In the depths of winter, the newly independent state of Kosovo lies under a blanket of snow, but the differences between the ethnic communities cannot be kept hidden for long.This content was published on February 20, 2012 - 10:02
swissinfo.ch travelled through Kosovo with Swisscoy, the Swiss contingent with the Nato-led peacekeeping force, Kfor, visiting both the Serb-dominated north, outside the control of the central Pristina government, and the Albanian-majority south, which is more stable but faces problems of a different kind.
The first port of call was the divided city of Mitrovica, where a Serb working in the administration of the Serbian half of town, explained how he felt about the situation. The man meets regularly for informal discussions with a Swisscoy liaison monitoring team (LMT).
"As long as Serbs live here, we shall see ourselves as part of Serbia. The government in Pristina has no business here,” he said.
“But there’s no hatred. The Albanians don’t tell their children the Serbs are wicked. And the same applies the other way round.”
So it’s all just a generational question?
“No. Our generation is still here!”
When LMT chief Daniel Oettli asked him if there was going to be an upsurge in ethnic tension after repeated skirmishes in the past few weeks over problems in power supplies to one part of town, he said there was nothing to fear.
"It was really just a bit of a scrap between two neighbours, and now it’s all died down again,” he explained.
Calm but tense
Our jeep drives on into the Albanian part of town, past two road blocks. The first is unguarded, but the barrier at the Austerlitz bridge, the only crossing over the river Ibar usable by vehicles, is guarded on both sides, although the guards have nothing to do.
The calm has partly to do with the very wintery weather. It is bitterly cold, and the snow continues to fall without let-up. The few vehicles that are out at all, most of them with summer tyres, are struggling with the treacherous conditions on icy roads which no-one has made much attempt to clear. Schools are closed, and there are hardly any pedestrians about.
"The situation is calm but tense. If an Albanian were to run over a Serb now, that would very likely trigger immediate demonstrations and riots,” said the Swiss colonel Adolf Conrad, who is responsible for peace keeping in northern Kosovo for Kfor.
When Kosovan customs officials installed checkpoints on the border with Serbia last summer, the Serbs of Kosovo did not take it lying down. They have erected road blocks, set fire to a border post and built bypass roads. The territory is officially part of Kosovo, but it is not under the control of the central government.
A few months ago Serb snipers shot dead a Kosovan policeman. In January there were incidents when fights broke out between Kosovo Serbs and Nato soldiers.
"When the situation escalates, we withdraw,” said Conrad when asked about the role of his team. The task of the Swiss soldiers and officers is to take the pulse of the two ethnic groups – what Conrad calls being the “ears and eyes” of the Kfor command.
What that means in practice is that the Swiss LMTs, and others from Slovenia, are regularly out on patrol to show a presence, and they speak to their contacts on both sides, Serb and Albanian. How and whether Kfor will intervene is then decided by the overall command in the capital, Pristina.
Problems in the south
Malisheva in the south was always a stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The population here is largely Albanian, and the region is regarded as politically stable. The military camp in nearby Suva Reka, which has housed the Swisscoy troops, among others, since 1999, is to be closed and dismantled in summer 2012.
Poverty, unemployment and lack of prospects are part of everyday experience here. Rubbish ends up in the fields or in the bombed out Roma settlements. Effluent flows untreated. Hygiene in the hospitals and the state of the medical equipment is deplorable. There are power cuts twice a day.
And now, when some of the makeshift power lines cannot cope with all the snow, in some quarters of the town there is no electricity at all.
There is no sign of any kind of economic growth.
The LMT teams live in ordinary houses. One of the two Swisscoy houses is in the centre of Malisheva. The hallway leads to a reception room. Local residents know the house and drop in when they have some concern they want to talk about. It is mainly problems with water, electricity and other such everyday matters, team leader Marcel Kuoni explained.
When a forest fire broke out in the area last summer and the local fire brigade was unable to put it out, the Swiss informed Kfor, which sent helicopters to extinguish the flames.
For some time now the troops living in the house have been separating their rubbish. A neighbour comes and fetches it, and takes the relevant materials off to be recycled.
“At least that gives him a bit of money,” said Kuoni.
The rich man in his castle…
There are small success stories, but there are also failures. A few years ago, for example, Norway financed the construction of a vocational school. The school is open, but its students have no chance of finding an apprenticeship when they leave.
First lieutenant Augusto Rizzo tells the story of a Turkish investor, who planned to build a large recycling plant in Malisheva. He had already built an office and a small dam for the cooling water, but then the town council informed him that if he wanted to continue, he had to hand over €10,000 (SFr12,000). The investor withdrew.
"Corruption is widespread here,” says Rizzo.
We drive past a large sawmill and a newly built restaurant, in the style of a mediaeval castle. Both the "castle", with an American stretch-limo parked outside, and the sawmill, belong to members of the family of a former member of the central government in Pristina.
Kosovo declared itself independent of Serbia on February 17 2008, and made Pristina its capital.
Before the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Kosovo was an autonomous province within Serbia.
Serbia has never recognised Kosovo’s independence.
In a referendum conducted by Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo on February 14-15, 2012, 99.74 per cent of participants rejected the authority of the Pristina government.
According to the Serbian news agency Beta, about 75 per cent of the 35,500 eligible voters took part.
However, the vote has no legal force.
The EU regards it as problematic, saying a solution to the problems between Serbia and Kosovo can only be found in consultation and dialogue.
The EU is attempting to mediate in the conflict.
Serbia fears that the referendum could harm its attempt to be accepted as a candidate for EU membership.
The EU will not accept Serbia as a full candidate unless it makes progress in negotiations with Kosovo.End of insertion
According to the 2011 census, it has a population of 1,734,000.
In 2000 the World Bank estimated the ethnic break-down as follows:
The majority of Serbs live in the north of Kosovo, where they form a majority.
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