By Timothy Kenny
September 25, 2005
PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro -- The unremarkable province of Kosovo remains solidly on the back burner of international news. Six years after a U.S.-led NATO bombing attack ended its war with Serbia, Kosovo is still poor, far away and largely unimportant in the greater geopolitical scheme of things. All that is likely to change in coming weeks.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns upped the ante on Kosovo in May when he declared 2005 would be "a year of decision for Kosovo." The United States--like the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and much of the international community that is keeping Kosovo economically afloat--wants to leave. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has commissioned Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide to write a report that outlines whether Kosovo is ready to begin "final status" talks with Serbia; that is, how and whether it can achieve independence.
Eide's report is expected this fall. What it says--or doesn't say--could serve as a catalyst for much change, including bringing always-simmering violence once again to the fore, as in March 2004, when two days of Albanian-triggered riots left at least 19 dead, 550 homes burned and 4,100 minority Serb citizens displaced, according to Human Rights Watch and the UN.
Violence has not cropped up on a similar scale since, but low-level trouble continues on a regular basis.
Andrew Kirkwood, deputy head of the UN's Department of Crime in Pristina, said in an interview, "We get grenades thrown on a regular basis. Back home somebody might throw a bottle through a window. Here it's a hand grenade. There's a surplus of ordnance here from the war."
Usually, said Kirkwood, a policeman from Glasgow, Scotland, "There's no motive for these attacks. We had one a couple of days ago. It's very, very common."
An early-July explosion struck for the first time in the United Nations compound here, despite its 10-foot-high concrete barriers, gates and guards. The blast stands as a stark reminder that security remains fragile in Kosovo.
During a late-June visit it was clear that in this dusty, hardscrabble province where daily life is still punctuated by random cuts in water and electricity and soaring unemployment, good news remains hard to come by. Violence is common, from a second assassination attempt against President Ibrahim Rugova in March to a political party office bombing in April that injured three schoolchildren nearby.
Just as common is poverty. Kosovo's economy stumbles along, supported by donations from relatives abroad and an illegal black market.
"People are starving in Kosovo," said Ali Rexha, an unemployed Kosovar Albanian. "People are tired of the situation here. It's all economics, in my view; 95 percent of this country [Kosovo] is Albanian and expects independence. It comes down to economics and jobs. But for now, it's about hanging in, so to speak."
The streets of Pristina are filled with daily reminders of tough times. Young men walk from one cafe and bar to another, selling cigarettes and cell phone time cards that U.S. Army officials and UN police say are mostly illegal knockoffs, smuggled across the border from Macedonia and Albania. Younger children sell candy and gum the same way.
"There is no economy here if you're not in the bigger cities where there are jobs or unless you work with the government or for one of the many international organizations here," said California National Guard Brig. Gen. William Wade, commander of Kosovo's Multinational Brigade (East) at Camp Bondsteel, a U.S.-built Army base outside Pristina. "Mostly, you're unemployed."
"Look," said Ibrahim Rexhepi, chief economics editor for Koha Ditore, Kosovo's leading newspaper, "we have alcohol smuggling, . . . we have cigarette smuggling, arms smuggling, the transit of drugs through Kosovo, gasoline smuggling and the trafficking of people. This is the underground economy."
The Kosovo Office of Statistics pegs the province's unemployment rate at 50 percent but says it's likely higher--perhaps 20 points higher--among people age 15 to 30 who make up an estimated half of the population. Organized crime is widespread, according to UN police. The picture does not bode well for Kosovo's immediate future.
"Everybody is expecting troubles here," Evliana Berani, a documentary filmmaker, said in an e-mail from Pristina. "Some people believe that social unrest might be caused by the huge poverty and the lack of economic perspective. If I am sure of something, it is that people are more and more unhappy with lack of investments, the huge percentage that live in poverty and high unemployment. This is a climate that can be easily used by somebody who doesn't want a stable Kosovo."
Downsizing has begun
Stability, already hard to come by in Kosovo, could get worse if the UN leaves. The United Nations mission in Kosovo "is not going to stay here very long," UN spokesman Neeraj Singh said. "The downsizing has already begun. We're in the middle of restructuring UNMIK so it more accurately reflects the changed circumstances."
A draft plan to hand over the police and justice systems to complete Kosovar control is under way, he said, even if it's unlikely to happen by June 2006, the proposed deadline.
"The whole downsizing plan is flexible," Singh said.
Politicians, both Serb and Kosovar, are not happy with the push to resolve the province's "final status."
"It's very possible that the internationals see that the status quo cannot hold any more and the process for a final settlement should be there," said Ylber Hysa, deputy leader of the Ora (Hour) political party. "I think there's a risk that things could be pushed toward a faster exit strategy" than Kosovo can handle, he added.
In a telephone interview from the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in the north, Oliver Ivanovic, leader of the Kosovo Serb political party that won 8 of 10 seats in the last parliamentary elections, echoed Hysa's comments. "This is international people forcing the situation," Ivanovic said. "But neither side is ready for these talks. The Serbian side will never accept independence by any means."
"Mostly," he said, "[status talks are] for the people who are tired of being here and who want to create a way out. It is simply not the right time."
Left unspoken is whether new violence is inevitable. The OSCE ran security exercises recently, including a rehearsal for an evacuation of its staff.
"The March  riots came as a wake-up call to the international community," said Hua Jiang, UN spokesman in Pristina. "The UN would say we can't stay here forever. We also can't leave things as they are. As the date of the completion of Kai Eide's report gets closer, plus the illness of President Rugova [diagnosed recently with cancer], the situation could become more volatile."
There are some 3,500 UNMIK international police in Kosovo, 2,500 of them international civilian officers and 1,000 special support police units. There are also 6,500 UN-trained local Kosovo police and some 7,000 NATO troops. Police were clearly overwhelmed trying to contain the violence of March 2004, police and UN officials say.
Kosovars like Rexha put their worries bluntly: "The next few months are critical. I think it's either going to be good or really, really bad. What we saw on TV in 1999 is nothing."
Timothy Kenny, a former journalist, is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut.