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Even in eager Kosovo, nation-building stalls

Five years after 'liberation,' UN officials this week are again work-ing on a plan for the political status of the province.

By Michael J. Jordan / September 22, 2004


When US and other foreign troops rolled into this predominantly Muslim province in 1999, they got the kind of reception once dreamed of in Iraq: They were showered with flowers and candy, and hailed as liberators from Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The main street through the capital city of Pristina was renamed "Bill Clinton Boulevard."

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But five years after the world's first "humanitarian war," Kosovars say the promises of democracy and European integration now seem to be slipping further away, rather than getting any closer.

"If the US can't succeed at nation-building in Kosovo, it can't succeed anywhere," says one American working here. "This is the ideal foundation upon which to help them build what they already want."

Early this year, an estimated 50,000 Albanians lashed out against the two forces now seen as blocking Kosovar ambitions for independence - ethnic Serbs and, more surprising, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The riots here in March left a brutal tally of 19 killed, 1,000 injured, Serb homes and churches burned - and dozens of UNMIK vehicles torched.

Bajram Redenica was one of those angry demonstrators. In a dark, smoky office in Pristina, he recounts why he returned home from Germany to fight, describes his four gunshot wounds, his gratitude to America for the 78 days of NATO airstrikes in 1999 that lifted Serbia's yoke off Kosovar Albanians, after 10,000 had been killed.

But with unemployment of 60 to 70 percent, Mr. Redenica's family of six now relies on handouts from relatives and friends still working abroad. And Kosovo remains wedded to Serbia - technically a Serbian province, but legally a UN protectorate. "If someone had told me back then we wouldn't have independence by now, I might have shot them," says Redenica, executive director of the Society of War Invalids of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). "This isn't what we fought for, to be half-free."

The eruption of discontent here in March pierced the global perception that the relative quiet of Kosovo - where NATO forces still protect some 100,000 Serbs and other minorities from 1.8 million Albanians - was an "unqualified success," as UN officials once said. Half the population is younger than 25 - the highest rate in Europe - with most of them jobless and angry. Analysts of the International Crisis Group warn that Kosovo may become "the West Bank of Europe." And the Ombudsperson Institution in Kosovo, affiliated with UNMIK itself, reported: "It has now become increasingly difficult to maintain any form of pretense that there is a reasonable possibility of creating a real multiethnic society in Kosovo in [the] foreseeable future."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan discussed the tenuous situation with European foreign ministers and US officials on Monday as they gathered for the opening of UN General Assembly Tuesday. All of which has some observers wondering: Who lost Kosovo? Analysts blame all sides: Kosovar leaders reluctant to condemn violence, ex-KLA extremists, and Belgrade's efforts to undermine progress, not to mention US inattention because of its war on terror.

Yet the greatest blame may lie with the UN itself, according to an internal UN report. Annan dispatched Norwegian UN Ambassador Kai Eide to Kosovo this summer to investigate what's gone wrong and recommend a way out. The report, delivered to Annan in July, was unusually scathing.