A Hot Summer in the Balkans Will Serbs Declare Independence from Kosovo?

As six nations start a period of shuttle diplomacy over Kosovo's fate, Serbian enclaves within the breakaway province threaten to plunge the region into civil war. If Kosovo declares independence, Serbs within Kosovo may follow suit.

By Renate Flottau

An ethnic Albanian man walks through the market of Kosovo's capital Pristina. But not all cities in the province are pro-independence.

An ethnic Albanian man walks through the market of Kosovo's capital Pristina. But not all cities in the province are pro-independence.

Andrej Hadzi Milic looks like a young Radovan Karadzic. He's a Serb leader who threatens violence if Kosovo -- the Serbs' holy heartland -- is ripped from Serbia. He's promised that no Albanian "gnat" would survive his "agency of disinfection." Kosovo's Albanian politicians ridicule Milic's supposed militia as a phantom army of big-mouthed braggarts, but concerned members of the UN administration in Kosovo warn that these troublemakers could be puppets for radical members of the Serbian police and military.

Most of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians want independence, something Serbia's parliament voted to oppose Wednesday by a massive majority (217 to 2), ahead of revived talks by major powers in Vienna. Most of the six-nation "Contact group" -- except Russia -- favors independence, too. The complication is that the tiny province itself may be ripe for civil war.

The windshield of a bus that travels back and forth between two hostile sections of Kosovska Mitrovica -- a border city within Kosovo -- is cracked from rocks thrown by people in the street. Thick tarps cover the side windows. The bus follows a route across the Ibar River, which divides the Albanian southern part of Mitrovica from its Serb-dominated north. The city is a microcosm of the province itself: Its northern area is de facto Serb territory, with Serbian flags lining the streets and hundreds of posters of Vojislav Seselj, a radical Serb leader and accused war criminal currently in jail in The Hague.

About 20,000 Serbs live in the north of the province, an area that has long since slipped out of control of the UN's administration and NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR). The fate of the roughly 1,500 to 2,000 Albanians living in the Serb-dominated north is hardly different from the fate of Serbs in the Albanian south: They live in ghettoes and are terrified of what the future could bring. And Serb officials have threatened that northern Kosovo would secede from the rest of the province if Kosovo wins independence.

At that point, 60,000 to 100,000 Serbs still living in the southern part of Kosovo would embark on a great trek northward. "Anyone who makes it out will count himself lucky," warns Samidin Xhezairi, an Albanian who made a name for himself as Commander Hoxha among the UÇK rebels during the 1999 Kosovo war. If the north secedes, he says, he plans to resume the fight with Serbia. As far Xhezairi is concerned, the war never ended; the two sides are just observing a cease-fire.

Talk, but no action

Serbian enclaves in Kosovo.

Serbian enclaves in Kosovo.

Last week Moscow rejected another proposal for a new UN resolution that would have brought an internationally monitored independence to the troubled province. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country holds a veto on the UN Security Council, has made his position clear: He will oppose any solution that is not acceptable to the Serbian government in Belgrade. But the Serbs stand to pay a heavy price for support from their Slavic brothers in Moscow. Moscow's negotiators have already reached agreements with Belgrade that will make the future privatization of Serbian state-owned businesses, especially in the energy sector, a lucrative prospect for Russia.

Washington intends to be just as stubborn. Reiterating promises made during a recent trip to Albania, US President George W. Bush continues to push for a quick decision on Kosovo. Last week his European expert, Nicholas Burns, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs and third-in-command at the US State Department, said the United States "will recognize Kosovo as an independent state by the end of the year -- with or without a UN resolution."

With the Russian deadlock on a UN resolution, Western nations plan to leave the province's fate up to the six-nation Contact Group for Kosovo, which includes Germany, France, Great Britain, the United States, Italy and Russia. In this forum, Russia lacks a veto. The plan allows for an intense 120-day negotiation period between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. Then an international conference could issue a decision, which the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians would be obligated to accept.

Another option under consideration is a negotiating team made up of representatives from the European Union, United States and Russia, the goal being to apply intense pressure on the opposing parties in Kosovo.

But Kosovar Albanians are becoming impatient with the international community's seemingly never-ending promises. Prime Minister Agim Çeku and President Fatmir Sejdiu met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington on Monday and said they were prepared to declare independence unilaterally if the 120-day process yields nothing -- on Nov. 28, which is also Albania's day of independence. But Secretary Rice prevailed on them to coordinate with Washington first. She wanted to "underline the fact that nobody gains by trying to short-circuit the diplomatic process that is under way," according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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