Mitrovica: A "soft" division leaving Serbs in the north of the city and Albanians in the south

The River Iber, which cuts through the Kosovan city of Mitrovica, has become a de facto marker, dividing two peoples who stand on opposite banks of the social and political divide.

When the Nato bombing campaign to drive Serb armed forces out of Kosovo and repatriate displaced persons ended in June 1999, ethnic Albanians returned to the former Yugoslav province en masse.

But this created another displacement of peoples, as ethnic Serbs began to flee to the north of Mitrovica, leaving it split into a predominantly Serbian north and Albanian south.

Existing tensions between the two communities were further exacerbated when Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence in February.

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) and Nato's Kosovo police force (Kfor) have helped Albanians to govern the city, but Serbs in the north of the city held local and parliamentary elections on May 11 - declared illegal by the UN - adding strain to an already anxious divide.

Nebojsa Jovic, the chairman for the Serbian National Council (SNC) and co-ordinator for much of northern Mitrovica's political action, believes attempts to unify the city should be abandoned.

"Let's not spend time, money and effort on something that is impossible," he told Al Jazeera.

"I say to the Albanians, build your southern part of Mitrovica, and we will build the northern part."

Parallel structures

Between 1999 and February 2008, UN Security Council resolution 1244 authorised Unmik to promote self-government in Kosovo and maintain civil law and order.

Jovic believes that attempts to unify
Mitrovica should be abandoned.
With the backing of political parties in Belgrade, Kosovo's Serbs suggested self-government based on a functional partition was the best option for the province.

Such a mechanism would allow Kosovo's Serbs to create parallel structures of governance and live under Serbian laws.

Jovic said parallel structures had become necessary because "those [Unmik] intended to support both sides of the city have failed us".

"Politics here is beginning again, because with good politics you can prevent bloodshed, but with bad politics you can create problems for the entire Balkans," he said.

The SNC says it is hoping to establish two fully developed municipalities - one Serb and the other Albanian - rather than "one city full of ruins", with the possibility of merging the two if conditions are ripe at some future date.

But the creation of parallel security apparatus has left Albanians concerned.

Jovic defends north Mitrovica's security measures, saying they have been established with the formal agreement of the UN and Nato.

"If Albanians attack us across the bridge and cross a first line of Unmik protection, and then a second line of Kfor protection, we are at liberty to defend ourselves.

"However harsh it sounds, there will be so many casualties that Serbia could not stay quiet on the issue any more," he said.

Conflict

But Bajram Rexhepi, Mitrovica's Albanian mayor, says he will never accept Serb plans to build major governing institutions, such as a parallel parliament.

Rexhepi said that Mitrovica only comes under
the jurisdiction of the state of Kosovo
"The north of the city will never go to Serbia - it is not acceptable; it is not possible under our jurisdiction anymore," he told Al Jazeera.

While ethnic Albanians in the city believe the Serb proposal of a functional partition may be catering to Western European standards, they say it has become a moot point now that Kosovo has declared independence.

Rexhepi said: "We made a proclamation and the entire territory is recognised by many countries which are economically and politically powerful countries.

"In the case of the northern part, we have no problems with [parallel institutions for] education, health and social welfare," Rexhepi added. "But we will never agree for them to legalise parallel security structures, who are former Serbian police officers and civilians."

However, international recognition of an independent Kosovo is proving to be a challenge.

Kfor troops on patrol in north Mitrovica
While the US, Turkey, Australia and Germany among others currently recognise the state of Kosovo, many countries, including Spain, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania do not.

"This country [Kosovo] is not recognised by the UN, nor the OECD," Jovic said. "They are not an independent country.

"Kosovo is part of Serbia, and nobody has the power to renounce this. It is treason, a crime and a complete disregard for the constitution."

"Rexhepi has said that the legitimate right of Albanians is an independent Kosovo. But my obligation is to argue that Kosovo should be part of Serbia," Jovic said.

City in-waiting

While Serbia waits on a knife-edge for a governing coalition, Mitrovica waits in the firing line.

If the country agrees on a pro-European path, Kosovo's independence is likely to be reinforced, potentially sparking violence in the city.

A city crippled: The Kfor guarded bridge which
splits Mitrovica into a north and south
If the country pursues a nationalist agenda, then Kosovo's 120,000 Serbs, mostly in Mitrovica, will gain a strong-level of support from Belgrade.

Slobodan Samardzija, a political analyst and deputy editor of Serbia's Politika daily, said that when the country's consitution is ratified in June, changes will only be made on paper, and it will take time for anything to happen in Mitrovica.

"Autumn is always hot in Serbia," he said, referring to the increased speed of political developments come August.

"Mitrovica will remain together, and it will take time for Belgrade - under international pressure - to make a decision.

"But the issue is bigger than just Mitrovica ... There are two sides, two parties, Albanians and Serbs, and each of them has their own views.

"Whatever government forms in Belgrade, unity depends on the will of the people in Kosovo."

While the question of Kosovo remains unanswered until Belgrade chooses its future, the Iber continues to flow between the people of Mitrovica, ever-hardening a Serbian north and an Albanian south.

"This country [Kosovo] is not recognised by the UN, nor the OECD," Jovic said. "They are not an independent country.

"Kosovo is part of Serbia, and nobody has the power to renounce this. It is treason, a crime and a complete disregard for the constitution."

"Rexhepi has said that the legitimate right of Albanians is an independent Kosovo. But my obligation is to argue that Kosovo should be part of Serbia," Jovic said.

City in-waiting

While Serbia waits on a knife-edge for a governing coalition, Mitrovica waits in the firing line.

If the country agrees on a pro-European path, Kosovo's independence is likely to be reinforced, potentially sparking violence in the city.

A city crippled: The Kfor guarded bridge which
splits Mitrovica into a north and south
If the country pursues a nationalist agenda, then Kosovo's 120,000 Serbs, mostly in Mitrovica, will gain a strong-level of support from Belgrade.

Slobodan Samardzija, a political analyst and deputy editor of Serbia's Politika daily, said that when the country's consitution is ratified in June, changes will only be made on paper, and it will take time for anything to happen in Mitrovica.

"Autumn is always hot in Serbia," he said, referring to the increased speed of political developments come August.

"Mitrovica will remain together, and it will take time for Belgrade - under international pressure - to make a decision.

"But the issue is bigger than just Mitrovica ... There are two sides, two parties, Albanians and Serbs, and each of them has their own views.

"Whatever government forms in Belgrade, unity depends on the will of the people in Kosovo."

While the question of Kosovo remains unanswered until Belgrade chooses its future, the Iber continues to flow between the people of Mitrovica, ever-hardening a Serbian north and an Albanian south.

Source: Al Jazeera