Articles on the Kosovo Conflict


By Peter Lippman

February 20, 2008


Euphoria reigned in Kosovo on Sunday, when the UN protectorate's Albanian leaders declared independence from Serbia. It was a day to celebrate, but the independence declaration will not spirit away Kosovo's problems. Difficult times lie ahead, and the international community must exert itself to keep the peace and bring Kosovo out of its desperate economic situation.

In a region where nothing is forgotten and there is precious little forgiving, the turbulence of the last two decades provides a legacy of tension and hostility between Kosovo's Serbs and Albanians. Serbs remember the time when Kosovo was the center of their medieval state. Albanians, meanwhile, remember that throughout the 1990s, Serbian forces treated Kosovo as an occupied territory and instituted a regime of brutality there. When NATO intervened in 1999, the Serbian army retaliated by killing approximately 10,000 Albanians, and expelling nearly a million of them across nearby borders.

With this background it is no surprise that negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo Albanian leaders over the last two years proved fruitless. Serbia offered Kosovo autonomy, but the Albanians, after the atrocities of the 1990s, were unwilling to accept anything less than independence. When Russia promised to veto a proposed independence plan in the UN Security Council, Albanian leaders decided to declare independence unilaterally.

The United States and most of the European Union's member countries have recognized Kosovo's independence. But this does not mean that Kosovo will really be independent. In reality, the UN is now set to hand over its role as administrator of the protectorate to the EU. In the coming weeks a European police and judiciary mission will be arriving.

The EU mission is another interim step in a limbo that has lasted since 1999. Kosovo needs true independence and stability in order to attract foreign investment so that it can cease being an economic basket case.

As a friend said to me ironically, "A country that tries to exterminate a whole people rather forfeits its right to rule them anymore." But in Belgrade, many have not gotten this message. Serbia's Parliament drafted a resolution annulling Kosovo's independence in advance, and on Sunday a Serbian Bishop declared Kosovo "occupied" and called on Serbia to fight to reclaim it. Serbs demonstrated violently, attacking Western embassies and MacDonald's restaurants. Some held signs reading, "Kosovo is Serbia."

Kosovo has not been Serbia for nine years, but there are hazards on the way to its becoming an independent state. Its leaders must exert themselves to respect human rights on all fronts. There have recently been accusations that the new constitution is being drafted with insufficient transparency and public participation. Particular care must be taken to protect Kosovo's Serbs and other minorities, and to make a normal life possible for them.

For that matter, Albanian leaders must work to protect the rights of all Kosovo's inhabitants. One area where Albanian leaders and the international community seem to have been collaborating in a serious human rights violation is in the repression against the young dissident leader, Albin Kurti. Kurti has been under arrest for a year, ever since he took part in a non-violent demonstration against the negotiations with Serbia. UN police fired that demonstration, killing two young Albanian protestors. Kurti, leader of a grassroots organization, has been scapegoated in an effort to pin blame for the violence on the demonstrators.

Albanians have been protesting what they see as the sellout of their self-determination by their leaders and by international officials. They see the negotiations and the international plan for "supervised independence" as trickery that will leave Kosovo partitioned. Indeed, a northern section of Kosovo never came under the UN's control; it is most likely that that area, never disconnected from Serbia administratively, will now remain under Belgrade's rule.

It is not likely that a new war will break out at this point, but there is a strong possibility of widespread "low-intensity" violence. The new EU administration must retain firm authority in this turbulent period of transition. Stability and respect for human rights are the prerequisites for the survival of the aspiring new state.

More articles by Peter Lippman


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