Kosovo: approaching independence or chaos?

Peter Lippman
30 October 2006

Some places in the world have their own characteristic sound. The predominant noise of the cities of Kosovo is that of the electrical generator. Seven years after Kosovo's liberation from Slobodan Milosevic's iron rule, the province's energy-supply system remains at a poor developing-country level. There are daily blackouts. Kosovo's Albanian majority has tired of promises, and has been disappointed by local and international haplessness in fixing this problem. This is a more immediate factor in ordinary people's lives than the abstract question of independence, and it is only one of the more salient examples of the hardship of living in a wrecked, post-war society.

But this is the Kosovo Catch-22: there seems little chance of progress in guaranteeing basic services until the "final status" of the turbulent former province of Serbia is resolved, yet that resolution is hostage to profound disagreement between the Belgrade government and the authorities in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.

It took seven years since the ending of the Nato-led war of March-June 1999 - since when Kosovo has been governed under the auspices of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) - for the international community to facilitate the negotiations that are to lead to "final status" for Kosovo.

The talks in Vienna, which bring together representatives of the Albanian population of the province with both the government of Serbia and Kosovo Serbs, have been guided by a six-member Contact Group (comprising representatives from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia). In six months, they have produced no progress. Now, in the referendum of 28-29 October 2006, the Serbs have endorsed a new constitution which restates Belgrade's claim over Kosovo. The Albanians of Kosovo (around 90% of the total population) reject this and see an independent state as their future. The result is deadlock.

Peter Lippman is a writer and human-rights activist from the United States who has worked extensively in Bosnia and much of ex-Yugoslvia since the early 1980s

Also by Peter Lippman in openDemocracy:

"Srebrenica’s search for justice"
(24 August 2006)

A change in the weather

The current situation in Kosovo is stable if fragile. But the slow process of negotiations in Vienna, now combined with Serbia's referendum vote, reinforces a situation of much worry, tension, and periodic unrest.

During a recent visit to Kosovo, I witnessed significant changes in the atmosphere compared to earlier visits. The euphoria of Kosovo's Albanian population after the 1999 war has long given way to concerns over survival in a moribund economy. Commercial activity appears to be blooming, with new shops brightening the formerly dull environment of Pristina. But in an economy devoid of industrial production, this activity is superficial.

Meanwhile, periodic incidents of violence are increasing, reflecting the heightening anxiety accompanying tense negotiations. In August a 16-year-old Albanian threw a bomb into a café in the Serb-held portion of the divided northern town of Mitrovica, injuring nine people. And in recent months car-bombings and other low-grade violence, targeting both Albanians and Serbs, have increased.

These tensions notwithstanding, it has seemed for a long time certain that the tortuous discussions over Kosovo would, by sometime in 2007, result in its independence. Kosovo is still formally a part of Serbia. But international officials recognise the fact that no Albanian is willing to return to a situation of Serbian domination, and have been arguing - all but explicitly - the case for independence.

There are problems both of practice and principle before this scenario becomes feasible: guarantees of firm protection of the Serb population (who, along with other minorities, were mistreated and in many cases expelled by some Albanians in 1999) would have to be secured and accepted; a solution to the Serb-dominated enclave around Mitrovica must be found; the Albanians would have to be confident that the form of "independence" agreed does not compromise their sovereignty; and the government of Serbia would need to be persuaded to surrender a territory it (and many Serbs) regard as a historic, even spiritual part of the homeland.

The legacy of war

Memories of horrible events on both sides of the conflict inform the plans and desires of the participants in the current process. My Albanian friend Xhafer recalls what happened when the Serbs came to his town to expel his community:

"At the beginning, they started torching a few houses on the periphery of our neighborhood, to terrorise us. They didn't plan to destroy everything, as they wanted to use our houses for their refugees from Croatia. Some of us collected in one house. We had a plan to hide in a chicken coop if the soldiers came. But then my mother insisted we move; maybe she had a premonition. So we left a couple of hours before the soldiers came, and when they did, they took twelve men away. Some of those people, including friends of mine, are still missing, and others were found dead. It is hard for me to accept that we escaped death by two hours."

