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24 January 2008 Edition

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INTERNATIONAL : Kosovo 'to declare independence within weeks'

New Balkans tensions over Kosovo


KOSOVO’S incoming government is expected to declare independence within weeks. Former Kosovo Liberation Army chief Hashim Thaci won Kosovo’s presidential elections this January and formed a coalition government comprised of the region’s two largest parties: his own Democratic Party and the Democratic League of Kosovo. Speaking after the formation of the new government, Thaci said: “I assure you that, within a few weeks, we will declare independence.”
The Serbian Government is strongly opposed to independence for Kosovo. Speaking last December, Serbia’s Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said that any declaration of independence would be illegal under international law and would be “null and void”. The position of the Serbian Government has been to offer “less than independence but more than autonomy” in an attempt to keep Kosovo within Serbia.
Some commentators fear that the increasingly intractable nature of the dispute could lead to the outbreak of war. Serbian Defence Minister Dragan Sutanovac has said that there are no plans to intervene militarily. However, Rade Negojevc, a Serbian Defence official with responsibility for Kosovo, said: “The Serbian Army will react to protect its citizens.” The issue is also strengthening the Serbian Radicals party of Tomislav Nikolic, who won 39 per cent in the first round of the country’s presidential election last weekend.
But there is much more to the Kosovo issue than a dispute between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs.
Both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians have historically disputed the status of the region. Today, 90 per cent of its 1.9 million inhabitants are Albanian; the remaining 10 per cent are predominantly Serbs and a small number of Roma. For Serbs, Kosovo is regarded as a province of Serbia with a strong historical significance. Kosovo Albanians, however, have long nurtured a desire for either greater autonomy from Serbia, outright independence or amalgamation into Albania.
Under Tito’s Yugoslavia, Kosovo had the status of an autonomy, giving it less power than the republics of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and, after 1971 Bosnia, but significantly more than a province of Serbia.
During the early years of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic successfully used the issue of Kosovo’s reintegration into Serbia as a key part of his nationalist political platform. From the 1990s onward, the region was stripped of its autonomy, and widespread economic and social discrimination was imposed from Belgrade on the majority population. Despite continued political repression and torture, Kosovo Albanians, under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, led a non-violent resistance campaign. They built underground institutions such as schools, universities and hospitals, virtually constructing an alternative state.
While Rugova’s non-violent strategy was challenged as early as 1993 with the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), committed to armed insurrection, it was not until 1996 that levels of organised violence started to rise. A combination of ongoing Serbian state repression and growing frustration within the Kosovo Albanian population shifted the balance of popular support towards the KLA. By 1998, as KLA and Serbian state violence escalated, war seemed increasingly inevitable.
The events of 1998 and 1999 continue to be disputed. Kosovar Albanians and their supporters within the US and EU argue that Belgrade, under Milosevic’s instruction, began a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kosovo Albanian population. By August 1998, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 200,000 Kosovars had been displaced from their homes. Serbia and its international allies, however, argue that Milosevic was attempting to pursue a diplomatic course with an unwilling Ibrahim Rugova while responding to KLA violence in the north of Kosovo.
A final attempt to secure a diplomatic solution took place from January to March 1998 chaired by NATO General Secretary Javier Solana. The outcome was the Rambouillet Accords, signed by the Kosovar delegation along with the British and US but rejected by Serbia and Russia.  Within days, NATO commenced its bombing of Serbia. The KLA welcomed the NATO intervention while Serbia accused it of deliberately designing the Rambouillet talks to secure a Serbian rejection as justification for their military intervention and eventual occupation of Kosovo. Within weeks, the number of refugees soared, first to 300,000 and then, by April, to 850,000.
The war ended in June and, under the terms of UN Resolution 1244, Kosovo became a UN protectorate with an autonomous parliament formally within the borders of Serbia. The arrangement, though, was always understood to be a temporary solution in advance of final state negotiations that would permanently resolve Kosovo’s status. Various attempts to reach agreement failed and a volatile political vacuum followed. Almost a decade passed without progress.
Not only were the positions of both Serbia and Kosovo irreconcilable but the international community was also deeply divided. While Russia and the US took opposing sides, the EU itself was split, with Spain, Cyprus, Greece and Romania deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Kosovan independence.
In the absence of an agreement between the Serbia and Kosovo, and under pressure from the US who were keen to exit from the region, the UN special envoy to Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, launched The Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement in February 2007. The plan effectively offers Kosovo independence but with limits, conditions and a continued EU and NATO political and military presence. The EU offered to accelerate both Serbia and Kosovo’s entry into the European Union in an attempt to push the two sides into accepting the plan.
A UN-sponsored round of negotiations in December last year once again failed to reach agreement as both Serbia, Kosovo and their international allies remained wedded to their respective positions. Kosovo, supported by the US, Britain and the majority of EU member states have responded by suggesting that a “solution” can be reached without Serbia or Russia. Hashim Thaci’s promised declaration of independence is widely understood as the first move in a choreographed sequence, supported by the US and Britain, which will lead to the implementation of the Ahtisaari plan without Serb or Russian consent. Meanwhile, Serbia and Russia have declared that such a move would be illegal under the terms of UN Resolution 1244, which stipulated that only the UN Security Council can change Kosovo’s status. Serbia and Russia have called for all sides to return to the table for more negotiations.
For much of the 20th century the Balkans were consumed by conflicts caused, in the first instance, by external interference by the world’s major powers. In turn, deep-running national and ethnic divisions have shaped the internal dynamics of the region. Independence for Kosovo is not, at this stage, in doubt. However, what is at stake is whether independence is secured through dialogue and agreement or following another bloody Balkan war.

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