By Nicholas Wood The New York Times
TUESDAY, JANUARY 17, 2006
BABIN MOST, Kosovo The concrete barrier that encircles this Serbian village is supposed to prevent anyone traveling on one of the main roads of Kosovo from taking a potshot at any of its 1,000 inhabitants.
The last attack was in 2000 when two Kosovo Albanian gunmen shot and killed a local Serb shopkeeper and the wall, 4 meters, or more than 12 feet, high was built as a defense.
Its continued existence is a reminder of the deep divisions remaining despite six and half years of international supervision of Kosovo, a province of Serbia that is populated chiefly by separatist ethnic Albanians.
On Jan. 25, talks are to start in Vienna that both Serb and Albanian leaders hope will lead to the removal of the barrier in Babin Most and others like it.
Interethnic violence has bubbled up ever since Kosovo was placed under the authority of the United Nations in June 1999. At the time Serb-led security forces, accused of widespread atrocities in the province, were forced to leave under the weight of a NATO bombing campaign. To this day, Serb and Albanian communities live overwhelmingly separate lives.
International officials say that without an agreement on the province's future, there is little chance of reconciliation.
The negotiations chaired by Martti Ahtissari, a former Finnish president and a veteran negotiator, were approved by the UN in October and ultimately will determine whether Kosovo becomes an independent state, the goal desired by the ethnic Albanian majority, or remains a part of Serbia.
That core issue is one of the most intractable problems left over from the breakup of Yugoslavia, a process that began with the wars of the 1990s.
Serbs regard Kosovo as intrinsically linked with their religion, history and identity. But Albanians make up more than 90 percent of the population and after brutal repression during the 1990s are adamantly opposed to a return to Serbian rule.
Officials in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, rule out independence for Kosovo but, speaking practically, they concede that they cannot regain control over the province. They have ruled out direct rule from Belgrade, and acknowledge that a return of Serbian forces could provoke a new conflict.
"We don't want to have troops that could be seen as an occupying force," said Alexander Simic, an adviser to the Serbian prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, and the Serbian negotiating team. "We don't want to provoke the future instability of the region."
Still there are many problems.
The negotiations, which are expected to last at least throughout the summer, are to cover the protection of Serb patrimonial and cultural sights in Kosovo, the freedom of movement of minorities and the protection of minority rights in a new constitution.
Both sides agree that the key to reconciliation lies in giving those Serbs living in Kosovo more say in running their affairs. By this, both the UN and the Albanian majority tacitly agree that the current government in Kosovo has failed to meet the needs of the Serbs.
"If I get a traffic ticket I have to go to Pristina to pay it," said Zlatibor Ristic, a Serb living in Babin Most, referring to the provincial capital. "But in order to go to Pristina, I have to have a police escort, because it is too dangerous for Serbs to travel alone there."
The Serb government in Belgrade wants to establish municipalities in areas with Serbian majorities so they can elect and appoint Serbs to the police, the judiciary and to health and education postings.
These issues will quickly touch on matters of sovereignty, where there seems to be little room for compromise.
Albanian negotiators say they may be willing to grant a degree of autonomy to Serb-dominated localities provided that they are linked to the government in Pristina in a Kosovo that is independent. But the Serbs refuse to countenance discussions of Kosovo's independence from Belgrade.
Albanians also worry that the Serbs will try to link the municipalities into "entities" linked to Belgrade. That, the Albanians fear, could lead to new divisions and undercut an independent Kosovo.
"This is code for partition," said Blerim Shala, technical coordinator for the Kosovo Albanian team. "Even the smell of partition is problematic for Albanians and also for the international community."
Other hurdles exist away from the negotiation room.
In Belgrade, the government has a slim working majority in Parliament and may call elections this spring. That could delay the completion of talks by several months.
Also, the head of the Albanian team, Ibrahim Rugova, the president of Kosovo, is being treated for cancer and is not expected to see the end of negotiating process. His death could provoke a fierce dispute over his successor as the leader of Kosovo's largest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic League of Kosovo.
Western diplomats do not want the negotiations to drag out, fearing that if they do, extremist sentiment could revive.
At a certain point, according to these diplomats in the region and Western capitals, a solution might have to be imposed by the West, granting independence for Kosovo and certain rights for the Serbs living there.