A critic once joked of Peter Mayle, whose over 10 books on Provence must be some kind of record, that you can’t blame a writer for repeating himself ad infinitum to earn a living. Even so, I promise to make this my last post on Kosovo for a while.

In seriousness, I want to highlight a new International Crisis Group (ICG) report on the confrontation that erupted in northern Kosovo, the majority-Serb area often called a “frozen conflict” zone, in July after Pristina sent forces to the border to block Serbian goods (in retaliation for a 2008 Serbian ban on Kosovo exports). Kosovo and Serbia: A Little Goodwill Could Go a Long Way adds perspective to the dispute. It also parses the complex interests in the north and offers recommendations for détente to lay the groundwork for a larger settlement while improving Kosovo-Serbia relations.

The ICG rightly notes that the dispute is about sovereignty not trade. Serbia not only rejects Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence; it has funded schools, local government, and other so-called “parallel institutions” in the north since the end of the 1998-99 conflict with the aim to annex the area. Thus Prime Minister Hashim Thaci moved on the northern border to demonstrate that he controls all of Kosovo’s territory. Many Serbs there reject Kosovo institutions and, whether acting as proxies for Belgrade or, more likely, local leadership, responded with months of blockades that left two dead in clashes with Kosovo and international forces and households short of foodstuff and other supplies.

Pristina and Belgrade negotiated a border settlement in December. Some barricades remain, though, and the northern Kosovo Serbs appear to be entrenching just as Belgrade inches to the center. Late last month leaders in the north rejected a plan by Serbian President Boris Tadic to resolve the “frozen conflict” because it too resembled a UN proposal they dismissed in 2007. While there reportedly are similarities, including creation of a special northern municipality, their objections went unexplained. In any case, there is also a critical (and seemingly appealing) distinction between the plans: Tadic ignores the Kosovo question, i.e. recognition.

In another affront, the northern Serbs held a referendum on the legitimacy of Kosovo institutions, which they call “parallel,” this week over the objection of Brussels, Pristina and Belgrade, which says they’re jeopardizing Serbia’s European Union (EU) ambitions. (Brussels demands Serbia improve relations with Kosovo to join the EU.) Turnout was high, with nearly 100 percent of voters replying “no” to the question: “Do you accept the institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo?”

Commentators often lament the complicated Balkans. In the case of northern Kosovo, that’s no copout. It is a contested territory within a contested country, where the front line, the ethnically divided Mitrovica, is a contested city within a contested territory within a contested country. The north is a miasma where Belgrade, Pristina, local interests – including organized crime – and the international community jockey for influence.

To integrate the north into Kosovo, which Belgrade seems to be realizing is its only way into the EU, myriad interests must compromise on myriad issues, from security to transportation. (Kosovo license plates aren’t even recognized in the north.) Offering 15 recommendations, the ICG says small concessions from all sides could prove productive. It emphasizes that northern Kosovo Serbs must play ball – remove the barricades, engage with Pristina and join the EU-backed dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia over technical issues like telecommunications, which began last March as the first bilateral talks since 2008.

The northern Kosovo Serbs are the key, to my mind. Pristina and Belgrade surely have their share of zealots, but seasoned Balkan analysts say the capitals would soften their positions on many sticky issues for the cash bag that is EU membership (yes, even now) if not for the nationalists within their populaces. Today, few areas are more radicalized than northern Kosovo – just look to the blockades, the stonewalling of Tadic and the referendum.

Not everyone in the north is a hardliner; I met many sober people there on several visits last year. At the same time, even apparent moderates can seem brainwashed. Right before the border dispute began in July, an ethnic Serb civic leader told me that politics wasn’t the problem in the north. Key, he said, was fixing the abysmal economy. The implication was that economics could resolve the conflict. Though puzzled by this logic in general, I tried to follow the argument. To improve the economy, I replied, the north must attract foreign investment, perhaps to revive its once robust mining industry – who wants to invest in a political basket case? He did not have an answer.

Here I’m reminded of Kafka’s great journal entry, “never again psychology!” I don’t want to psychoanalyze. In fairness, though, the northern Serbs might lean to the fringe because many were displaced from Pristina and elsewhere amid Albanian reprisals in 1999. Still living the conflict, in a way, citizens and leaders dislike the signs of compromise coming from Belgrade today. As a result, they’re digging in and creating headaches for Tadic, who is teetering on the tightrope between Brussels and his people in an election year.

At stake in the north are regional security and the EU hopes of Serbia and Kosovo, the ICG notes. There’s also a human element. With no one really in control, the once economically and culturally vibrant north is moribund. Unemployment estimates reach 80 percent. Health care is poor. Some cities lack running water at night. Organized crime is entrenched. Residents, meanwhile, live in a flashpoint. Around outsiders, especially, they guard every word, shutting down at the mention of politics or articulating blatant incongruities, as with the civic leader, for evident fear of who might be listening. In Kosovo’s “frozen conflict,” ironically, the ethnic Serbs suffer most.

Picture of a blockade in northern Kosovo last year from Wikipedia

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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