Endgame in Kosovo

Prospect Magazine

Endgame in Kosovo

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Eight years after the Kosovo war, the UN is preparing to make a final decision on the province’s final status. Can independence work?

In the top-floor flat of a gritty, candlelit building in the centre of Pristina, a party is in full swing. Around 40 Kosovar Albanian twentysomethings are celebrating the opening of a new exhibition, “Art for Friends.” The exhibition is composed of graffiti on the walls of the flat itself: sharp-lined, simple drawings of ecstasy pills; marijuana joints and blood dripping from a man’s neck; slogans fiercely pencilled: “We need a war. No we don’t. We need pussy.”

These young Kosovars had stayed up one night “getting messed up” and painting the pictures upon the walls. “We have to do this ourselves,” they say. “We have to make our own entertainment. No one else is going to do it for us.” Afflicted by the same mass unemployment and anomie that grip the rest of the region, these young people are nevertheless probably among the brighter sparks of Kosovo’s future.

Ethnic Albanian Muslims account for 92 per cent of Kosovo’s population, Serbs 5 per cent. During the 78-day Nato intervention in 1999, an estimated 10,000 Albanians and at least 1,000 Serbs were killed. After the war ended, a UN resolution placed the province under the administration of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (Unmik), which has run Kosovo ever since. In 2005, Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, was appointed UN special envoy to Kosovo. Last year, under Ahtisaari’s supervision, talks between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs on Kosovo’s final status began in Vienna. But this March, after a fruitless year, Ahtisaari gave up trying to get the Serbs and Albanians to agree, instead presenting his own proposal to the security council, which over the next couple of months will try to agree a resolution on the fate of the province.

Ahtisaari’s proposal envisages Kosovo receiving most of the trappings of independence (a flag and national anthem, an army and the ability to apply for membership of international organisations). The province would be under EU supervision for at least two years, which will involve up to 1,500 police, judges and other personnel from EU states. The EU would also ensure protection of Kosovo’s Serbs, with freedom of movement and return, and for the protection of Serb churches and monasteries. But Kosovo would not be allowed to join any other state—ruling out the creation of a greater Albania, and eternally dividing it from Serbia.

Serbia has already publicly rejected Ahtisaari’s proposals. Vojislav Kostunica, the conservative nationalist prime minister, says that Kosovo Albanians should have autonomy but not independence. Serbia intends to carry out a “diplomatic offensive” aimed at turning hesitant EU members such as Greece, Spain and Slovakia against Ahtisaari’s proposals. Spain is reluctant to reignite nationalist passions in its Basque and Catalan areas by voting for an independent Kosovo. Greece, in addition to its historic and religious ties to Serbia, is dependent on Serbia for land access to western Europe. Slovakia fears that an independent Kosovo could result in a backlash with its Hungarian minority. Nevertheless, these countries will most probably put EU unity above their own concerns.

Ahtisaari’s plan has been wholly supported by Washington and Britain, who have agreed that independence is the only viable option in settling the dispute within the province. The stumbling block could be Russia, which says it refuses to support any plan not endorsed by Kosovo’s Serbs and threatens to veto the Ahtisaari proposals when they come before the security council. If Russia does veto, Kosovo will, most likely, claim independence unilaterally. This will mean no protection for the Serb minorities or buildings, putting the province at risk of escalation into full-fledged violence. The EU has said that it will take on the role of supervisor only on the basis of a security council resolution.

Tensions between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs remain, unsurprisingly, high. The last time the province erupted into violence was in March 2004, when 11 Albanians and eight Serbs were killed, and around 750 British troops were rushed back to the province. For the next few years, Kosovo was relatively quiet. But in mid-February, UN troops opened fire on a 3,000-strong protest organised by supporters of the Kosovo Liberation Army and “Vetevendosje,” a self-determination group, both of which believe Ahrtisaari’s proposals do not go far enough. Four young Albanian men were shot, two of them fatally.

The current bid for Kosovo’s independence comes at a bad time. A few years ago, the EU might have been able to offer Serbia the prospect of quick membership to soften the blow of losing Kosovo. At the time, however, the union’s priority was getting Belgrade’s co-operation in the hunt for war criminals. But that attempt achieved little, and Serbia’s membership prospects remain remote. Meanwhile, the EU’s appetite for expansion has dulled. At the same time, an increasingly assertive Russia sees Kosovo’s status as a precedent for the frozen conflicts in the south Caucasus, and its instincts remain to back its historic ally.

