Albanian authorities have power to brutalize Serbs —but not control Kosova’s borders

Reading between the lines in the Kosova coverage can sure be depressing, especially for those of us who have been following the conflict there over the past 20 years. While 20 years ago, Albanian protesters were throwing rocks at Serbian police, today Serb protesters are throwing rocks at Albanian police. Ah, progress. Meanwhile, for all the passions in play over Kosova’s supposed “independence”—whether Albanian pride or Serb rage—the new government still does not seem to have any real control over its territory. When Serbia’s minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, made his controversial visit to the territory, it was the UN administrator Joachim Ruecker who took responsibility for the decision to “allow” him in. In other words, the “international community” is obviously still running the show. And angry Serbs are throwing rocks and Albanian cops retaliating with tear gas over a mere fiction. From AP, Feb. 25:

Kosovo cops fire tear gas to end protest
Police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of Serbs hurling rocks during a protest against Kosovo’s independence at a border crossing near the capital Monday.

Some 150 Serbs chanting “Kosovo is Serbia!” pelted ethnic Albanian police with stones and bottles that they brought with them in a truck to the crossing about 18 miles northeast of Pristina, Kosovo police spokesman Veton Elshani said.

Nineteen officers were injured, one seriously, before NATO peacekeepers helped bring the situation under control, he said.

The vast majority of Kosovo’s population is ethnic Albanian. Serbs represent just 10 percent of the region’s 2 million people, but they view Kosovo as the cradle of their culture and of their Orthodox Christian faith.

In the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, about 2,000 Kosovo Serbs rallied Monday – as they have every day since the territory’s ethnic Albanian leadership declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17.

Local ethnic Serb leaders denounced the independence declaration. A few protesters set fire to European Union flags and burned a poster showing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Serbia’s pro-Western president, Boris Tadic.

Kosovo had remained a province of Serbia even though it was administered by the United Nations and NATO after 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists, which killed 10,000 people.

Tadic opposes Kosovo’s independence but advocates maintaining economic and political ties with the U.S. and other Western nations despite their recognition of Kosovo’s statehood. Serbia’s hard-line prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, in contrast, advocates severing relations with all states that recognize Kosovo as independent.

In Belgrade, Kostunica reiterated that the Kosovo state “does not exist” as far as Serbia is concerned. He said the Serbian government would seek to “maintain jurisdiction” in Serb-populated areas of Kosovo and urged nations to rescind their recognition of Kosovo.

“There will be no stability in the region and the world until that decision is annulled,” he said.

Serbia’s minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, crossed the border Monday to visit Serb communities in Kosovo.

Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, Hajredin Kuqi, denounced the trip by Samardzic, who has publicly supported Kosovo Serbs who set fire to a border post in the territory’s tense north last week.

“Unfortunately, the government of Serbia is continuing with provocation regarding Kosovo’s future,” Kuqi told The Associated Press. “They need to build some bridges for cooperation with Kosovo, but … they are provoking us, provoking our people and raising tension in Kosovo.”

The top U.N. official in Kosovo, Joachim Ruecker, said he allowed Samardzic into Kosovo on the condition that he issue a public statement “making it very, very clear that he distances himself from violence and the visit is about ensuring peace and calm with the Kosovo Serbs.”

Ruecker said he also insisted on meeting with Samardzic to “tell him what we think of some of his recent statements” – but said later that he was not satisfied with some of the Serbian official’s answers.

Samardzic said he told Ruecker that the Serbian government “will do everything to maintain peace in the regions of Kosovo it controls, where the Serbs live.”

What exactly does “control” mean in contemporary Kosova? While Serbs and Albanians continue to throw rocks and tear gas at each other, the de facto sovereign is obviously still the UN, backed up by NATO firepower. But wait, it gets better.

Dmitry Medvedev, widely expected to be Russia’s next president, visited Belgrade on a business trip that underscored the Kremlin’s close ties with Serbia.

Russia, which insists that independence for Kosovo without U.N. approval risks encouraging separatist movements worldwide, has emerged as Serbia’s primary ally in the Kosovo crisis.

“We actively support Belgrade’s demand … to restore the territorial integrity of Serbia, restore the country’s sovereignty,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on state-run Vesti-24 television.

Lavrov claimed NATO and the European Union, which plans to deploy a 1,800-member police and justice mission to Kosovo, were considering using force to keep ethnic Serbs from leaving Kosovo.

“The question of using force to hold back Serbs who do not want to remain under Pristina’s authority … is being seriously discussed,” Lavrov said in the broadcast, without offering any evidence. “This will only lead to yet another ‘frozen conflict’ and will push the prospects for stabilizing Europe – and first of all for stabilizing the Balkans – far to the side.”

The EU did not immediately respond to Lavrov’s remarks. But EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said earlier that the bloc’s mission would cover all of Kosovo, including the northern parts where Serbs are concentrated.

Moscow has said the EU mission is illegal because it does not have approval from the U.N. Security Council, where Russia is one of the five permanent members with veto power.

So if violence continues to escalate, and the EU and NATO respond with force, and Russia jumps into the fray—we could be looking at a new world war over a mere fiction.

See our last post on the new Kosova.