In June 1999 the Serb forces withdrew and hundreds of thousands of Albanians, having been expelled to neighbouring countries, came back en masse to their destroyed villages and looted homes. The traumatic events of a war that for them had lasted a year left Albanians with little sympathy when some of their number, in the absence of any rule of law, began attacking Serbs and Roma; this resulted in the flight of between 100,000 and 200,000 Serbs, along with the majority of the Roma population.

In the ensuing years an ill-prepared Unmik gradually worked to restore order in what had become its protectorate. Demobilised Albanian guerrillas transformed themselves into politicians, but found only a few local Serbs with whom to collaborate in creating an orderly society. Serb fear was manipulated by the Belgrade government in order to prevent the cementing of Albanian sovereignty in the province. Serbia worked to discourage even a semblance of multi-ethnic democracy, agitating for the return of Kosovo to Serbian control or, at the very least, a partition of the province.

In its governance, Unmik painstakingly nurtured a movement towards cooperation among Kosovo's ethnicities. International officials presided over the repair of thousands of houses and reconstruction of infrastructure, as Albanians waited for an economic recovery that never arrived. But local Serbs campaigned for autonomy and freedom of movement, often obstructing the movement of everyone else in the province by blockading main roads near their enclaves. A particular sore point for the Albanians was the ongoing obstruction of their return to homes in the northern part of the divided city of Mitrovica, controlled by the Serbs. Attempts by Albanians to visit their houses in that area were met with violent attacks by Serbs, but there were periodic flare-ups of violence against the Serbs as well.

The Vienna impasse

The international community, anxious to proceed towards final status, approved the opening of negotiations at the beginning of 2006. Final status issues include protection of minorities; autonomy for Serb communities; protection of religious sites; decentralisation; and a special relationship between Kosovo Serb communities and the government of Serbia. Each of these points is a matter of fierce contention between the negotiating parties.

A major influence in the negotiations is the stance of the Belgrade government. Serbian representatives at Vienna have striven to retain the greatest possible authority in the province. Their hardened position is that, while Kosovo may have extensive autonomy, it must remain under the sovereignty of Serbia as its traditional purview and the "cradle of Serbian civilisation". Against this stance, Albanian negotiators take independence as their starting-point, and insist that only lesser issues are negotiable.

Meanwhile, international officials have repeatedly insisted on three conditions: the establishment of a unified, multiethnic Kosovo with no partition; no boundary changes; and no return to pre-1999 political arrangements.

These conditions require little interpretation to understand that independence is foreseen. But even if this assumed to be a "public secret", the definition of Kosovo's independence is now under great scrutiny. One of the thorniest issues is the allocation of local power. Belgrade is pressing for the establishment of new Serb-dominated municipalities. There are currently five Serb municipalities, but Serb representatives are demanding as many as ten more. Belgrade is also pressing for the power to support the governments of these municipalities financially, the establishment of a Serbian-language-based school curriculum, and special authorities for Serbs in the courts and police forces. Albanian negotiators see these and similar demands as amounting to the establishment of extraterritorial powers for Belgrade.

It has become obvious that the two sides will not be able to reach a compromise through the Vienna process. This has led UN special envoy and mediator for the final-status process, Martti Ahtisaari, to warn that ultimately the international community may decide the fate of Kosovo on its own. In September, the Contact Group authorised Ahtisaari to propose a solution for Kosovo's final status and achieve a settlement by the end of 2006.

Belgrade's blind alley

Serbs living in Serbia are not preoccupied with Kosovo in their daily lives. But while Kosovo's independence has appeared foreordained, there is no politician in Belgrade who is willing to acknowledge this and make the best of it. President Boris Tadic and prime minister Vojislav Kostunica have repeatedly proclaimed Kosovo's permanent status as a province of Serbia.

Recent polls have shown that the extremist opposition Serbian Radical Party would again hold the largest number of seats in elections scheduled for 2007. (The leader of the Radicals, Vojislav Seselj, currently sits in a prison at The Hague awaiting trial for participation in war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.) The Radicals are already the largest single party in parliament, but Kostunica and Tadic were able to form a majority coalition from more "moderate" (though still hardened nationalist) parties, including Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party.

The threat of being replaced by the Radicals is a prominent factor in Belgrade's current rigid stance. In September the Serbian parliament, preparing for the drafting of the new constitution, proposed a passage that would declare Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia for all time. The Radicals then raised the stakes with the government by declaring that this was a good idea - but that the government must prepare to back up its words with force.

