- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ethnic tensions ran high in northern Kosovo on Tuesday after a series of violent incidents that threaten to destablize the Balkans ahead of the International Court of Justice’s decision on Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.

A Serbian member of the Kosovo parliament was shot four times outside his home Monday after an explosion rocked a Serbian protest Friday, killing one and injuring 11.

Serbian President Boris Tadic spoke of the second event Tuesday during an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council. “Serbs came in peace,” he said, “yet they were met with unprovoked violence.”

Both events occurred in Mitrovica, a city of about 100,000 that sits astride the Ibar River, a rough boundary separating Kosovo’s majority-Albanian heartland from its ethnic-Serbian enclaves in the north.

“The events of the last few days are quite worrisome amid the relative calm that ensued after Kosovo’s declaration of independence,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow for Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He added that the level of ethnic violence that followed secession was “much lower than many people expected.”

“Mitrovica and the area north of Mitrovica — what’s generally referred to as Northern Kosovo — is predominantly Serb,” he said. “And that part of Kosovo, even though it is technically part of Kosovo proper, is in many respects de-facto attached to Serbia.”

Overall, about 90 percent Kosovo’s estimated 1.8 million people are ethnic Albanians and most of the remainder are ethnic Serbs.

Since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, after almost nine years under U.N. receivership, Serbia — with support from ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo — has waged a fierce diplomatic struggle to bring the breakaway province back into its orbit. In October 2008, the U.N. General Assembly — at the behest of Serbia — referred the case to the international court.

While the court’s “advisory opinion” is officially nonbinding, it could have enormous diplomatic consequences on Kosovo’s standing in the international community.

So far, 69 of 192 U.N. member states have recognized the Republic of Kosovo. Most of those announcements came in the months following the declaration, but it is widely thought that a favorable ruling from the international court would open the floodgates of recognition.

Serbia, meanwhile, hopes that an opinion to its liking could force the Kosovars back to the negotiating table.

Some observers say Serbia might be open to a face-saving compromise under which it would recognize an independent Kosovo in return for gaining sovereignty over the majority-Serb north, but Kosovo — with the support of the United States and the European Union — has balked at any talk of partition.

It remains unclear whether further outbreaks of violence or a mixed ruling from the international court could change the equation.

“That issue still percolates beneath the surface,” said Mr. Kupchan. “And it’s conceivable that the kind of violence that we’re seeing now in the divided city of Mitrovica could be the precursor to a reconsideration of the future of the north.”

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