The UN has so far succeeded in maintaining relative peace within the province, but it is a peace built on black-market economics and organised crime. Kosovo might well be, along with its cousin Albania, the most criminalised place on earth. Evidence of criminal activity dominates the landscape of the province. Black-market trading goes on flagrantly in every town and city. The filthy roads are lined with new petrol stations, which the Kosovo Liberation Army uses for money laundering.

Since the end of the conflict in 1999, the province has seen spectacular rises in drugs, arms and people trafficking. Kosovar Albanians import 80 per cent of Europe’s heroin, worth up to £12bn a year. Meanwhile, a recent Save the Children report observed an alarming rise in the number of minors trafficked into Kosovo.

In July 2006, an email from Unmik’s chief security officer, which I have seen, informed all staff “that a number of establishments in Kosovo use what appears to be a legitimate front to further illegal activities such as prostitution. We as Unmik officers CANNOT be seen as condoning these activities.” According to Amnesty International, the Unmik personnel presence has boosted the demand for prostitution. Kate Allen, director of UK Amnesty, says, “Women and girls as young as 11 are being sold into sexual slavery in Kosovo and international peacekeepers are… fuelling this despicable trade by themselves paying for sex from trafficked women.”

A founder of Koha Ditore, a Kosovar Albanian daily newspaper, tells me, “The government is doing nothing. Drugs, rackets, prostitution—the criminals co-operate very well, regardless of ethnic background. The international community is not doing enough to fight organised crime. They like to say ‘We’ve fulfilled our mandate,’ but if you scratch beneath the surface… I never dare write anything about organised crime. If I touch this issue, then my chance is, at best, to live two hours more.”

Seven years of UN rule has done little to facilitate any kind of relationship between the Kosovar Albanians and the Serbs. The change of atmosphere in the north of the country, where the Serbs are concentrated, is visible; and in the south, the crisp I LOVE USA posters that were once tacked to the rusty railings are nowhere to be seen. The tensions are symbolised by the Mitrovica bridge, which both physically joins and spiritually divides the Serb heartlands north of the Ibar from the Albanian regions to the south. I recently attended “Zadusnice,” a Serb commemoration day for the dead. At a graveyard south of the bridge, on the majority Albanian side, mourning Serbs are escorted by troops with armoured vehicles from Mitrovica, north of the bridge. The families are given one hour to visit the desecrated tombstones of their relatives, rubbish-strewn monuments that have been broken into heaps of dirty stone, surrounded by piles of litter and cigarette butts. Most of the visitors fall to their knees immediately, spending their allotted hour trying to clean the graves. As a man pulled jerkily at the grass at his wife’s tombstone, he said, “I can’t come to my wife’s grave when I want to. When I do come I have to be escorted. This situation is all too cruel to be civilised.”

According to a report by the independent International Commission on the Balkans, the international community has “put 25 times more money and 50 times more troops on a per capita basis into post-conflict Kosovo than into post-conflict Afghanistan.” The cost of recovery and reconstruction from 1999 to 2003 (the latest figures available from Unmik) is estimated to be €1.73bn, with Unmik’s budget for the fiscal year 2006-07 amounting to €160m.

The UN has put this money towards the decentralisation of local administration, trying to give Kosovo a chance to survive as an independent and multi-ethnic state. But with no one taking charge and accountability frequently shifting between the UN and the nascent decentralised local bodies, the result is a near-total lack of governance. Municipalities, for example, are meant to be in charge of rubbish collection, but each business must pay individually to have its rubbish picked up. This means that neither the UN nor the local bodies have taken responsibility for the areas that can’t afford this; the result is large mountains of rotting litter accumulating around the country. And no one takes responsibility for the minorities; some Serb communities are still living in what was meant to be temporary housing—five in a bed in two by four-foot containers, donated by the Russians after the war.

Under the Ahtisaari plan, an independent Kosovo would eventually gain the right to raise and collect taxes, run the police and dispense public services. These arrangements would give the Serb minority greater control over its own affairs, if only Belgrade would stop financing its own parallel structures for the Serbs, in security, health, welfare, education and public utilities.

“Kosovo” is Serbo-Croat for “crow.” The creatures are everywhere here, swarms of them, with squawks reverberating off the detritus of years of war and desultory nation-building, reminding one of the collective noun for this symbol of Kosovo’s identity: murder.

Pictures: Isobel Wield

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Rebecca Thornton

Rebecca Thornton is a former editor-in-chief of the middle east magazine Skin. She is now a freelance current affairs journalist and editor of Eyebrow magazine www.eyebrowmagazine.com/ 

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