KOSOVO: COUNTDOWN TO
By Tim Judah in Gracanica
February 16, 2006
(From Balkan Insight)
Notwithstanding the views
of local Serbs, the signs are that talks on the future of Kosovo due to
begin on Monday will almost certainly lead to some form of independence.
Drive ten minutes from
Kosovo's capital of Pristina and it feels like you are in a different
world, or at least a different country. Suddenly, one language, one culture
and even one religion have vanished. The music, car number plates,
documents and money are all different. Welcome to Gracanica.
Ever since the end of the
Kosovo conflict in 1999, Serbs have retreated into small enclaves across
the province and an area in the north which abuts Serbia.
Most Serbs do not speak
Albanian and they remain fiercely loyal to Serbia. They continue to
use Serbian dinars - the rest of Kosovo uses the euro - and they carry
Serbian documents, while Kosovo's 1.8 million or so ethnic Albanians carry ones
issued by the United Nations.
Gracanica, little more than
a village, is centred around a magnificent medieval Orthodox church.
Most Kosovo Albanians are Muslims. Symbolically, however, the gap between
these two people is represented by their mobile phone networks.
Serbs talk to each other on
a Serbian network. Because Kosovo is not (yet) an independent country, the
Kosovo Albanian equivalent borrows the international prefix of
Monaco. So, to talk to one another, a Serb and a Kosovo Albanian must
make an international call, even if they are close enough to see one
Over the last few weeks the
opportunities to do even that have been diminishing. Kosovo's
ethnic Albanian-run government has declared that the Serbian network is
illegal and its transmitters are being turned off. This has come as a shock to
the 100,000 or so Serbs that remain in Kosovo, but less of a shock than
the message that was delivered recently by John Sawers, the political
director of the British foreign office.
Meeting Kosovo Serb leaders
on February 6 he told them, in unusually undiplomatic language, that
the Contact Group, the main foreign powers that deal with the region,
including Britain, France, the United States and Russia, had decided
that Kosovo would soon be independent.
At the talks on Kosovo's
future which begin on Monday in Vienna under the supervision of former
Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, he said, they and Serbia would have
to fight hard for a good deal on autonomy and minority rights.
Such news should not have
come as a surprise. After all, the messages had been clear for months.
The Contact Group had already said that the solution for Kosovo had
to satisfy the will of its people - and well over 90 per cent are
ethnic Albanians who want nothing less than independence.
But, ever since 1999, Serbs
in Gracanica and elsewhere appear to have lived in a dreamland, fed
by stories from Belgrade, in which they expected that one day the Serbian
flag would once more fly over Kosovo.
Vojislav Vitkovic is a
teacher in Gracanica. "It was an extreme shock," he says, adding that
discrimination against Serbs in Kosovo is such that, to his mind, the province
"is a hypocrisy and not a democracy".
Asked if he will leave, if
and when Kosovo becomes independent, he says that like his friends he
has adopted a "wait and see" policy. He added that 70 per cent of Kosovo
Serbs still do not believe that independence will happen.
Rada Trajkovic, a local
Serb leader who was at the meeting with Sawers, says that it was a stormy
event, but that it was not the first time a foreign emissary had told
them that independence was coming. Why then had she not told her people
this? "Because I am not a servant of the Serbian government."
"If the status of Kosovo
has already been decided," she says, "what are we supposed to negotiate?
Are we supposed to go, just to see how beautiful Ahtisaari is? "
The mood here is best
summed up by Zivojin Rakocevic, the editor of the local radio station, who
declares that everyone is "fatally depressed".
But they are clearly not
giving up yet. In the restaurant where we meet we overhear a man who has
come from Serbia lecturing local Serbian journalists. He is
discussing bringing in broadcast transmission equipment to install here to create
or bolster networks for Serbian radio or television to cover all the
areas where Serbs live.
Down in Pristina the mood,
unsurprisingly, is upbeat. Kosovo's president, Ibrahim Rugova died last
month and coach loads of mourners are still coming to have their photo
taken behind his tomb. But, contrary to expectations, the
presidential succession was smooth.
Now says Ylber Hysa, an
opposition deputy who is a member of the political group of the
status talks team, minds are turning to the post-independence period.
He says that local institutions need to be solidified because until
now the province has been run on the basis of "permanent crisis
management" and, as the UN mission leaves Kosovo, that needs to change.
Kosovo has huge economic
problems, a chronic power shortage, high unemployment and weak rule
of law. But all surveys have shown that Kosovo's young population
is one of the most optimistic in Europe. And, with independence in
sight, young people are even more hopeful. What is important now, says
one student who asked to remain anonymous is just knowing, "that
Serbia is off our backs for good."
But is it? In the wake of
Sawers's declarations, Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of Serbia's
nationalist Radical Party, has declared that he and Serbia's premier
Vojislav Kostunica, have agreed that if Kosovo gets independence then it
should be declared "occupied territory". If that happens, then
Serbia will, in effect, rip up its application forms for NATO and the European
Union and return to being an embittered pariah of Europe. In any
settlement, NATO troops will stay in Kosovo and the EU will take a role in helping
to run it. Under those circumstances, with Serbia publicly committed
to reconquering Kosovo, in which NATO and the EU would be part of the
occupation forces, it would hardly be realistic to expect to continue the
process of joining those organisations at the same time.
Such a policy might however
be popular in Serbia and might even lead to the election of the
Radicals as the next government. But the attitude of western diplomats is far
from sympathetic. What if independence led to a Radical government in
Serbia? "So what?" answers a diplomat close to the talks process in
Tim Judah is a leading
Balkan commentator and the author of "The Serbs: History, Myth and the
Destruction of Yugoslavia" and "Kosovo: War and Revenge," both
published by Yale University Press.
Balkan Insight is BIRN's Internet