Kosovo's Independence The Price of Freedom

Europe's youngest nation already has problems. Violent Serbs in Belgrade are protesting Kosovo's independence, and the Serbian government has demanded €220 billion in damages. Can the little state last?

By Rüdiger Falksohn and Renate Flottau

Serbian nationalists looted and set fire to the US embassy during riots in Belgrade on February 21. The man in the center flashes a three-fingered salute, a provocative gesture in the Balkans.

Serbian nationalists looted and set fire to the US embassy during riots in Belgrade on February 21. The man in the center flashes a three-fingered salute, a provocative gesture in the Balkans.

Ever since Belgrade became the capital of Serbia, it has suffered bloodshed and violence, which is why the riots on Thursday evening -- when Serb nationalists ignited cars, burned foreign flags and even attacked a half-dozen embassies, including Germany's and America's -- reminded some people of the Kosovo war and the chaos that followed. The spectre of that war seems to be haunting Serbia now.

Young men ripped down window grilles, looted recently-evacuated offices in the US embassy and set fire to the building. One looter died in the flames; his blackened body was found in a back room. "Serbia! Serbia!" chanted the crowd outside.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had called for a peaceful protest against Kosovo's declaration of independence. But his security forces held back in the face of popular rage -- the kind of duplicity that former dictator Slobodan Milosevic had mastered in his own time. Apparently Kostunica believed that the simmering soul of his country needed an outlet after the latest humiliation.

"Every normal person knows that the real cause (of this violence) is the outrageous violence that the powerful nations of the world have used against Serbia," said Kostunica's party spokesman. But many Serbs resent their leaders for tolerating the riots in Belgrade and giving the impression that vandalism has something to do with Serbia's idea of democracy.

The UN Security Council also issued a warning. An emergency meeting of the council condemned "in the strongest terms the mob attacks against embassies in Belgrade." But the council didn't criticize the catalyst for the violence -- Kosovo's one-sided declaration of independence -- although legally speaking it was more than problematic.

On February 17 the Kosovo government leader, Hashim Thaci, declared his province of Serbia the 47th nation in Europe. It was the end of a nine-year saga of procrastination, diplomatic tactics and vain attempts by the international community to push politicians in Belgrade and Pristina towards a compromise.

Serbia's position was supported by the Russians. In the Security Council, Moscow resisted the concept of limited sovereignty for Kosovo drawn up by the UN's Finnish negotiator, Martti Ahtisaari. After that the Western governments gave their blessings to the idea of full independence -- without regard for the UN or relevant international law.

The Kosovo Albanians were satisfied, and on independence day their country turned into a sea of flags. It's been nine years since NATO, under American pressure, waged a bombing campaign to wrest the province from Belgrade's influence. Now the dream of freedom from foreign rule has finally come true -- even if the European Union is supervising the new state for the time being.

A few days after the big independence-day celebrations, only a few flags fluttered in Kosovo. The Albanians seem irritated that their daily lives haven't changed -- while in Belgrade there were mobs on the street. They still have to live in suspense and uncertainty.

Deep-Seated Hate and Mistrust

NATO helicopters chatter over Mitrovica. Uniformed men with binoculars peer from rooftops at the other side of the divided city, to the Serbian part of the city which also forms the frontier to the Serb-dominated north, Kosovo's Achilles heel.

People danced in the streets in neighboring Albania when Kosovo declared independence.

People danced in the streets in neighboring Albania when Kosovo declared independence.

Yeber Durmishi, head of civil defense in the Albanian southern district of Mitrovica, hears updates by radio every 10 minutes about the situation on the other side of the Ibar River. "I don't trust the Serbs," the Albanian says, with his hair combed over his face. He was a student leader when Milosovic took away Kosovo's provincial autonomy in 1989 -- an overnight political move that undid a concession granted by Communist Yugoslavia's President Tito 15 years before.

