Is North Mitrovica an Unsolvable Puzzle for Europe?

* This article was originally published on the Sharnoffsglobalviews

Even 15 years after the last conflict in Kosovo, North Mitrovica is a “no-mans-land” and remains a divided city along the Ibar River.

The break-up of Yugoslavia brought the Western Balkan region into the center of the world’s attention. Once a well consolidated economic and political union, the Balkans has turned into one of the largest flashpoints of conflict, genocide and humans rights violations. Clearly, the 1990s Balkan conflict received particular attention from the United Nations and European Union.

In the case of Kosovo, the conflict of 1999 has another type of end, one with a severe NATO bombing campaign over the territories of Kosovo and Serbia. Nevertheless, the post-war period required more political investment to bring peace and stability to the region.

The war of 1999, as a part of successive wars in the Balkan region, changed the reality and fate of Kosovo and its inhabitants, especially those living in Mitrovica. Even 15 years after the last conflict, North Mitrovica is still a “no-mans-land” city and remains divided by the Ibar River.

The river divides Mitrovia into north and south: the north comprised mainly of the ethnic Serbian community, with Albanians dwelling in the south. Mitrovica, destroyed during the war, never had the chance to regain its past glory as most of the attention went to solving the conflict, with issues such as its economy being neglected. The biggest employing factory “Trepca” was damaged during the war and remains closed.

Post-independence period – EU entering the scene

It was only Kosovo’s post-independence in February 2008 that brought attention back to the northern part of the region. The status-quo and the frozen conflict have strengthened their roots already, thus the local institutions and international community faced an uncontrolled reality. Organized crime, illegal businesses and trafficking thrived while Kosovo and Serbia struggled to have some sovereignty over the territory. The unresolved puzzle called North Mitrovica became one of the biggest challenges in the region and diplomacy has attempted to break the status-quo.

The European Union became a recent actor by mediating and hosting the Prishtina-Belgrade talks. The carrot and stick approach is being used to reach common ground for both EU-seeking parties. Catherine Ashton’s role as EU mediator has received praise but the latest “historical” agreements did not produce the results expected by all parties. In organizing elections in northern municipalities inhabited by Kosovo, Serbs represented one of the first and great political challenges towards the implementation of the agreements.

In attempting to please both parties the EU faces many challenges. Kosovo institutions are organizing the third round of local elections after constantly failing in the two previous attempts. Integrating parallel structures created in the north is almost impossible while the institutional vacuum created the perfect conditions for organized crime and corruption.

The EU continues to play a crucial role in the region and many questions linger. Arguably, the main question is whether Northern Mitrovica will continue to remain isolated or if it can manage to become part of the EU. This is a crucial question as many believe that the region’s myriad issues will only be solved after the region fully joins the EU family.

*Cover Image ‘Mitrovica Bridge‘ by Dave proffer

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