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15th Aug 2022

'Crunch time' for EU diplomacy after Kosovo killing

  • Enver Zymberi's photo outside his home in Dubovc. Visitors from Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have made the trip in recent weeks to pay respects (Photo: EUobserver)

The recent killing of an ethnic Albanian policeman in north Kosovo has roused strong emotions, but diplomats see it as an opportunity to end the "frozen conflict" in the region.

Enver Zymberi, a 22-year-old special forces officer and father of four was at 2.15pm local time on 26 July hit in the face by a high-calibre bullet fired by a "specialist" using a sniper rifle, according to police sources. He died at 10pm, becoming the first uniform-wearing victim of the Kosovo-Serbia conflict since Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

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The incident took place in Serb-controlled north Kosovo after central authorities in Pristina sent in special police to seize control of crossing-points on the border with Serbia.

Zymberi's family and many Kosovar Albanians believe it was a political murder ordered in Belgrade and designed to perpetuate local divisions, which undermine Kosovo's ambition to become a normal country and to join the EU.

"For me, the order was given by the Serbian government, because if the Serbian government really wanted to prevent it, it wouldn't have happened. They want trouble and tension in the north - they want the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia to continue," Muharrem Zymberi, Enver's father, a 56-year-old retired miner and former Kosovo resistance fighter, told EUobserver in his home in the village of Dubovc.

Serbian officials have yet to publicly deny responsibility.

But the outgoing chief of Nato forces in Kosovo, German major general Erhard Buhler told press in Pristina on Tuesday (6 September) it was probably the work of an ethnic Serb organised crime group.

Asked if he could rule out Belgrade's involvement, he told this website: "I wouldn't rule out anything in this part of the Balkans. But I would rule out that any official persons would do this. That's certainly not the case." He also exonerated ordinary Kosovar Serbs: "The vast majority of the population [in north Kosovo] wants to live a quiet life and to earn their living honestly ... the population is a kind of hostage to the [criminal] structures."

In the meantime, the incident has roused painful memories of the 1998-1999 Kosovo War.

Recalling the moment when he told Sokoloj, Enver's seven year old son, what happened, Muharrem Zymberi said: "I tried to console him, explaining why his father died. I kissed him and I stroked him ... I kissed him on both cheeks and I said 'Don't be sad because your dad has died, I am your dad from now on'."

He added: "We are proud that my son died for this land ... We are ready to give our blood again if necessary. There are a lot of Envers in Kosovo ready to go out and die for it."

The aftermath of the incident also shows how the region has moved on, however.

With Nato soldiers taking control of the crossing-points and with the EU police mission, Eulex, trying to track down the killer, Muharrem put his trust in Kosovo's international sponsors instead of calling for revenge attacks. "I hope they [the EU and Nato] really mean it. I hope they will guard our border together with our police because they have the power to do it," he said.

Asked if he could forgive his son's killer for the sake of peace, he said: "Yes."

Shaking the tree

For his part, the International Civilian Repesentative (ICR) in Pristina, Dutch diplomat Peter Feith, who oversees Kosovo on behalf of countries that recognise its independence, believes Enver Zymberi's death is an opportunity for change.

"It was shaking the tree and perhaps something good can come out of it," he said, referring to Pristina's controversial decision to launch the special police mission. "It's not likely that we will go back to the situation of before. Something has changed for ever."

Feith praised Kosovar Albanians for their restraint and advised Pristina to do more to win Kosovar Serbs' trust. He also urged Eulex to "step up activities in the north ... We need to see arrests - people actually taken off the streets and arrested."

But he added that EU-aspirant Serbia has the biggest part to play by using its massive influence in north Kosovo to make peace.

"We cannot tolerate a new candidate for membership of the EU that is bringing in a frozen conflict ... You cannot have it both ways - candidate status moving nicely along and at the same time having a stranglehold on northern Kosovo. That sentiment is shared by a number of EU countries," Feith said.

The ICR explained that the best model for a lasting solution is "Ahtisaari-plus", referring to the Ahtisaari Plan, a blueprint for Kosovo statehood which envisages giving autonomy to north Kosovo on local issues like education and healthcare but which rules out any form of Kosovo partition. "In Spain you have Catalonia for example - they are part of Spain but they are very autonomous," he added. He declined to give details on how much further beyond the Ahtisaari model ICR-sponsor countries are willing to go.

Looking at the bigger picture, Feith noted that ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are watching to see what happens next in Kosovo in case it has implications for territorial integrity where they live.

"This is crunch time not only for Kosovo and Serbia but for the [whole] region ... They see it as the final stage of a long drama that has played out for years and that could bring lasting stability provided it is properly handled. The EU has a big responsibility at this point," he said.

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