NEWS AND ANALYSIS - COUNTDOWN TO INDEPENDENCE
People in Kosovo could turn to violence again next year if there is no change in the way the United Nations protectorate is run, a Kosovo Albanian publisher-turned-politician said on Monday."If Kosovo continues with the present political structure and lack of economic policy, in six months we'll run into a social explosion," Veton Surroi, who is highly regarded in the West, told Reuters in an interview five days before a general election in the volatile Serbian province.The election on Oct. 23 is Kosovo's second since the United Nations and NATO took control in 1999 after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign to halt Serb repression of Albanian civilians during an Albanian guerrilla insurgency.Last March, frustration with the status quo fuelled by high unemployment and almost zero economic growth, boiled over in the the worst bout of violence since the war.Nineteen people died and up to 800 homes were damaged or destroyed as mobs of Albanians overran NATO-guarded enclaves housing Serbs and other minorities."The international community woke up in March, but I don't think it's out of bed yet," said Surroi, 43, the millionaire publisher of popular Kosovo daily Koha Ditore and now leader of a new political party, ORA (Hour).Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's two million people, expected independence to quickly follow the end of the war. But five years later Kosovo remains in political limbo, its fate tied to meeting U.N.-set standards of democracy and human rights.Surroi said there was a consensus within the international community that Kosovo should become independent but doubts over whether it could function."We will see an independent Kosovo, with some strings attached. I think within two years," he said.LITTLE CHANGEDThe West has now set mid-2005 as a target date for tackling the final status of Kosovo, which is still formally part of Serbia and Montenegro. NATO has deployed 2,000 more soldiers for the election period, raising its presence to 20,000.The son of a former communist diplomat, Surroi echoed analysts and Western diplomats who say Kosovo's economic stagnation and unknown "final status" are at the root of continued tensions between Albanians and the Serb minority."If the results of the last elections are repeated, we'll have the same policy and more of the same people, and that would be catastrophic for Kosovo," he said in an American accent from years spent at American schools in Bolivia and Mexico."In March you saw the enormous capacity for destruction in this society, just sleeping below the surface ... There's the continuous danger of falling into a lull again, since people tend to be crisis-driven," Surroi said."Little has changed since March," he added.Diplomats say Surroi's political appeal is limited to the intellectual elite and that ORA is unlikely to roll back the dominance of the two main parties led by Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova and former guerilla leader Hashim Thaci.But his straight-talking campaign has struck a chord with some and he could well play kingmaker in the next coalition.Real power in Kosovo resides with the U.N. mission, UNMIK, which runs law and order and much of Kosovo's economic policy and has a veto over legislation.Surroi said it was now time Kosovo's political leaders seized the "intellectual lead" from their U.N. overseers.
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