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In Kosovo, statehood is the solvent for war

Scarlett MccGwire
6 June 2001

Kosovo is drifting. The UN has achieved a victorious compromise. And it cannot last: nobody is happy, and it has probably destroyed the West’s favourite political party there. Serious decision-making about the territory’s future has been postponed. Short-termism is all.

A long-term legal framework was supposed to be negotiated between two sides. On one hand, the agencies of the international community in Kosovo – the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE); on the other, local politicians. The aim: some form of self-government for Kosovo after November’s national elections.

The Kosovo Albanians wanted the negotiations to lead to a constitution that would give the government some power: crucially, the right to hold referenda. And the referendum almost every Albanian wants is on the independence of Kosovo itself.

Across the Western world, voting numbers are in decline. Kosovans cannot afford such luxurious apathy. In November, they will be given a chance to say who runs their country. Their wish for independence, however, will not be tested at the ballot box because the international community would not like the answer.

Between two worlds

This is the crux of the Kosovo dilemma. According to UN resolution 1244, which ended the 1999 war and brought the ‘internationals’ to Pristina, the territory remains part of Yugoslavia. After the loss of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia (and a pressing crisis in Montenegro), ‘Yugoslavia’ may be a political fiction, but it is still a legal fact. The Albanian majority wants a new legality to fit their political reality: any form of self-rule will mean leaving the fiction of Yugoslavia. The internationals have the opposite idea.

Now a legal framework has been signed. The internationals persuaded two of the three Kosovan Albanian parties to change their minds and agree to it. Ibrahim Rugova is the leader of the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), who won the local elections last October. Ramush Haradinaj is a former commander of the KLA – the Kosovo Liberation Army – who leads the Alliance Party (AAK). Both were pressured, and their resolve broke. The document was hailed as a success.

It seems that the internationals hoped to isolate the third leader, Hashim Thaci. He heads the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and was the leader of the KLA delegation at Rambouillet when negotiations took place before the war. Now his standing among Albanians has risen, while his two opponents are suffering defections from their parties. In terms of their support for the legal framework, this was expected of Rugova, who is well known for his compromises with the West. But Haradinaj is having difficulty holding his party together.

In spite of the fact that Haradinaj could soon be indicted for war crimes, he has enjoyed being the blue-eyed boy of the West. He is charming, fluent in English, eager to please, and was a popular KLA commander. Although he only polled seven per cent in the local elections, he was seen by the West as a future leader of Kosovo.

Now whole branches of his party are defecting to Thaci’s PDK whose popularity is rising across the country. After looking forward to an easy victory in the November elections, Rugova also has a fight on his hands. But what, in any case, will the elections mean?

Kosovo exists in a political no-man’s-land. Last Autumn’s local elections point up the dilemma. Thousands of councillors were elected, yet they have no power of action independent of their UN-designated co-heads. For the internationals, Kosovan people are not yet ready for governance; the locals reply that their co-heads often hamper decision-making and often do not want even to share power, let alone cede it.

Of course, after reading news reports of attacks on Orthodox churches or cross-border guerrilla attacks, it is tempting to feel that the internationals have the better argument. Kosovo Albanians are often portrayed, if not as drug-runners and gangsters, then as ungrateful men of violence whom NATO were crazy to champion in war.

But the truth is more complicated – and more hopeful.

Learning Democracy

I am part of a team from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has been working with the main Kosovan political parties to help them prepare for democracy. From our first seminar in February 2000, we have watched them develop and learn. And from the outset, despite the mutual hostility between the parties, all politicians had the same goal: independence for Kosovo.

After Milosevic began his campaign in the late 1980s to establish Serbian supremacy over the majority Albanian population of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova and his LDK chose the path of passive resistance. During the harsh repression of the 1990s, that resistance grew into an amazing ‘parallel society’, which provided schooling and services for the Albanian community. Much of it was funded by exiles in Germany and Switzerland.

This experience, and the loyalty it created, aided the transition of Rugova’s party under the new regime of the internationals. For Thaci’s PDK, the change from war to peace has been harder. The party came out of the KLA. Its members saw themselves as having won the war and they assumed that the peace was theirs. Some ex-KLA men were indeed arrogant and corrupt and abused their power to accumulate wealth in the post-war flux. Others, with no connection to the group, used its name and prestige to bully their way into property and position.

Thaci had champions in the then U.S. administration, and he expected to lead Kosovo after the war. The shift to peace demanded that he and his followers put politics before fighting. When the PDK lost the municipal elections in October, they accepted the result without the much-predicted violence. However, the fact that Thaci’s followers respected the electoral verdict was barely reported. In Kosovo, it marks significant progress.

Beyond violence

The PDK are still portrayed as inherently aggressive by many of the internationals. This is not our experience.

Thaci has consistently spoken out against violence. Not because he is a Gandhi but because it makes political and moral sense. He was only 30 when he led the KLA delegation at Rambouillet. He is a political strategist before being a military one. He always understood that the KLA needed the international community to help win independence for Kosovo. He knows that violence now is a barrier to independence, not a step towards it.

Also, he understands that there can be no peace without the Kosovo Serbs. But as long as they look to Belgrade for leadership and (in the longer term) for return of the land to Serb ownership, it seems that they will refuse to be part of the democratic process inside Kosovo.

It is true that the local Serbs were at the negotiating table – but only to try to stop any move towards autonomy for what they still see as a Serbian province. They accuse the UN of going too far to accommodate Albanian demands. And echoing Albanian boycotts of Yugoslav-wide elections in the 1990s, they refused to participate in the local elections as a way of denying them legitimacy. The internationals are pressing the Serbs to change their minds, arguing that they need to agree to participate in a political space with the majority of their Kosovan fellow-citizens.

From war to peace

It will not be easy on either side. Peace in Kosovo requires not just the approval of the internationals but the active involvement of ordinary people.

And people in Kosovo are still traumatised by their experiences in the past decade. Throughout the 1990s, they lived under a regime where random killings and beatings were commonplace: organising for independence led to jail, exile, or death. The massacre of the KLA’s founder, Adem Jashari, in 1998 (along with his family) provoked thousands of Albanians into joining what had previously been a tiny band of armed men. By the end of the war, a year later, almost every Albanian had been intimately affected by violence.

By the roadside are many small cemetery plots for those killed in 1999. One young man told me how all his relatives had been massacred in a house nearby. His uncle was found with seventeen stab wounds in his chest. Many have similar stories. The Serb paramilitaries who carried out these atrocities were often aided by local Serb civilians. Forgiving and forgetting under these circumstances is hard.

But most Albanians know that their future security depends on tolerance and co-existence with other peoples. Their leaders recognise that any constitution must safeguard the rights of minorities. Their attitude to religion is a hopeful sign. Although the majority are Muslims, intermarriage with Catholics is so common that individual cases go unremarked.

More than semantics

Kosovo remains a poor, post-war country with a devastated infrastructure and no stable legal framework. There are still too many guns around (the firearms amnesty launched on May 1 has failed to make an impact). But the essential problem is not any Albanian propensity for violence; it is the absence of a political process that holds out hope of a fully self-governed future.

This is why the argument between ‘constitution’ and ‘legal framework’ matters. People in Kosovo want peace. They also want their own democratic state. Only the latter makes the former possible. Without it, extremists will be able to exploit the frustration to feed the polarisation they enjoy. Well-intentioned internationals need to understand that their best work will be undermined if the Kosovans’ shared aspiration – to decide their own future – is denied them.

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