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Kosovo’s Facade Crumbles

Jackson Allers Mar 21, 2004

PRISTINA, KOSOVO—At the intersection of Mother Teresa Street and Bill Clinton Boulevard, a giant poster of former President Clinton overlooks a busy Pristina shopping district. Stores packed with Turkish goods line display windows. Counterfeit Nike shoes are as regular a fixture as local kebab stands in Kosovo’s capital, and Clinton’s monumental image is an imposing reminder of what local filmmaker Edon Rizvanolli wryly calls a “U.S. liberation effort” during the 1999 Kosovo War.

Five years after NATO assumed peacekeeping duties and the United Nations assumed administrative control of the region, Kosovo is once again a high diplomatic priority.

The killing of three U.N. police officers on April 17 and civil unrest a month earlier, which left 11 Albanians and nine Serbs dead, has jeopardized the deadline for discussing Kosovo’s final status, which is set for June 2005. Kosovo’s status is linked to a set of eight benchmarks that the United Nations is using to administer Kosovo’s local governmental institutions and its population.

Under the “standards for status” formula, Kosovo must establish a multi-ethnic state with impartial laws and a thriving, privatized economy, return rights for the displaced refugees of the 1999 Kosovo War and reformed private property rights.

At the press cafe in U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) compound in Pristina, Albanian journalist Arta Planna sits with Serbs and international workers in what could be described as a petri dish of inter-ethnic cooperation. Planna described the U.N. benchmarks as “hollow and certainly not based on the historical reality of the Balkans.”

Today, 90 percent of Kosovo’s 1.8 million people are ethnic Albanians, whereas in 1948 Albanians comprised 69 percent of the population. Kosovo is officially part of Serbia-Montenegro, but as a result of the 1999 war Albanians are overwhelmingly in favor of independence. Currently, there are about 80,000 Serbs living in Kosovo and most do not recognize the new Kosovo Provisional Government.

March 24 was the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-NATO air war that halted Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign. (Some observers contend that the U.S. military and diplomatic pressure on Milosevic’s regime prior to the war lead to
the very ethnic cleansing that provided the causus belli.)

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 100,000 Serbs fled the region after the war, fearing Albanian reprisals. Serb military and paramilitary units killed 13,000 ethnic Albanians between 1998 and June 1999.

The scale of the recent violence in Kosovo ended the honeymoon for the UNMIK administration. “The international community – the western European powers and the United States – cannot impose their will on the Balkan states,” Planna insists.

The riots began in March after the drowning deaths of two ethnic Albanian boys (a third is still missing) in the village of Cabra. Unconfirmed reports on Albanian TV blamed the who allegedly chased the boys with a dog to the edge of the river Ibar in northern Kosovo.

In two days, rioters burned or destroyed 30 Serbian Orthodox churches and some 600 homes, displacing more than 3,600 Serbs, 400 Roma and other non-Albanians throughout Kosovo. A week later, 3,000 additional peacekeepers were dispatched to the region. In Pristina, British peacekeepers fan out to patrol the city center every day.

The 17,000 peacekeeping troops with the Kosovo Protection Forces failed to anticipate the ethnic unrest, which had been building for months.

UNMIK head Harri Holkeri caused a stir when he “unofficially” characterized the attacks on Serb villages and religious sites as “crimes against humanity,” and “orchestrated attempts to destabilize Kosovo.”

One local Albanian who joined in the rioting blamed the unrest on the dismal economy. “No one works here,” he said, referring to Albanians and non-Albanians alike, “there’s no fucking jobs. We don’t understand what the U.N. is doing after five years. Perhaps they want to be here until 2015?”

A survey of plans for Kosovo’s final status is not encouraging. Belgrade is calling for Kosovo’s division into so-called “ethnic cantons” while Kosovar Albanians are asking for outright independence based on the borders drawn by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244.

UNMIK is entertaining the idea of “decentralization,” which seeks to promote autonomous legal rights for Serbs and other ethnic minorities in Kosovo, without specifying how much autonomy these areas would have.

Both the Albanians and Serbs can do little but wait for the international community to decide the final status for Kosovo. But the Serbs say they will never be ruled by Albanians, and the Albanians say they can have nothing but independence.