Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Last fight will shape the future Talks on the disputed province's status could end a stalemate, write Eric Jansson and Neil MacDonald.

International administrators have racked up an impressive list of achievements during their seven years on the ground in Kosovo, the mainly ethnic-Albanian province severed from Serbia through international military intervention in 1999.

Helped by foreign donations totalling Euros 2.14bn and further pledges worth Euros 610m, the United Nations administration established after the Yugoslav Serb regime pulled out has already left an indelible signature on this most unsettled corner of the western Balkans.

The UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has maintained law and order and, arguably, helped an enduring peace start to take root.

International administrators have designed and helped build a democratically elected provisional government, parliament and presidency, which will operate under direct UN supervision until further notice. UNMIK also advertises its success overseeing the installation of "the framework of a functional market economy".

In this landlocked province of fertile plains and snow-capped mountains - roughly one-third the size of the Netherlands - scarcely a town or village is untouched by the international reconstruction effort. Kosovo's 2m people have seen 1,400 km of roads and some 50,000 war-ruined houses rebuilt, as well as schools, hospitals and religious buildings.

Nato - which intervened with a 78-day bombing campaign to expel Serb military and police forces from the province - has taken on an equally daunting job. After Belgrade's capitulation in June 1999, multinational forces under Nato command brought basic security to the ethnic Albanians who account for an estimated 90 per cent of Kosovo's population, many of whom suffered bitterly at the hands of Serb authorities before and during the war.

The alliance has also protected Kosovo's acutely endangered Serb minority - with the exception of some fatal lapses.

Despite the basic peace and security, however, the international intervention in Kosovo cannot yet be called a success.

Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, in January expressed "serious concern" that Kosovo was backtracking in efforts to achieve the UN's stated goal - creating a "sustainable multi-ethnic, democratic society in which members of all communities can live in dignity and security."

Conditions could deteriorate further unless Kosovo is allowed out of the limbo it entered directly after the war. "The sooner we bring this holding operation to an end the better for all the people of Kosovo," says Soren Jessen-Petersen, the Dane who heads the UN mission as Mr Annan's special representative.

The way to end this holding operation is to resolve Kosovo's status - but that has not been achieved by the war, UN Security Council Resolution 1244 which established UNMIK, or the past seven years.

However, if current bilateral status talks in Vienna are to be taken seriously, a year from now Kosovo will be either a newly independent state or an autonomous territory remaining within Serbia's internationally recognised border.

The trouble is that Resolution 1244 offered fig leaves to both Nato and Serbia. For Nato, "victory" meant the expulsion of Serb forces; for Belgrade, then dominated by the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, "victory" meant preserving territorial integrity. The resolution offered both.

Seeking a new way forward, the UN initiated painstaking "status negotiations" between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanian leadership at the end of 2005.

But Belgrade's position is unambiguous. "This huge intention of the Kosovo Albanians to create an independent state is a grave contradiction of international law," says Alexander Simic, a high-level Serbian adviser on the talks. "You cannot create an artificial nation."

Neither side has made any concession on ultimate sovereignty. Belgrade has shown less discomfort over Montenegro's close-run referendum on May 21 to become independent - killing the last vestige of what used to be the

six-republic Yugoslav federation - than it does over the prospect of accepting a fait accompli in Kosovo.

But the Serb nation has a long history in Kosovo, which is, after all, still internationally recognised as part of Serbia's territory. Kosovo, unlike Montenegro, boasts no history of independent statehood, even if some Kosovan leaders call the 1987-99 period a "Serb occupation".

On this issue, moreover, Belgrade can summon allies on the UN Security Council. Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, has warned against setting a precedent for secession by minor provinces. Beijing, mindful of Nato's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, might also side with Serbia.

On the other hand, while UN officials insist that nothing about Kosovo's status is pre-arranged, diplomats from Washington and London have signalled that independence is likely around the end of this year.

Secessionist leaders from Pristina, Kosovo's capital, remain engaged in the stilted dialogue with Belgrade. A set of "ground rules" for the UN-mediated negotiations will help direct the outcome. These are: no partition; no return to direct Serb rule as before 1999; no creation of a "Greater Albania"; and any status decision being acceptable to the majority of Kosovo's people.

Most citizens in Kosovo demand independence. "The Serbs should look at the realities and see that independence is the only option supported by the majority. It is not negotiable," says Fatmir Sejdiu, Kosovo president and leader of the province's negotiating team.

No sooner did the UN call for status negotiations than graffiti appeared throughout the province. "No negotiations! Self-determination!" says the writing on walls everywhere, scrawled by youth activists whose political identity was formed in the 1990s under the late Mr Milosevic's oppressive rule.

Hashim Thaci, Kosovo Liberation Army militant and now leader of the parliamentary opposition, says: "We already created the reality of an independent Kosovo in June 1999. The only thing we are negotiating are modalities to implement the will of the people."

But independence - whether achieved through negotiation or by the imposition of an international deal against Serbia's will - would leave Kosovo with an uphill battle from the start.

Uppermost in many Western policymakers' minds is the province's capacity to export instability and crime - a factor that Boris Tadic, Serbia's president, argues would be more controllable within the framework of a larger state. Mr Sejdiu pledges an "absolute commitment to prevent Kosovo becoming a door or a springboard" for terrorism and crime. Nato forces and possibly European Union police are almost certain to stay on after any status settlement, just to make sure.

For most citizens, safety and money are the top issues. The province's economy remains in the doldrums, with 37 per cent of the population living on less than Euros 1.42 per day and 15 per cent lacking money to buy adequate food, according to the World Bank. The real rate of unemployment is unknown; most analysts put it above 30 per cent.

Adding to existing economic challenges, Kosovo could inherit a heavy burden of old debt from Serbia, which has continued servicing all its share of ex-Yugoslav obligations to international creditors.

Joachim Ruecker, the German diplomat in charge of privatisation, says foreign investment will ease Kosovo's way. "There is momentum here. There are very serious investors coming even before status. There is no reason to wait," he says.

Foreign investment has picked up lately. But Kosovo remains a place for the brave, and those who enter will still need nerves of steel.

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