Tomislav Nikolic, head of the Radicals, called on Serbia's leaders to prepare the country's army for a war, saying: "I want to know what our armed forces will do. If we don't have enough motivation and weapons, then don't tell us that Kosovo is part of Serbia."

Nikolic knows very well that Serbia cannot both wage war in Kosovo and make any progress in its bid to join the European Union. The time for military solutions in the region has, in any case, passed. But he also knows that his calculating pronouncements keep the heat on Tadic and Kostunica, and add to his own popularity. These political factors put the Belgrade government in a bind where Kosovo is concerned.

The Tadic-Kostunica coalition, in response to the threat from more extreme nationalist forces, pressed ahead with the new constitution at the end of September. With no politician in Serbia's parliament willing to oppose the retention of Kosovo, the constitution was adopted unanimously by all representatives present. This paved the way for the national referendum on 28-29 October.

Throughout the referendum campaign, criticism of the constitution (and its adoption process) has been voiced, on a number of grounds: that it curtails civil liberties, especially in the court system; that it was drafted hastily and without public discussion; and that Albanians in Kosovo would be largely excluded from the vote (even if they wished to participate).

In the event, the criticisms had little effect - except, perhaps, on the abstention rate. In a weak turnout of 53.5% of the electorate, 96% voted in favour of giving the government the simple majority it needed to pass the draft, which is thus now in force.

The new constitution, with its emphasis on Serbia's ownership of Kosovo, has been described as a signal that Serbia will not surrender the province without great resistance. But the internal politics of Serbia, especially the survival of the current government, remain the key factor.

The next political event in Serbia, as fraught with tension as the constitution's adoption, will be elections for a new government. Tadic and Kostunica desperately want these elections to take place before the international community bequeaths independence upon Kosovo, as any government going into new elections soon after such a development would do so in a fatally weakened condition. There has been talk recently of the Contact Group delaying a final-status decision until elections can be held (which would - theoretically - return the present coalition to power); but this conflicts with Ahtisaari's mandate (and determination) to resolve the question by the end of 2006.

Albanian options

Meanwhile, some Kosovar Albanians are opposed to the negotiations altogether. They find expression in the grassroots organisation Vetevendosje (Self-Determination). Its leader, the prominent young activist Albin Kurti, describes the concession by Albanian negotiators of additional Serb-controlled municipalities as a move that will allow the creation of a contiguous Serb-controlled territory. Explaining that this territory could then secede and be annexed to Serbia, he calls this development the "Bosnianisation of Kosovo."

Vetevendosje has held several demonstrations to press its demand for an end to the negotiations, even blocking the entrances to Unmik's headquarters and seeing dozens of its supporters arrested. The group has characterised Unmik's presence as supporting the "recolonisation" of Kosovo. It calls for the establishment of a strict time-limit for Kosovo's independence, without further negotiations. Kurti states that decentralisation of Kosovo could be acceptable in some form - but only after independence.

Vetevendosje is often characterised as "extreme" by other Albanians; many complain that it would best devote its energies to opposing corruption or criticising haphazard corruption schemes involving rigged contracts. But some of its campaigns - such as the boycott of Serbian imports to Kosovo - have won greater support. The territory imports 95% of its consumer goods, a significant portion from Serbia. Even construction supplies, used to repair the thousands of houses destroyed by Serb forces, have been trucked in from Serbia. This, and the fact that the traditional agricultural economy of Kosovo is withering, makes the boycott movement popular.

A time to act

There are some good leaders in Kosovo who call for tolerance and reconciliation, and offer specific ideas about protection of minorities. But these honest people do not have much influence.

In any event, the possibility of arriving at a practical resolution to the problems mentioned above - especially in present international circumstances - is far beyond the capacity of any public figures among the Serbs and Albanians of the province.

For all its hardships, Kosovo is not poor, especially in human resources. A timely resolution of Kosovo's final status, attended by a continued security presence provided by international forces, could encourage investment and revive the optimism of all its inhabitants. If Kosovo continues to live in limbo, more and more people are likely to agree with the acquaintance who told me: "There are no prospects here, and young people desire to leave in any way they can, legally or illegally."

It is clear that the international community must soon navigate a path towards a clear and peaceful resolution. That will demand courage and energy. It is also the only way. The cost of inaction could be great.

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