Global Policy Forum

Serbia, Kosovo Leaders Meet,


By Alissa J. Rubin

Los Angeles Times
July 25, 2006

Leaders of Serbia and Kosovo reluctantly met face to face Monday for the first time since NATO bombs drove Serbian forces out of the Albanian majority province in 1999. A United Nations special envoy called the meeting, in the officially neutral city of Vienna, to make progress on the Gordian knot of Kosovo's future status: The province's ethnic majority wants full independence and Serbia opposes division.

Post-meeting statements made clear that the two sides are far apart and cast doubt on a negotiated solution. Kosovo Albanians and Serbs refused to appear together at the news conference after the meeting; each held their own briefing with their own interpreters. Asked if there was any sign of the way to a future deal between the two sides, U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, said, "No, I would be lying if I said so."

"They are as far apart as possible: Belgrade would accept everything but independence, while Kosovo Albanians will accept nothing but the independence," Ahtisaari said.

A participant in the meeting described it as "monologues" by each side without any back and forth about their ideas. Kosovo, the Albanian-majority province of Serbia, has been governed as a U.N. protectorate since 1999 when NATO forced out Serbian troops.

There have been a number of meetings in Vienna with expert teams from both sides but this is the first that involved leaders of the two groups, including Serbian President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, and Kosovo's prime minister, Agim Ceku, a former rebel commander who fought the Serbs. More meetings are slated for August and September when Ahtisaari plans to give a report and recommendation for next steps to the U.N. Security Council.

Western powers as well as the U.N. are pushing for a deal by year's end; they want to free up some of the 17,000 NATO troops on patrol there and avoid a renewal of violence in the territory. Russia, a veto holder on the Security Council and a longtime backer of Serbia, has cautioned against any "artificial timetable."

In the absence of any agreement, the U.N. — in consultation with the other Western powers and Russia — will almost certainly impose an arrangement in which Kosovo wins conditional independence. Draft proposals by the European Union include a European special representative to oversee international civilian assistance and financial aid. Kosovo would have to satisfy a number of criteria before it could win full independence, according to diplomats who asked not to be named because the proposals are still taking shape.

The arrangement bears many similarities to the one that the EU fashioned for Bosnia, which has had mixed results. Bosnia remains a fragile country, with a barely functional government and a marginally viable economy.

Sensitive issues for the Serbs in Kosovo's potential independence include how to guarantee safety for the Serbian minority, which has felt isolated and beleaguered. Many experts believe that if Kosovo becomes independent, many of the more than 100,000 Serbs will leave the province, adding to the republic of Serbia's economic troubles.

Serbian forces launched a brutal crackdown in the province in 1999, killing 10,000 Kosovo Albanians and forcing about 800,000 to flee. However, when ethnic Albanians returned with NATO backing, reprisal killings and ethnic cleansing of Serbs ensued, which forced nearly half of the Serbian population to flee the province.

Kosovo is of symbolic and political importance to Serbia because it is the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church as well as the home of some of the church's most venerated monasteries. Kosovo is often described as the Serbian Jerusalem, and some Serbian media describe its loss as on a par with the Christians' loss of the Holy Land.

The symbolic potency of Kosovo puts Serbian politicians in a bind. Even if they see independence as inevitable, they do not want to be part of making the deal that gives the province away.

"It is the case that they better not put their signature on that if they want to have a future for themselves or their political party," said Ljiljana Smajlovic, the editor of Politika, a prominent daily in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. "But I don't think they are saying it just for form's sake. They are now saying they will give Kosovo independence in all but name and so far the Albanians haven't moved at all." She noted that other countries too are uncomfortable with the precedent of having the U.N. unilaterally redraw borders.

However, the Kosovo Albanians are unequivocal that only independence is acceptable. "The presence of Serbia in Kosovo was always violent and the sacrifice of the Albanian people is the best testimony to the arguments for the independence of the country," said Hashim Thaci, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army who is now a prominent politician.

"And another argument is the genocide which was exercised by the state of Serbia in Kosovo. In the future, Serbia and Kosova may be very good neighbors but they cannot live under the same roof."

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