Kosovo has a way of elbowing its way back into the spotlight whenever most people’s attention has drifted elsewhere.

Do your eyes glaze over at the mention of negotiations over car license plates, customs stamps, passports, etc.? Then how about a special police operation, including the use of NATO helicopters, the torching of a customs post, and the death of a police officer?

The violent events in northern Kosovo unfolded quickly last week, but since March, Belgrade and Pristina have been haggling over what are supposed to be technical issues, like those above. Maybe when it comes to Kosovo, though, there is no such thing as a purely technical issue. After all, the validity of car registrations, customs stamps, and passports depends on the validity of the state issuing them and, well, you know where that leads.

For those who have not been following along, I’ll take a crack at untangling this, to the extent that I understand it. Serbia refuses to recognize the imprimaturs of a state that it says does not exist, imposing an effective trade blockade on Kosovo. In turn, Pristina decided to block trucks from Serbia from passing through customs points in the northern Mitrovica region. Two customs posts refused the order and Pristina sent special police forces north to enforce it. They were met by Serbs who had built barricades along the routes. Negotiations between the sides, led by the NATO leaders in Kosovo, went on while NATO flew Kosovo police in helicopters over the barricades to the customs posts.

If you’re not there, it’s not easy to get a good assessment of the situation. Speaking to a Kosovo news outlet, Prime Minster Hashim Thaci said, “Dramatic events that followed, organized men, motivated and incited by senior Serbian officials, initially physically attacked Gate 1 and set it on fire or were tolerated to do so, and afterwards attacked Gate 31, too.” (The rough translation is courtesy of the BBC’s media monitoring service).

But a secondhand account from a Serbian correspondent landed in my inbox this weekend. Relaying information from friends on the scene, she said that Kosovan forces are blocking food and medical supplies, that “according to witness’ working in hospital in Mitrovica, neonatology department is in crisis running out of the medicine and basic treatment material. … Yesterday, it took 2 hours to the Kosovo Albanians and KFOR [the NATO mission in Kosovo] to let an extremely ill patient with ambulance to cross the administrative line to be treated in central Serbia but, apparently one of the few ambulance cars, if not only, is not let back to Kosovska Mitrovica, so hospital runs out of ambulances. Nobody is let out or in on the administrative lines.”

Thaci has said the operation is about taking control of the entire country, not only the part south of the Serb-dominated Mitrovica region. He has also said it was aimed at rooting out rampant smuggling and corruption that had been encouraged by Serbia and winked at by international authorities in place for years in Kosovo.

For what it’s worth, one commentator in Pristina reckons it’s also a way of shoring up domestic support for a prime minister who has been criticized for being “servile” to the international community and tolerating too much.

“With his decision to demonstrate force in the north and to act without prior permission from the international presence, Thaci has crossed a dangerous line and has touched a soft spot of the Kosova citizens. The approval of this action by all local factors and citizens, their solidarity with the special forces, tributes for the killed policeman, and the feeling of having a state capable of such action are the best proof of the support for Thaci. After this action, his political ratings have risen from the critical point and will continue to rise,” Armand Shkullaku wrote in the Express newspaper last week.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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