Articles on the Kosovo Conflict



Collapse in Kosovo
Europe Report No. 155
22 April 2004



Click here to view the full report (PDF)

On 17 March 2004, the unstable foundations of four and a half years of gradual progress in Kosovo buckled and gave way. Within hours the province was immersed in anti-Serb and anti-UN rioting and had regressed to levels of violence not seen since 1999. By 18 March the violence mutated into the ethnic cleansing of entire minority villages and neighbourhoods. The mobs of Albanian youths, extremists and criminals exposed the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) as very weak. Kosovo's provisional institutions of self-government (PISG), media and civil society afforded the rioters licence for mayhem. The international community urgently needs new policies -- on final status and socio-economic development alike -- or Kosovo instability may infect the entire region.

The rampage left nineteen dead, nearly 900 injured, over 700 Serb, Ashkali and Roma homes, up to ten public buildings and 30 Serbian churches and two monasteries damaged or destroyed, and roughly 4,500 people displaced. The riots were more spontaneous than organised, with extremist and criminal gangs taking advantage, particularly on day two. Frustration and fear over the international community's intentions for Kosovo, UNMIK's inability to kick-start the economy and its suspension of privatisation, and Belgrade's success over recent months in shredding Kosovo Albanian nerves all built the tension that was released with explosive force by the inciting incidents of 16 March.

Regional security implications are serious and widespread. KFOR and NATO have lost their aura of invulnerability and invincibility. The perception of international weakness and lack of resolve will not be lost on extremists in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans, including newly resurgent nationalists in Belgrade. If the underlying causes of the violence are not dealt with immediately and directly -- through political, developmental and security measures alike -- Kosovo risks becoming Europe's West Bank.

The violent explosion revealed Kosovo Albanian society to be deeply troubled, lacking institutions, leadership and the culture to absorb shocks and contain its violent, criminal minority. In its current state, this society will continue to push out minorities and ultimately consume its own wafer-thin layer of liberal intelligentsia. Its large number of young people threaten to sweep aside the fragile institutions of the older generation. Since 1999 a migration from the undeveloped countryside has swamped the capital and the modernised elements of society. UNMIK has not come near to making good Kosovo's development deficits, particularly the decay in education and literacy.

UNMIK's structure and mandate are now exposed as inappropriate to prepare Kosovo for the transition from war to peace, from socialism to the market economy, and from international political limbo to final status. The international community had beguiled itself into believing that the patchy half-promises of its November 2003 undertaking to begin reviewing Kosovo's final status by mid-2005 represented a complete policy. Unable to agree on what that final status should be, it relied on the na´ve assumption that delaying the decision would allow passions to cool. It also failed to take security concerns seriously and deal with parallel structures and criminal groups. This lack of resolve left the majority Albanian and minority Serb communities locked in a confrontation that was suppressed, never resolved.

With status uncertainty deterring investors, and without the myriad club memberships open only to nation states, Kosovo's development is stunted under the current UN rule. Its GDP -- dependent on the waning contributions of prematurely disengaging donors and with only 4 per cent of imports covered by exports -- is unsustainable at even the current low level. With many families dependent on remittances from their migrant children, Kosovo is engaged in a humiliating demographic war of attrition with Western Europe. As Kosovo Albanians furtively cross their borders and enter their labour markets, these nations seek to throw them back. For the more than 50 per cent of Kosovo's labour force that is unemployed, including the 30,000 to 40,000 who join it every year, the present interim dispensation for Kosovo is not enough.

It is crucial that all concerned face up quickly to the implications of 17-18 March. The international community's institutions in Kosovo need new ways of operating and, in the case of UNMIK, a new structure and mandate. If the notion of partition is to be rejected -- as ICG believes it still should be except in the unlikely event that both interested sides freely choose it (in which case it would be consistent with the Helsinki principles) -- this can no longer be out of hand or on faith but only because new international policies and new honesty among Kosovo Albanians about their society produce changes on the ground that make Kosovo a much more viable place for all its communities.

