Thursday, March 24, 2005

Kosovo struggles on rocky path to peace


KOSOVO’S parliament yesterday elected a new prime minister on the eve of the anniversary of the start of NATO’s bombing campaign of the former Yugoslav province.

Bajram Kosumi will be charged with leading the province into talks on independence. Considered a moderate, Mr Kosumi said: "We are going to achieve independence sooner than anyone else could."

Named Day of Hope, or Dita e Shpreses in Albanian, 24 March is the sixth anniversary of the night when missiles slammed into the heart of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.

The raids forced the Serb forces of Slobodan Milosevic, the former president, out of the province and Kosovo remains under UN supervision, although with a semi-autonomous government.

The new prime minister, an ethnic Albanian, and former environment minister, replaces the former premier Ramush Haradinaj, who two weeks ago voluntarily surrendered to the UN Tribunal in the Hague to answer war crimes charges.

A year on from a massive outbreak of ethnic violence which left 19 people dead and thousands displaced, a fragile calm reigns in the province.

In spring sunshine, outdoor cafes in Pristina are full. In two different pizzerias, international policemen and UN staff from Germany, Poland, Hungary and China jostle for space with French gendarmes, American, Cameroonian and Nigerian policemen, and soldiers from Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand.

"The security level in Kosovo is excellent," said Colonel Yves Kermorvant, an optimistic spokesman for NATO’s 19,000-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as K-FOR.

Privately, NATO and other international officials say the security remains as fragile as ever.

A series of human rights reports into last year’s violence showed that despite several years’ experience in Kosovo, many K-FOR troops, particularly the Italians, Germans and French, proved both incapable of and unwilling to control disorder.

NATO insists that the situation has improved 12 months on. An additional 1,200 British and German troops flew into Kosovo to head off any expected violence surrounding the resignation of Haradinaj, a former guerrilla fighter considered by many as a war hero.

Kosovo’s president, Ibrahim Rugova, narrowly escaped death from a roadside bomb in an attack in central Pristina last week. No-one has been arrested.

A string of recent shootings and grenade attacks have targeted UN vehicles and houses.

This muddy, litter-strewn, aspirant statelet is at a crucial crossroads.

Under the direction of Soren Jessen Petersen, the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), is pushing the province towards initial talks on independence.

There are firm conditions: before Kosovo can begin long-awaited discussions this summer on its "Final Status", its population and government must reach a series of so-called "standards" in such things as good governance and respect for ethnic minorities.

These sound admirable in theory, but a survey carried out by the UN showed that 80 per cent of Kosovo’s 100,000 Serbs thought it was incumbent on the UN, not them, to fulfil standards. Furthermore, 70 per cent of Kosovo’s 1.9 million Albanians think that regardless of whether standards are achieved, talks on independence will still start. "It seems the process is still not understood by a large part of society," said a UNMIK report.

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