Five Years Later

Kosovo’s ethnic dispute wasn’t solved in 1999, just put off for another day.


Five years ago, NATO launched air strikes to end Serbian repression and ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo, though never entirely free of tension, has been relatively quiet — until two weeks ago, when violence broke out again between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. There is now a real concern that Kosovo’s uneasy detente will unravel, possibly destabilizing the Balkans. The U.N., NATO, and leaders in Kosovo and Serbia are scrambling to head off that possibility.

The latest flare-up is a prime example of the continuing volatility in the area. It began in mid-March, when three Albanian boys drowned in a river. Ethnic Albanians claimed the children had been chased there by Serbs. Incensed, Albanians throughout Kosovo rioted, torching Serb churches and attacking houses. Twenty-two people killed, as well as some 600 injured.

Since Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian troops were forced out of Kosovo in 1999 (after 10,000 ethnic Albanians had died), the U.N. has insisted that things have been improving in Kosovo. Only a day before violence broke out, a senior U.N. official visited the area to hail improved security and the return of Serb refugees, and to announce that elections would be held in October.

True, there has been less violence. But according to one Kosovo analyst, cited in the Economist, the dispute that erupted in 1999 has not been resolved, and anger has continued to simmer. “It’s back to the old days,” he says, “nothing has really happened.”

One think tank director based in Kosovo says: “In terms of Kosovo’s prospects… [the violence] is an absolute disaster.”

In 1999, the U.N. classified Kosovo as a temporary western protectorate under the authority of the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, and the province was formally recognized as part of Yugoslavia (now Serbia-Montenegro).

Kosovo’s 100,000 Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians, are a minority in Kosovo, far outnumbered by the province’s 1.8 million mostly Muslim ethnic Albanians. The groups share a long history of bloodshed; both claim the province as rightfully theirs. At the heart of the current dispute is Kosovo’s uncertain status. Since 1999, it has had no official status as an independent state, and has been policed peacekeeping troops who are increasingly seen as an occupying force out of touch with the hardships of most Kosovars. The economy is sickly, with employment running as high as 70 percent.

There is a real fear that this recent violence is no isolated incident but a foreshadow of more strife to come. The Economist (subscription only) writes:

“[D]iscontent with the U.N., Kosovo’s unresolved status and the stalled economy may just win the extremists behind the violence more support—as happened in the 1990s, when the policy of peaceful resistance to Serb rule seemed to bring no results.”

John O’Brennan in the Irish Times:

“There is clear evidence that last week’s violence against local Serb communities was organised and systematic. Balkan specialists see it as a form of pre-emptive action on the part of some Albanian groups, that is, to ethnically cleanse as many areas as possible of Serbs before moving to a final settlement which will limit the geographic concentration of Serbs to a handful of cantons in the north. It is a very Balkan logic predicated on an ingrained belief that violence and action are demonstrably preferable to dialogue and compromise.”

There is also concern that, for a region that was thought to be on the mend, and moving toward reformist leadership, this will lead to a spillover of violence in other areas. One EU diplomat said:

“In the Balkans everything is interconnected. Although the region has reached a critical mass of stability — so nobody’s talking about large scale conflict — you can’t predict how things will develop.”

One area at risk is bordering Macedonia, still recovering from a conflict in 2001 that left hundreds of thousands dead and millions homeless. Macedonia has a large minority Albanian population that coexists uneasily with a Slav majority, and there are rumors — denied by the Macedonian government — that armed groups from Macedonia are entering Kosovo to participate in the clashes.

The UN’s “roadmap” for Kosovo was to come to a head with talks for “final status” of the province in 2005. The U.N. has recently rushed to put out a document that sets out explicit deadlines for actions including rebuilding all destroyed property by the end of this year. It said:

“In the light of the violence of March 17-20, the immediate priority is the establishment of the rule of law, prosecution of perpetrators and public respect for law and order.”

But after this recent violence, Harri Holkeri, the U.N. chief in Kosovo, says such discussions about may be unrealistic. Kosovo’s independence was premised on stability; the recent violence may prove that they are not ready.

In recent weeks, a measure of calm has returned, although two U.N. police officers were ambushed and killed in northern Kosovo last week. NATO says it is deploying 2,600 troops to augment the 18,500-strong international peacekeeping force.

O’Brennan, in the Irish Times, discusses how the U.N.’s actions, while well-intentioned, have served only to frustrate the Albanians, by failing to focus on making Kosovo an independent state:

“Whilst UNMIK hopes centered on the provision of a space where an inter-ethnic dialogue could be fostered, in reality Albanians and Serbs are now further apart than ever.

The Panglossian policy choice of UNMIK and the EU has been to encourage democratic institution-building whilst continually refusing to address the issue of final status talks. Albanian frustration with this has grown steadily and now threatens to wreck the fragile post-1999 political compact. In this political vacuum, dissatisfaction with the occupying forces has grown.”

Georgie Anne Geyer of Universal Press Syndicate agrees that it was the U.N.’s handling of the crisis that has served to heighten problems:

“When NATO and the United States invaded Kosovo in 1999 to throw out the Serbs, about 10 percent of the population left behind was Serbian. The operative theory was that, despite all the bitter history, the Serbs and Kosovars had to reconcile and live together in peace. The Serbs were not punished, and the 90 percent Albanian Kosovar population was denied the independence it is still desperately determined to have. The Serbs in the north of Kosovo also held onto the rich mining area.

So, here’s the situation Kosovars face after five years: no justice for past sufferings, no future to look forward to, no way to assure foreign investment, no political resolution and no final status in the world. Kosovo is a poor, miserable place on the map, frozen in time and conveniently forgotten by the world.

This is because, as was so clear to me when I was in Kosovo, independence for the long-assaulted province is not only right and just, it is inevitable — you cannot force people to live together and love one another.”

So what is to be done? As for the Serb population, some advocate a policy of standing with NATO, as the only chance of protecting the Serb community in Kosovo.

A Deputy Prime Minister in Serbia, Miroljub Labus, says: “Cooperation with NATO – it has to be said openly – is the only guarantee for protection of Serbs in Kosovo.

“The time of illusions is gone. We have to rid ourselves from the illusion that a military solution is possible. The international community has to rid itself from the illusion that there is no terrorism in Kosovo.”

Meanwhile, Serbia’s prime minister, Vojislave Kostunica, has argued for “cantonization”, meaning that there would be some sort of division between areas populated by ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

The notion has been rejected by ethnic Albanian leaders, who want full independence for all of Kosovo, and also by international officials who warn that partition would not bring peace.

The answer for peace in Kosovo is not clear, but as Ian Traynor in the Guardian comments, partition has the potential for disaster:

“But if both sides ultimately agree to some form ofpartition and population exchange, such an outcome would be a defeat for more than 10 years ofinternational policy-making in the Balkans.

Such a “solution” must not be seen in isolation, given the intricate inter-relationships that characterise former Yugoslavia. A Kosovo partition could trigger a chain reaction. It would set back the re-integration programmes in Bosnia, encourage Serb and Croat separatists there, perhaps embolden the Croatian government to resist international pressure for the return of Serb refugees, and reward Albanian hardliners who would then be expected to set their sights on the large Albanian minority in neighbouring Macedonia.

In short, a messy disaster for nation-building projects everywhere. Nato has acted to stamp out the violence. But nothing is solved. Kosovo needs a historic compromise.