Saturday, May 10, 2008

'UNMIK is Rubbish'

I was sat on the bus from Pristina to Mitrovica, drawing a string of disapproving looks from the lady next to me. The bus was packed and she had raced to get the free seat next to me. Unfortunately for her, however, I stunk of sewage. My face and arms were covered in black splatters of liquid waste and I didn’t have enough Albanian at my disposal to explain myself.

On the 9th of May Vetëvendosje scheduled to stage a protest against the fact that voting for the Serbian elections will be allowed to take place inside Kosovo. UNMIK has denounced any voting on Kosovan soil as illegal, but it has also said that it will not stop voting. Nor will the KPS do anything to prevent Kosovan Serbs going to the polling stations. To express their disapproval Vetëvendosje marched through the centre of Pristina with a truck full of rubbish, stopping at the UNMIK head-quarters and other government buildings to pelt them with bags of waste. They brought a water-cannon along too, using it to spray sewage water over the same targets. I got caught in the firing line while taking pictures of the demonstration.

The rubbish is intended to be representative of how Vetëvendosje view the UN’s involvement in the region, in particular the Ahtisaari package, the culmination of negotiations between Serbia, Kosovo and the UN to outline how long term stability in the region might be achieved. Although independence for Kosovo was not mentioned in the text, some of its provisions can be seen as paving the way towards sovereignty for Kosovo. Vetëvendosje (Albanian for ‘self-determination’) are opposed to all aspects of the UNMIK administration, especially the Ahtisaari package, seeing it as undemocratic obstacle to Kosovo’s true sovereignty.

The Serbian general election is another example to supporters of Vetëvendosje of UNMIK’s inability to adhere to the will of the Kosovan people. In allowing the Serbian population of the region to vote in another county’s election, UNMIK is acquiescing in the violation of the sovereignty it is supposed to be protecting. Furthermore, it is perpetuating the ethnic divisions in the region. Although the Kosovan Prime Minister Hassim Thaci has ‘encouraged’ the Serb population not to vote, the fact that most of it will, is a clear sign that their national allegiance remains with Belgrade, not Pristina. Vetëvendosje also fears that UNMIK's policies will end up dividing Serbs and Albanians further. Allowing the election is a case in point.

The declaration of independence can be seen as a similarly divisive move. The Albanian population embraced it. They had been waiting for years. But the Kosovan Serbs were never going to accept it and it has only intensified the tensions between the two groups. The atmosphere in Mitrovica proves this. The UN had a lot of influence on the terms of Kosovo’s independence, especially the condition that its independence is subject to international supervision. Just as they are the ones with the power to oppose voting, that same power protects the independence. Neither action has helped to bridge the divide which dominates Kosovo.

Vetëvendosje are pro-independence, but not the current form of independence. It sees the terms that insist Kosovo’s independence should be subject to a period of international rule as yet another way of denying Kosovo its freedom, and continuing the damaging rule of foreign powers. They can be sympathised with, but only UNMIK really has the kind of military power required to keep the ethnic tensions from exploding into violent conflict. One Serb nationalist politician, Tomislav Nikolic, recently said that if international forces left Kosovo, Serbian troops would have enter the northern part of the region in order to protect the Kosovan Serbs. He hasn’t the authority to do this, but it demonstrates how people don’t think Kosovo is safe place without a military presence. In this respect UNMIK seems the best best for Serbs and Albanians.

Overall UNMIK’s stance on the voting in Kosovo is probably best seen as pragmatic. For them to denounce the elections as illegal, but not to stop them, seems the best way to avoid a period of serious tension erupting into violence. This pragmatism is probably also the reason that the policing of the protest was the most tolerant policing I have seen at a large-scale political protest. Last year two Vetëvendosje protestors were killed by UNMIK rubber bullets. Another 80 were injured. To repeat this so close to election day would generate Albanian animosity towards UNMIK beyond Vetëvendosje members and sympathisers.

Today there were only KPS officers on show. After a short stand-off with some masked Vetëvendosje activists, done more out of formality than anything else, the police stood back and allowed the rubbish slingers and sewage sprayers to do more or less as they pleased. Vetëvendosje is a peaceful organisation. When a few excited members of the crowd started throwing bottles and stones they restrained them before the police were needed.

Still it is difficult to imagine the Met taking the same relaxed attitude if people drove a truck full or rubbish down Westminster and began pelting Parliament with it, and they police one of the most stable democracies in the world. It is a sign of the tension here, and the possibility for serious disturbances, that tolerance of this kind of political protest, which is fundamentally peaceful, is maintained. From the evidence of this event UNMIK is treating everything surrounding the election with caution, trying to remain as distanced from it as possible.

1 comment:

Sarah Bower said...

Blimey, Guy, I hope your tetanus is up to date!