If this is to happen, a real political, social, economic and institutional development process must be put in place rapidly to absorb the energies of Kosovo's population. The present policy of "standards before status" is only half a policy. The regional consequences of continued drift leading to a destabilised Kosovo are incalculable. The international community has a very brief window in which to learn from its mistakes and regain control of the agenda. Otherwise Kosovo may become ungovernable and dissolve into a vicious cycle of violence that infects all of the Western Balkans.


To Kosovo Albanian Institutions, including PISG, Media and Civil Society:

1.          Combat the extremist and intolerant pathologies in Kosovo Albanian society rather than placing the whole blame for Kosovo's problems on the international community and UNMIK.

2.          Accept that media coverage of the violence was indefensibly one-sided and inflammatory, and cooperate with the Temporary Media Commissioner and the OSCE in finding a way forward, including by reforming the management and board of the public broadcaster, RTK, and seeking sustained technical assistance from experienced European broadcasting professionals.

3.          Go beyond the PISG commitment to help rebuild homes, monasteries and churches destroyed in the rioting with government funds by launching a broad initiative to raise money from all corners of society for this purpose, and otherwise taking the initiative to develop Kosovo Serb infrastructure including education and healthcare.

4.          Continue the process of dialogue with Serbia initiated in October 2003.

To the Contact Group Countries (U.S., UK, France, Germany, Italy and Russia) and Other Members of the International Community:

5.          Re-engage seriously with the Kosovo issue, by:

(a)       taking action to enhance the security of Kosovo's minority communities, especially the Serbs;

(b)       beginning preparatory work for final status talks, including confirming their legal basis in Resolution 1244; and

(c)       making a substantial and sustained social, economic, and institutional development effort for the express purpose of preparing Kosovo rapidly for final status.

6.          Work through the UN Security Council to change the structure of UNMIK to suit better the mandate of a transition to final status and eventual EU membership , giving social and economic development the priority they currently lack, including by:

(a)        dismantling the current pillar structure;

(b)        transferring UNMIK's social and economic responsibilities to the PISG; and

(c)       splitting the role of SRSG into two, with functions respectively of chief administrator of Kosovo and chief negotiator on final status.

7.          Respond promptly to UNMIK's request for more investigators, prosecutors and judges so that UNMIK can vigorously investigate and prosecute those reasonably suspected of violent rioting within the framework of the new Kosovo criminal procedure code.


8.          Institutionalise dialogue between Kosovo Albanian leaders and civil society and their Kosovo Serb counterparts on the means of co-existence in Kosovo, taking the Council of Europe decentralisation plan as a starting point.

9.          Revitalise privatisation by making any procedural changes necessary to ensure rapid progress with this; build upon the dismissal of the former Kosovo Trust Agency chief by continuing to signal fresh thinking on, and accommodation with, Kosovo's economic and social development needs; and seek from the UN and the Contact Group the policy and resource tools necessary to meet them.

10.      Improve command and control within UNMIK and the Kosovo Police Service (KPS), enhance their coordination with KFOR (especially on gathering intelligence on extremists and parallel structures), provide the police with more training and equipment, and further increase their ability to face challenges like 17-18 March by boosting their dangerously low morale.


11.      Increase the capacity of KFOR troops to deal with future violent disorders by equipping, instructing and training them better in graduated use-of-force responses to riot situations, and by reinforcing border security.

To the Serbian Government:

12.      Work with UNMIK to get parallel structures recognised, regularised, and, if possible, supported by the PISG in order to provide security and social services for Serb communities within Kosovo.

13.      Continue the process of dialogue with Pristina on technical issues.

To the U.S. Government:

14.      Designate a special envoy to initiate discussions with other members of the Contact Group, the EU, the PISG, Belgrade and neighbouring states on the legal basis and format of the eventual final status negotiations.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 22 April 2004



Balkan Witness Home Page

Articles index




Contact Balkan Witness

Report broken links