Mitrovica is a small, divided city in a deeply contested country. Less than 3km in size with a population of 85,000, Mitrovica has become a living symbol of segregation between Albanians and Serbs, who are physically divided by the Iber/Ibar River that runs through the town. Albanians are a strong majority in Kosovo and the city of Mitrovica, with Serbs making up about 7% of the country’s population. Kosovo was the last part of the former Yugoslavia to proclaim independence (in 2008), but Serbia has yet to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Direct talks have taken place between Serbia and Kosovo, and a UN-appointed mediator has put forward a plan calling for supervised independence. Meanwhile, daily life in Mitrovica is defined by division. For all practical purposes, the two largest communities live under different systems with different languages, currencies, telecommunications, electricity supplies and so on. In 2011, a Serb-constructed barricade was erected at a bridge crossing the river, furthering the physical separation of the two communities. Despite calls from the international community to dismantle the barrier, it remains – blocking movement and standing as a manifestation of Serb resistance to an independent Kosovo. The northern part of the city is governed by a range of international, Serbian, and Kosovar institutions. The southern predominantly Albanian part is governed by its own municipal institutions and regards the northern municipality as illegal, claiming jurisdiction over the whole municipal territory. The security situation in Mitrovica is tense, and unemployment is very high, with over 65% officially unemployed. Despite these immense challenges, the situation lately seems to be improving, and Mitrovica continues to benefit from a very active civic society community.
Kosovo was the last part of Yugoslavia to proclaim independence in a move recognized by 91 countries (out of 193 UN members) to date, but not by Serbia. The final status of Kosovo therefore remains contested. As of March 2011, Serbia and Kosovo began direct talks to try to end their dispute – their first talks since Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
Of Kosovo’s approximately 2.1 million people, it is estimated that Albanians comprise at least 88 percent and Serbs at most 7 percent of the population. After years of trying to reach some accommodation between the Belgrade government and Kosovo Albanians, the United Nations appointed mediator Martti Ahtisaari in 2005 and put forward a plan calling for supervised Kosovar independence. The United States and the European Union embraced the plan, but the United Nations did not; Russia, which sided with the Serbs on the issue, withheld its vote in the Security Council. In February 2008, Kosovo’s Albanian-majority Provisional Institutions of Self-Government declared independence from Serbia, again with recognition from many Western countries and the United States, but not from the United Nations. After agreement from the United Nations General Assembly, the Serbian government requested an advisory opinion on the legality of the independence declaration from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Consequently, the ICJ concluded that Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 was not illegal under international law.
The municipality of Mitrovicë/Kosovska Mitrovica lies about 40 km north of Pristina and is less than three sq km in size, with a population of approximately 85,000. It consists of one town and 49 villages. Since 1999, the town has become ethnically segregated along the Iber/Ibar River. With the war’s end, a severe outbreak of violence in 2004, and the declaration of Kosovo’s independence, the population moved in two directions, with the southern bank occupied predominantly by Albanians and the northern bank occupied predominantly by Serbs. On the northern side of the river, Kosovar Serbs account for an estimated 16,000 people, and on the southern side there are an estimated 66,000 Kosovar Albanians. There are also several other ethnic communities living in the city and its surrounding villages. For all practical purposes, the two largest communities live in different systems with different languages, currencies, telecommunications, electricity supply, and so on. An estimated 18 percent of all Serbs in Kosovo live in north Mitrovicë/Kosovska Mitrovica.
In 2011, a Serb-constructed barricade was erected along the river, furthering the physical separation of the two communities. Despite calls from the international community to dismantle the barrier, it remains as it has been for over a year – blocking movement and standing as a manifestation of Serb resistance to an independent Kosovo. Broadly speaking, Kosovar Albanians fear partition of the city and that the Serbian government will attempt to sever the northern tip of the province and have it integrated into Serbia. Kosovar Serbs fear being reintegrated into a Kosovar Albanian controlled town, and being a small, marginalized group in an independent Kosovo, risking intimidation and the emasculation of their culture and language.
The northern part of the city is ‘governed’ by a range of international, Serbian, and Kosovar institutions, including UNMIK Administration-Mitrovica, the elected municipality, which is ultimately run by Belgrade and the newly established Mitrovica North Administrative Office (MNAO) from the Kosovo Government. The southern part is governed by its own municipal institutions, which regard the northern municipality government as illegal and de jure claim jurisdiction over the whole municipal territory.
Following the NATO-led campaign in 1999, which resulted in the retreat of the Yugoslav Army and Serbian Police Forces from Kosovo, the “Kumanovo Military Technical Agreement” and UN Security Council Resolution 1244 established the basis for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo(UNMIK) to become the administrative authority and the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), the chief security authority.
UNMIK, which struggled to exercise authority in Mitrovicë/Kosovska Mitrovica for several years, has been replaced by the EU’s rule of law mission (EULEX), an unpopular operation to ensure enforcement of the rule of law on both sides of the river. EULEX – which is neutral on the status of Kosovo – provides mentoring, monitoring, and advising on policing throughout Kosovo, including Mitrovicë/Kosovska Mitrovica. KFOR also maintains a security presence.
The International Civilian Office (ICO), a body set up by states recognising Kosovo’s independence, whose mandate was from 2008 to 2012 to supervise Kosovo’s independence came to an end in September 2012. One of the ICO’S tasks was implementing Ahtisaari’s decentralization proposal. The proposal would see the current municipality split in two and governed by a joint commission; however, this task was not completed during their mandate. In conjunction with the closure of the ICO mandate, the Kosovo Administration Office was opened on the Northern side of the city in July.
To date, the security situation in Mitrovica is still tense, and KFOR and Kosovo Police forces have increased in the mixed neighbourhoods in order to maintain control. Unemployment in Mitrovica is still very high with over 65 percent officially unemployed. For those who find employment, the average monthly salary is about 150 euro. While the physical and social barriers between Serbs and Albanians persist, the situation lately seems to be changing slightly for the better. In response to the establishment of the Kosovo’s Mitrovica North Administrative Office, it is reported that over 1,500 Serbs applied for the 55 positions offered by the government. Civil society in Mitrovica continues to be very active.
The bridge in Mitrovica, connecting the north and south banks of the Ibar River is as symbolic as it is functional. Linking the town’s Serb-dominated north and largely Albanian populated south, it is also representative of the relations here. In 2014, after three years’ large piles of concrete and gravel were removed from the bridge which had been placed there in protest of a police move to oversee control of the city. Hailed as a step forward, it was only hours later that local Serbs placed potted trees on the bridge, once again blocking traffic. This so-called Peace Park was removed in the summer of 2015 when renovations on the bridge began. However, tensions reignited in December of 2016 when a wall, was built to prevent landslides. Today, the bridge is almost exclusively crossed for business purposes and remains guarded by the KFOR.
The city remains instable with tensions running high. In late 2018, the Kosovo Government imposed a 100% import tax on all products from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This has led to widespread protests and marches. In late 2019, the EU called on Kosovo to revoke these measures. Recent anti-corruption arrests of police and citizens in north Mitrovica have increased this fear and tension among Serbs. Youth unemployment at around 60% in the city is furthering frustration, causing an exodus looking for better opportunities.
A plan to swap territory has been discussed in recent months as a way forward for both Serbia and Kosovo. The areas involved would be Serbia’s Presevo Valley and Kosovo’s northern Mitrovica. However, many feel this negates the importance of multiculturalism and would only redraw ethnic lines in the region, possibly inciting further violence and discrimination. For Mitrovica and Kosovo itself, recognition of their independence from Serbia by Belgrade is one of the first steps forward toward their desired membership in the EU.