The police, with the assistance of KFOR, should arrest members of the Serb Bridgewatchers where sufficient evidence of criminal activity exists, and undertake a crackdown on general criminal activity in the north. UNMIK has doubled the number of international police officers operating in the north to eighty. However, a lack of surveillance equipment impedes their effort to get the intelligence information that they need to arrest individuals.

We also recommend that efforts be stepped up to introduce a multiethnic Kosovo Police Service in the north of the city. While Serbian members of the Kosovo Police Service patrol other municipalities in the north and enclaves in the south of the province, repeated efforts to introduce them in north Mitrovica has failed.

Administration in the North:
Serbs in the north currently lack good services. They are largely unable to access services from UNMIK and the municipality, and receive sporadic services from parallel structures. Serbs must be guaranteed that they will receive equitable services from the municipality and that they will have a say in how these services are provided through elected municipal representatives.

The effort by the United Nations to establish the Local Community Office – an UNMIK municipal level office charged with ensuring that the needs of minority communities are met - have largely failed. The office in the north remains a shell. Potential Serb employees have been threatened, and demonstrations against the office are a frequent occurrence.

The rhetoric of the Albanian controlled Mitrovica municipality is positive – they are encouraging Serb return to the confidence zone in the south. They have also outlined their preparedness to provide equitable services to the north, set aside positions in the municipality for Serbs, and attempted to establish reconciliation committees. However, their words have not been turned into action largely because the Serbs have not cooperated. Thus their rhetoric has not been tested.

Therefore, we recommend that a specially administered area be established in the north. A service agreement should be developed between north Mitrovica and the Municipality that outlines the services to be provided, the terms of that provision, and establishes a specially administered area in north Mitrovica. This would ensure that the rhetoric of the municipality can be turned into action, and monitor the delivery of services to ensure that Serbs are treated as equal citizens.

Transparency of UNMIK Role of UNMIK:
The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has made great progress in bringing order and stability, as well as forming autonomous institutions of self-government Kosovo. But Mitrovica north remains a black mark on UNMIK’s progress. Parallel structures still exist. Few Bridgewatchers have been arrested. The foundation of the long-promised multiethnic market has been poured, but no stalls operate there. The Local Community office is not operational. Serbs still lack services, democratic institutions at the local level, and economic opportunities.

UNMIK has repeatedly stated that they have a plan for Mitrovica, but will not divulge the details of this plan. Officials cite concerns that if confidential elements of the plan are disclosed, its successful implementation will be affected. However, we argue that UNMIK needs to show that they have a vision for the north. Without disclosing the confidential aspects of their strategy, UNMIK needs to demonstrate leadership and commitment to its mandate.

In closing, we would like to emphasize that the real victims of the situation in north Mitrovica are the local Serb community. They have no elected representation. Most are unable to access services from UNMIK, receive sporadic and poor quality services from the parallel structures, and continue to live in a insecure environment, where a climate of impunity reigns. Belgrade officials use these individuals as a pawn in a political game for their own personal benefit.