By Nicholas Wood The New York Times
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2005
PRISTINA, Kosovo For more than six years, this small Balkan province has been home to one of the most ambitious nation-building projects in recent history.
Armed with near absolute authority, and backed up by a NATO-led peace keeping force, a UN mission has tried to forge a modern democratic system from decades of bitter ethnic tension between an ever expanding and more assertive Albanian majority, and a Serbian minority that clings to Kosovo as the heart of Serbia's medieval empire.
At the cost of an estimated $1.3 billion a year, international civil servants and policemen - about 11,000 at their peak - helped to build ministries, a Parliament, local councils, authorities, courts, customs and police services as well as media.
From June 1999, when the United Nations first arrived in the wake of NATO bombs that helped drive Serbian forces from Kosovo, through to 2001 or so, their achievement was held up as an example for building democracy elsewhere.
But then, by common agreement at least among the international officials and observers and Kosovo's Albanians, the process started to stall - hamstrung, in this view, by the inability of foreigners to adopt solutions that addressed the needs of the people who live all their lives in Kosovo.
Enmity between the Serbs and Albanians still runs deep, frequently with lethal results. Underneath everything runs the unanswered question of Kosovo's future: while under UN control, it is still formally part of Serbia, whose leaders cannot be seen to give the province away to the Albanians.
Consequently, the region remains in limbo - the poorest part of the Balkans, and the most unstable.
"The focus has been on buying time, and that's the only focus there has been," said Veton Surroi, a member of Kosovo's regional Parliament and a veteran Albanian journalist and publisher here.
Larry Rossin, a retired American diplomat who is deputy head of what is formally known as the UN Interim Mission in Kosovo, conceded: "I think the development of their institutions is somewhat retarded by our continuing role."
In next few days, a report by a senior UN envoy, the Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, is expected to pave the way for the mission's withdrawal.
Diplomats who insisted on anonymity said that although there is some evidence to the contrary, Eide will, in effect, say that the Albanians have done enough to meet standards set by the international community to recommend talks on its future status.
The ethnic Albanians, who make up more than 90 percent of Kosovo's two million people, hope this will be the final step toward seceding from Serbia and creating an independent state.
For Serbia, the negotiations threaten the loss of a region that is still home to some of the most ancient and treasured Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries.
The negotiations between the Albanians, Kosovo Serbs and Serbian government will require international oversight, and almost certainly result in some kind of international presence remaining in the province.
The expectation among international officials is that negotiations on Kosovo's sovereignty will solve many of the problems, both political and economic, that the United Nations has been unable to tackle.
Others warn that while the failure to resolve the region's future has fermented unrest, the model of nation building adopted here has been too narrow in scope and too authoritarian in nature to leave institutions and leaders capable of sustaining peace and democracy.
"The focus of the international mission from the start was on security and politics," said Gerald Knaus, director of the European Stability Initiative, a non-governmental political research group with offices in Kosovo.
International bureaucrats, he said, had chosen to ignore economic needs - the World Bank estimates that 37 percent of the population lives on less than $1.75 a day - and were primarily concerned to "build institutions almost as an end in itself."
Even Rossin noted that the talks on status might have been held two years ago, but added that would have presumed similar international support, and a more cooperative approach between the mission with local politicians, "instead of competition and constant criticism of the provisional institutions."
Senior UN officials also said there was doubt as to whether Western governments wanted to invest the political capital associated with any kind of resolution.
Certainly, Kosovo's Albanian politicians accuse the mission of being deliberately slow to transfer power to local authorities, thereby increasing unrest.
At first glance today, Kosovo appears relatively thriving - particularly when compared to the war devastation of 1999. New houses can be seen everywhere, the result of a post war construction boom. In the regional capital, Pristina, the streets are filled with cafés, restaurants and stores.
Only the ubiquitous white four-wheel drive vehicles of the UN mission, and the infrequent military checkpoints hint at another reality.
That ugly division boiled over in March last year, when the UN's claims to have brought stability were shattered as up to 50,000 ethnic Albanians took part in a three-day wave of attacks on Serbs and other minority groups, as well as UN buildings and property. Nineteen people were killed and 4,000 forced from their homes.
Most Kosovo Serbs remain in enclaves, fearful of venturing forth. Albanians, too, steer clear of the north of the province, where Serbs are clustered in and around the town of Mitrovica, for fear of attack. Late on Wednesday, gunmen shot and injured the province's most senior Serbian police officer, Dejan Jankovic, near the town of Gnjilane just two weeks after he was appointed as regional commander.
On Aug. 27, two Serbs were gunned down in the car they were traveling, a reminder of how violence can resurface without provocation.
Severe economic difficulties increase the tension. Estimates of unemployment range between a minimum of 30 percent, and 70 percent. The regional government is also close to bankrupt as the local economy fails to produce enough revenue to support basic needs.
"We are in a situation where we are living off almost entirely customs revenues and donations from donors," Rossin said. "The budget is extremely tight, school construction is nearly nil in the year 2005 because there is just no money in the capital budget to do it in a place that has crying needs in a whole range of social areas."
Economic policy consists of "short term thinking, short term approaches, projects and international consultants," Knaus said. "Kosovo institutions don't have any idea, they don't know what to do."
UN officials here note that Kosovo was the poorest part of the old Yugoslavia before tensions exploded in the late 1980s and Serbia's then leader, Slobodan Milosevic, rode nationalist tensions both to seize and consolidate power and to bring Kosovo under direct rule from Belgrade.
Ethnic Albanians went underground during those years, founding their own schools in garages and private homes and claiming enormous and violent harassment from Serbia's then ubiquitous police.
Eventually, an underground guerrilla movement - the Kosovo Liberation Army - formed and started attacking the Serbian forces in 1998. Serbian retaliation was so fierce that NATO decided in 1999 to bomb Milosevic's men out of Kosovo.
Hundreds of thousands of Albanians who fled returned, while thousands of Serbs abandoned Kosovo - their heartland for centuries.
All this makes for difficult terrain when trying to sow democracy. For the past three years, that has been the UN's main mission.
Billboard campaigns and TV advertising exhort Kosovo's citizens to sup- port the policy, which the commercials imply will eventually enable Kosovo to join the European Union.