Kosovo’s sovereignty status has been in limbo since 1999, when Belgrade lost control of the Serbian province after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign and the United Nations took over administration. Kosovo’s 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority wants full independence, which Serbia is reluctant to grant.
Tension has been heightened by the March 2005 indictment for war crimes of Kosovo’s prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, a former guerrilla leader considered by many Albanians a national hero.
The international community is due to review Kosovo’s status in 2005, and some experts say this is a make or break year, warning that simmering tension could escalate into more deadly violence.
What’s the tension about?
Kosovo’s Albanian population – mostly Muslims – want total independence from Serbia and Montenegro. Since the end of the 1999, there has been a backlash against Serbs by Albanian extremists angry at Serbian repression during the civil war that engulfed the Balkans in the 1990s.
Sporadic vicious attacks have been reported against Serbs with the budding of spring, raising the spectre of a repeat of March 2004, when 19 died and hundreds of Serb homes and churches were torched in riots.
The post-war backlash has also hit Roma and other minorities, whom some Albanians accuse of having opposed their liberation from Serb rule. As a result, many minorities live under virtual siege – as in the northern half of the northern town of Mitrovica, which is a Serb haven protected by NATO-led Kosovo Forces (KFOR).
Both sides feel and act like victims, and in a way, both sides are.
Ethnic Albanians have long felt downtrodden by Serb rule and were heavily targeted in the late 1990s during the latter part of Slobodan Milosevic’s government of Yugoslavia.
In the absence of any clear signal that the international community will not allow a return to Serbian rule, many Albanians fear that Serbia - which has for centuries seen Kosovo as a key landmark of Serbian nationalism – will not let the province go quietly.
Some Albanian extremists think that by fomenting violence they can force the international community to hurry up and give them sovereignty, analysts say.
Kosovo’s Serbs, meanwhile, feel the international community has placed little value on their lives and has failed to protect them from attacks.
Who’s actually in charge at the moment?
The head of the U.N. Mission in Kosovo is the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Kosovo. A Danish official, Soren Jessen-Petersen, has been in that role since July 2004. Ethnic Albanians have elected a president and prime minister, who lead the so-called Provisional Institutions of Self Government.
What are the options for the future?
Some kind of legal acknowledgement of Kosovo’s independence is what most people mean when they talk about Kosovo’s “final status”. Belgian-based think tank International Crisis Group argues that this is the only viable solution, and that the international community needs to act decisively to make it happen.
What about letting Serb areas stay part of Serbia?
Another option is to carve up Kosovo and separate Serb-majority areas, in a kind of partition along the lines of the Serb Republic in Bosnia, an enclave of Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In Kosovo, former Prime Minister Haradinaj granted partial autonomy to some Serb-majority areas. Given his reputation for taking a hard line against Serbs and Roma while he was a military leader – he is being charged by the International Criminal Court with rape and murder - Haradinaj turned out to be a surprisingly astute and generous politician.
But partition may not be a realistic solution, since many Serbs live in isolated areas in central Kosovo rather than a single, easily delineated region on the periphery.
Why can’t things just stay as they are?
The U.N. Mission in Kosovo mandate has no expiry date but the international community is due to judge Kosovo’s progress against a set of standards in mid-2005.
Kosovo’s Albanian population will be looking to that deadline with high hopes the international community will legalise Kosovo’s national status. These hopes are fed by the deteriorating economic situation in the U.N. protectorate, with unemployment around 60 percent and numerous villages disconnected from the power grid for non-payment of bills.
What do Kosovo Serbs want to happen?
There isn’t really a Serb political movement separate from Belgrade. Kosovo’s Serb population obeyed Belgrade’s urges to boycott elections in 2004. Some want to remain part of Mother Serbia, some favour partition, but most just want peace.
And what does Serbia want?
If Kosovo Albanians continue to lash out against minorities, some analysts say there’s a risk Belgrade’s armed forces could step in to protect Kosovo Serbs, even though politicians don’t really want the drain on their resources and many Serbs in Serbia look down on Kosovan Serbs as backwards peasants.
“Since the 17-18 March 2004 riots, many high-ranking (Serbian) officers have begun preparations to re-enter the province in the event of further violence,” International Crisis group said in a January 2005 report entitled “Kosovo: Toward Final Status”. “Few politicians would be willing to stand up to them.”
On the other hand, Belgrade wants to move forward towards the holy grail of membership of the European Union, with its promise of prosperity and opportunity. Any impasse over Kosovo could make that goal harder to achieve.
Why is Kosovo so symbolically important to Serb nationalists?
It was the birthplace of a Serbian state in the 14th century, lost to the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1389. Serbia regained control of Kosovo in 1913.
Kosovo was granted wide-ranging autonomous powers from the 1960s during President Tito’s government, with de facto self-government from 1974, but pressure for full independence built up after Tito’s death in 1980.
After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Serb nationalist Slobodan Milosevic whipped up hostility towards Kosovo’s Albanians in order to score popularity points in Serbia proper.
What does the international community want?
The international community’s main yardsticks for deciding if Kosovo is ready for independence are whether treatment of minorities is up to scratch and whether it has made progress building national institutions.
Major international players say Kosovo can’t go back to being the way it was before 1999, but they’ve generally stopped short of publicly saying they really are going to support independence.
Some analysts say this is a vicious circle – the international community says it won’t grant independence until ethnic Albanians protect Serbs and Roma, but Albanians will likely remain resentful of minorities until they know independence is guaranteed.
Russia is the one country that openly backs the Serb position, but International Crisis Group argues that the rest of the world should push for independence even if Belgrade and Moscow refuse.
Is Kosovo viable as an independent state?
That’s a very important question. Whatever the outcome, Kosovo will probably need large amounts of international aid for the foreseeable future.
Tell me more about Haradinaj and his indictment for war crimes.
Ramush Haradinaj was commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which grew out of an ethnic Albanian independence movement that had been gaining strength since the early 1990s. The KLA stepped up its attacks in the mid-90s, leading to a major crackdown from the Yugoslav military.
Haradinaj is charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia with murder, rape and the deportation of civilians. He was replaced as prime minister of the interim government in March 2005 by former student activist Bajram Kosumi.
Why did NATO bomb Kosovo and Serbia?
To answer this contentious question, let’s go back a bit. In 1989, Serbian President Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status. Ethnic Albanian leaders claimed independence the following year and fighting between the Albanian nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serb forces broke out in 1998. That proved a trigger for increased Serbian repression of Albanian civilians.
Milosevic, then president of Yugoslavia, rejected the terms of an internationally brokered peace agreement that stipulated that NATO would be the only force stationed in Kosovo and that NATO troops would be deployed throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1999, NATO bombed Kosovo and Serbia, without U.N. approval.
Supporters of the air strikes said they were needed to stop Serbian repression of ethnic Albanians. Opponents accused NATO of double standards – for failing to intervene in other humanitarian crises – and said the United States in particular had strategic reasons for wanting to participate in a war in Europe, not least to justify the existence of NATO itself.
Meanwhile, Serbian forces stepped up attacks on Kosovo Albanians and about 800,000 fled to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Most returned after the war. When Milosevic capitulated, about 200,000 Serbs fled, the NATO-led Kosovo Forces were deployed and the U.N. Mission in Kosovo took control.
What hope if there for a peaceful outcome?
It’s not impossible. Slavic peoples – like Serbs -- and Albanians have lived together in Kosovo since the 8th century.
In fact, International Crisis Group research shows that some people in areas that experienced heavy losses in 1999 are quite willing to live on peaceful terms with their former neighbours from other ethnic groups.