By John W. Miller
5 April 2006
The Wall Street Journal Europe
(Copyright (c) 2006, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
Pristina, Kosovo -- AS EUROPEAN UNION and U.S. diplomats this week shepherded talks on a permanent status for Kosovo, the Serbian province where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization went to war in 1999, there was little doubt about the final outcome: independence.
Yet, there isn't much enthusiasm, especially in the EU, for creating an ethnically divided and poverty-stricken ministate in the most volatile corner of the Continent. It is just that diplomats now believe they have no choice. "The other alternatives are all worse," says Carl Bildt, a former special envoy to the Balkans for the European Union and the United Nations. "I expect a resolution by the end of the year."
The U.N. has administered Kosovo for six years, following a conflict that pitted Serbia against the ethnic Albanian separatists who dominate in Kosovo, and between the Serbian minority that wants to remain aligned with Christian Serbia rather than Muslim Kosovo.
Despite billions of dollars of international aid and security costs, the populations remain bitterly divided. The economy hasn't recovered, and Western governments have decided Kosovo's problems won't be fixed under international rule.
For Faik Halimaj, a 67-year-old Kosovar coal miner who lost five members of his family during the conflict, independence would be a dream come true that opens the prospect of joining the 25-nation EU. Like many Albanian Kosovars, he won't even consider remaining part of Serbia. "The best would be to join Europe," he says.
Diplomats acknowledge they are supporting Kosovo's independence reluctantly in the talks, which started in February. A round held in Vienna on Monday, to arrange a measure of self-government for ethnic Serbs within Kosovo, failed to produce a result. Diplomats also say independence wasn't the goal when the U.N. took control of the province in 1999. Then, the hope was that time would heal wounds and permit a solution that maintained national borders, as was accomplished in nearby Bosnia.
The Balkan wars of the 1990s followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, a collection of republics cobbled together after World War II that were dominated by Serbia. Montenegro and Serbia -- of which Kosovo is a part -- are all that remain of that federation. Serbian politicians have warned that independence in Kosovo, which Serbs consider their nation's birthplace, could trigger a nationalist backlash in the rest of the country. There are concerns, too, that independence could destabilize Kosovo's neighbor, Macedonia, another former Yugoslav republic that has a simmering conflict with its own ethnic Albanian minority.
Local Kosovar politics have if anything hardened over the past two years. The war is glorified here among ethnic Albanians. Businesses in small towns sell tombstones carved in the form of a life-size "freedom fighter" holding a rifle. In small cafes, Muslim men play cards under paintings of Bill Clinton, who was U.S. president when the decision to send NATO on its first military engagement was made.
Meanwhile, at a 14th century Serbian Orthodox monastery in Decani, near Kosovo's Western border with Albania, NATO soldiers from Italy keep their fingers on the trigger as visitors approach. They are protecting Father Sava Janjic and about 30 Serbian monks. Kosovo is "Serbia's home," Fr. Janjic says.
The EU has poured more than 2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) into Kosovo since 2000. Yet annual average per-capita income in Kosovo is just 1,230 euros, around 5% the level in Western Europe. Thirty-seven percent of the population lives below the poverty line of 1.42 euros a day; unemployment is around 35%; and infant-mortality rates are the highest in the region, according to the World Bank. Diplomats concede these conditions won't change until Kosovo's political status is resolved.
The province is cut off from the much wealthier economy around Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Customs and border controls are laborious for goods and people, and cars entering from Serbia change license plates at the border for fear of attack. "In a sense, Kosovo's main problem isn't independence, it's isolation," says Robert Cooper, the EU's director general for foreign affairs.
A power plant next to Mr. Halimaj's house in the grimy suburbs of the capital, Pristina, which burns local coal, could be renovated so it produces enough electricity for export, economists say. The province also has reserves of zinc, silver, copper and nickel. and the U.N. estimates mining could one day be the backbone of an improved Kosovo economy.
The foreign investment needed to develop its resources won't start to flow until Kosovo's political stability is assured, according to Erhard Busek. Mr. Busek is coordinator for the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, a regional treaty the EU set up to promote local free-trade agreements and other re-unifying programs in the Balkans.