- 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.”

In the interim, the war of words between Belgrade and Pristina has escalated.

Last Tuesday, The Washington Times reported that Serbia Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic had made comments appearing to hint that Serbia would not abide by an internationa court decision in Kosovo’s favor.

“The unilateral declaration of independence is something that Serbia is not going to accept,” he said. “This is the truth, and it’s a truth that’s not going to change.”

On Thursday, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci expressed confidence to the Serbian weekly NIN that the mother country would eventually change its position, saying that high-ranking officials had given him “informal confirmation that Belgrade would one day recognize Kosovo.”

An aide to Mr. Jeremic dismissed the report. “This is nonsense,” he said. “There is no politician in Serbia who would say something like that, neither in public nor privately.”

Though Belgrade reluctantly recognized Montenegro after its people narrowly passed a 2006 referendum to break their union with Serbia, the country has drawn a red line with Kosovo, which it considers the cradle of Serbian culture.

In Kosovo, memories of violent persecution at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic remain fresh, and while the government in Belgrade has changed, the desire of most Kosovars to chart their own destiny has not.

But for countries on the sidelines, the rival historical narratives have for the most part taken a back seat to dueling interpretations of international law, given that the precedent set by the court could have implications for secessionist territories around the world — and for the countries from which they wish to break away.

The international court case has attracted a record 35 briefs from third-party countries.

In these documents, Serbia’s allies — such as Russia, China, and Spain — emphasize the importance of respecting states’ territorial integrity, while Kosovo’s friends — among them the United States and most other Western nations — have deferred to the timeworn principle of self-determination.

The Serbian government has made reclaiming Kosovo one of its top priorities — on par with, if not more important than, entering the European Union. Serbian diplomats, like Mr. Jeremic, have been crisscrossing the globe to make the case that Kosovo remains a rightful part of Serbia.

Meanwhile, Kosovo has focused internally on building the institutions of a fledgling state.

But Kosovars, too, realize the importance of global legitimacy. There is even a low-budget website, KosovoThanksYou.com, devoted to expressing gratitude to countries that have accepted Kosovo as a peer in the community of nations.

In that struggle, Kosovo has found strong support from the White House — both from President Bush, who recognized the breakaway province the day after its declaration of independence, and from President Obama, whose administration submitted a friendly brief to the international court last year.

“Kosovo’s independence has closed one of the most tragic chapters of modern European history — the violent breakup of Yugoslavia,” says the written statement. “Now, the time has come to look to the future.”

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