Global Policy Forum

Patience Runs Thin as Kosovo Albanians


By Nichlas Wood and Craig Smith

International Herald Tribune
June 24, 2007

Preparations for the party have begun, and the government has even bought fireworks. But eight years after NATO forces effectively bombed Serb security forces out of Kosovo, the independence that this small ethnic Albanian enclave was fighting for keeps slipping further into the future.

While the United States, Russia and the European Union bickered over what the United Nations euphemistically calls the territory's "final status," resolution of the issue slid from December to March to May. President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will discuss it again when they meet in July. Diplomats now say it will be months more before Kosovo's future is settled.

But many people here warn that if the waiting goes on much longer, fraying nerves could upset the region's fragile stability. "Enough is enough," said Hashim Thaci, the former Albanian guerrilla leader who now heads the Democratic Party of Kosovo. "The time was yesterday. Today is already too late. Tomorrow is dangerous." The war in Kosovo ended in 1999 after 78 days of U.S.-led NATO bombing forced Serbian troops to withdraw. The mountain-ringed region of 4,200 square miles, or 10,800 square kilometers, has been administered by the United Nations since then, with the help of roughly 17,000 NATO peacekeepers. For years, the United States and Europe have told Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who account for more than 90 percent of the territory's population, that they will eventually have their own country. But Serbia insists that the territory remain its province, and Russia says no solution should be imposed against the Serbs' will.

After moderating months of largely fruitless talks between Serbs and Kosovo's Albanians, Martti Ahtisaari, the United Nations envoy, presented a plan to the Security Council in April for de facto independence of Kosovo with international oversight. Serbia quickly rejected it, and Russia threatened to veto any measure allowing the province to break away. The unlikelihood of a United Nations agreement anytime soon is having repercussions in Kosovo, damaging the credibility of the international community and local politicians alike and raising fears that hard-line groups could erode the province's delicate peace.

Red bricks of new buildings dot the countryside, and construction cranes hang over the capital where shiny new cafés cater to a young, fashionable clientele. But the warning signs are growing. One Kosovar, Albin Kurti, has spent months in jail without trial for organizing a protest for independence in Pristina last February that turned violent. Two protesters were killed, shot with rubber bullets by United Nations police officers.

Last week, ethnic Albanian war veterans gathered in western Kosovo to warn that time was running out. "We will fight again against all those who want to occupy Kosovo," Abdyl Mushkolaj, a leader of veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army, told the crowd. "People are tired, and they cannot wait any longer." No one is suggesting that the country is on the brink of violence, but there is no doubt that frustration is building among potentially volatile constituencies. The war veterans, for example, still command weapons - and loyalties. "You have a political element here that is very extreme," said Steven Schook, a retired general of the U.S. Army and deputy head of the United Nations mission administering Kosovo. He warned that the mission's ability to manage the situation "is exponentially less than it was two years ago" and that "every day that goes by, it gets worse." At the least, the stress threatens the limited cooperation of Kosovo's political parties, drawn together in the interest of winning independence. At worst, many people fear that Kosovo's Serbian minority could once again bear the brunt of the frustration, as it did during a wave of rioting in March 2004.

In the capital, Pristina, one ethnic Albanian newspaper has begun publishing the names of Serbs who, during the war, served in the security services, including the Serbian secret police and the army. Though the newspaper claims that the lists identify "Who was a commander and who was responsible for the crimes committed in the war," it has given no evidence that anyone named participated in any war crimes. The editor of the newspaper, Rexhep Hoti, is unapologetic about the list. "We're giving the names of people in the military and police at the time massacres occurred," he explained while unfolding a Serbian Army map of western Kosovo in his tiny office. Serb positions in 1997 were marked on the map in blue, and Kosovo Liberation Army positions were marked in red. Other documents included Serbian military payrolls and individual army mobilization orders that carried the headline, "The Motherland Is Calling." The publication of the names has unnerved many of Kosovo's Serbs.

The last time a newspaper published a similar list was in 1999. Shortly afterwards, a young Serbian translator who was named, without evidence, as a war criminal, was gunned down in the street. Zivorad Zdravkovic, whose name was among those published, sat beneath a grape arbor at his family's home in Lipjan and acknowledged serving in the army, as most young Serbs did, during the war. But he said that he never took part in any fighting, let alone in any war crimes. "We haven't left, so this is a new way of putting pressure on us," he said.

The Serbian population in Lipjan is about 1,000 now; it was more than 7,000 before the war. Zdravkovic's squat, single-story bungalow is now surrounded by the taller multistory homes of ethnic Albanians. Outside the city known as Peja in Albanian, or Pec in Serbian, the Serbian Orthodox Church is building a high wall around the grounds connected to a 13th-century church that was once home to Serbian patriarchs and is now the spiritual center of Serbian orthodoxy.

"It's not a good sign when they build a wall around it," said Savo Bakic, one of a handful of Serbs who have returned to a village in the mountains above. There, two dozen new clay-brick houses stand in the meadows amid the shells of homes destroyed after the village was abandoned in the wake of the war. But only about a tenth of the roughly 250 people that once lived there have come home. Despite the uncertainty hanging over Kosovo's future, many Serbs feel that the West's plans for Kosovo will be imposed. Bakic, for one, is certain that the American plan will prevail. "It will be Greater Albania here," he said, "and I don't want to live in Greater Albania."

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