On a sheet of paper, Durmishi sketches the enclaves of his people in the Serbian north. Serbian extremists in these areas, he says, have tried more than once over the last few nights to provoke battles using bursts of gunfire. If violence does break out he hopes the NATO occupation force, KFOR, will step in remorselessly. A new report comes over the radio, saying the drinking water hasn't been poisoned. A chemistry lab tests a reservoir by the hour because the Albanians fear sabotage.

Hate and mistrust run deep. Adili, also an Albanian, will live "gladly next to but never with the Serbs." He's hooked up with a new underground organization called the Albanian National Army, which sees the Kosovo Liberation Army as its model. "We're here as reserves, in case the NATO troops can't force the Serbian north to integrate," he says.

The Albanian National Army takes orders from its head office in Tirana, Albania. It would like to annex Europe's newest nation into a larger blood-brotherhood with Albania; it wants union for all Albanian regions of the Balkans. Until this project is complete, Adili says, he and his people won't rest easy.

Albin Kurti is also skeptical about the new situation. "I was the only one who didn't celebrate independence," he says. He's a pale man with curly black hair. His organization, Vetevendosje ("Self-Determination"), wants strings-free independence for Kosovo. It has mobilized many young people, particularly the unemployed. The EU mission heading into Kosovo now will be no better than the UN mission, says Kurti. In the long run it will not only degrade Kosovo into a protectorate, he believes, but also divide it the way Bosnia has been divided.

Meanwhile Belgrade has categorically refused to recognize the breakaway state. Prime Minister Kostunica and President Boris Tadic have been uncharacteristically united on this point. They've called their ambassadors home from the capital of every country that has recognized Kosovo so far, including Berlin.

In a northern neighborhood of Mitrovica, even before February 17, the Serbs opened an office to administer northern Kosovo and to resist the government in Pristina. US President George W. Bush, blamed for the current trouble, has been symbolically buried next to the bridge over the Ibar. The wooden cross there reads "Bush".

An attempt to bring the border with Belgrade's territory under Serbian control has failed. Reservists set tires on fire and temporarily chased away Kosovar customs officers, but they didn't get past 500 KFOR soldiers. And now, in order to prevent similar occurrences, they have strengthened their patrols.

Most of the close to 80,000 Serbs living in enclaves in Kosovo are just waiting to sell their homes to ethnic Albanians at favorable prices. Belgrade is perfectly aware of this, too. The Serbian media has taken an inventory of Serbian assets in Kosovo; the refugees alone have left behind assets worth €4 billion. The Serbs have decided to demand €220 billion from Kosovo for the "illegal privatization" of former state-owned businesses.

A Precedent for Europe?

Belgrade is driving the price of freedom as high as it can, even though the tiny nation can hardly sustain itself. Half the population is unemployed, in some regions the jobless rate is as high as 80 percent. With an estimated per capita gross domestic product of barely $1,300, Kosovo's economy is close to a Third World level. Kosovo's 2.1 million residents, of whom 90 percent are ethnic Albanians, live largely off wire transfers from an estimated 400,000 Kosovars working abroad. Its reserves of brown coal, zinc and lead will do little to improve its balance of trade. Last year Kosovo imported products worth €1.5 billion, but exported only €100 million in goods.

A planned donor conference will provide only interim aid. And to ensure long-term success in Kosovo, Europe will have to dig deep into its pockets. The cost of maintaining the EU's Eulex mission alone -- with its close to 2,000 police, legal experts and bureaucrats -- is expected to total at least €1.5 billion between now and 2010.

The Europeans' greatest concern is a domino effect among breakaway regions in Europe. That's why Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Romania have so far refused to recognize Kosovo. With people still partying on the streets of Pristina, Basque separatists in Spain were already talking about an "exemplary solution." Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Hungarian minority living in Romania described Kosovo as a "model," and the parliament in the self-governed Bosnian Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) threatened to hold a referendum on independence.

Of course, they know full well that a decision in the Kosovo case cannot be reversed. A precedent has been set.


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