Sunday, March 18, 2007

Hostility simmers in Kosovo

A woman holds photos of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic, right, late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, centre, and Gen. Ratko Mladic during a February protest rally in Belgrade against a UN plan for the future status of Kosovo.

Years after the end of war, bickering over the territory's legal status having a dire impact on economy, society
Mar 17, 2007 04:30 AM
Olivia Ward
Staff Reporter

Freezing rain dripped from a gash in the roof and cigarette smoke hung thickly over the men in battle-worn camouflage gear, as though it were also too exhausted to rise and disappear.

It was months after the end of the Kosovo war that freed the tiny Serbian province from the brutal grip of Slobodan Milosevic. But ethnic Albanian fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army had regrouped to clash again with Serbia, this time over the ribbon of Albanian settlements in the southern part of the country.

"I've had enough of fighting," admitted one of the men, wearily clutching an AK-47. "But when I came back from the war my house was gone, and nobody wanted to give me a job. Fighting is one thing I can always do."

Six years later, the uniforms are packed away and rifles have been surrendered or shelved. But violence is still simmering beneath the surface as Kosovo's economy founders, its infrastructure is in tatters, and its population – the youngest in Europe – lacks the education, training and jobs that are needed to bring it into a peaceful and sustainable future.

Kosovars and international observers say the key to that future is the settlement of its international legal status, which was left in limbo at the end of the war: "It's like being slightly pregnant," complained the late president Ibrahim Rugova.

Since the end of the 1999 war, Kosovo has been a ward of the international community – out of Serbia's control, administered by the United Nations and secured by NATO. Elections, the creation of a police force and the drafting of a constitution have given it the trappings of a state without real independence.

So in Kosovo and Serbia, all eyes are turned to a controversial proposal for settling Kosovo's final status, drawn up by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari. Pleasing neither side, it is expected to move Kosovo down the road to the independence its overwhelmingly Albanian population longs for – and Serbia's government opposes – while keeping international strings attached. The proposal will shortly be sent to the UN Security Council for approval.

"It's a sincere attempt to create a functional state and a multi-ethnic society," said Jeta Xharra, Kosovo director of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. "But it will take generations before words on paper become reality. People still remember the war, and inter-ethnic relations between Albanians and Serbs won't be settled quickly."

Today, the cafés of the Kosovo capital, Pristina, are filled with young people, passing the time over cigarettes and cappuccino. At night the bars blare out rock music, and as spring approaches the streets are thronged by revellers.

But Xharra says the true picture is less upbeat, and will stay that way until Kosovo is on a firm legal footing, reassuring investors and attracting vitally needed jobs.

"Unemployment is around 40 per cent and it's devastating," she said in a phone interview from Pristina. "Everybody says it's a crucial issue but nobody makes it a priority. A substantial part of society is living in poverty and we can't even secure electricity 24 hours a day. We're the least developed country in the former Yugoslavia."

Under Ahtisaari's plan, Kosovo would be independent, but still under UN and European Union scrutiny, with an "International Civilian Representative" given the power to remove political leaders from office and impose or cancel laws made by Kosovo's parliament.

It would also allow Kosovo Serbs dual citizenship, grant autonomy to municipalities with mainly Serbian population, and let them form links with Serbia. They could receive non-taxable funds from Serbia, as well as funding from the Kosovo government. Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries would be "protected zones," and the church granted tax-free status.

The concessions have infuriated many Kosovars and their supporters, some of whom claim the plan is heading for a political train wreck. Last month in Pristina it sparked a nationalist protest in which two people died and more than 80 were injured.

"The Ahtisaari proposal is going in the wrong direction," says Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, Balkan Affairs Adviser to the Albanian American Civic League. "It continues to appease Serbia, and it will turn Kosovo into a marginal state hostage once again ... and (make) it vulnerable to a new cycle of violence."

Serbian leaders have also rejected the plan, which would officially end Serbia's traditional claim to Kosovo. Russia, a powerful member of the Security Council, insists on Belgrade's agreement to any change in Kosovo's status, calling for more talks between Serbs and Albanians, following over a year of fruitless negotiation.

Although the Security Council cannot grant independence to Kosovo, its approval would give a green light for the small territory to declare it. Then most of the UN's 192 member countries would recognize it as a new state.

"Neither side is getting everything it wants, but it's essential to have a resolution of Kosovo's status," says Carne Ross, director of the London-based advisory group Independent Diplomat, which consults to the Kosovo government.

"One of the reasons why it's in such a bad way is that there has been no agreement on what the status is."

Independence isn't a magic bullet that will speed Kosovo to prosperity overnight. But there's wide agreement that its absence could touch off a disaster in the heart of Europe.

"With almost two-thirds of the inhabitants of Kosovo aged under 25, and more than half the active population unemployed, frustration and nationalist dreams could produce an explosive cocktail," says Balkan expert Jean-Arnault Dérens in Le Monde diplomatique. "What is cruelly lacking is some proper strategy for Kosovo's economic development."

Xharra agrees that change is overdue.

"The way things are going now, everybody is focused on independence," she says. "Once it is settled we could look at ourselves in the mirror for the first time, and start a discussion of where we want our society to be." - News - Hostility simmers in Kosovo

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