Kosovo Albanians push for talks about self-determination

A U.N. report will assess Kosovo's progress in key areas this month.

The graffiti appears on apartment buildings, in parks, and outside businesses in Pristina, Kosovo's dusty capital. In Albanian, it reads "no negotiations - self-determination."

The message - six years after NATO bombers drove Serbian forces out and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) came in - is clear.

"We are here, suffocated with UNMIK over our heads, and Serbia over our necks," says Albin Kurti, who started the graffiti campaign. "UNMIK is now six years here without a deadline. We want a deadline. To become independent from a stronger place you need action, not process."

But process is critical, say local decisionmakers. Diplomats and politicians have their own slogan - "standards before status" - which they say is the only way Kosovo can move out of the limbo it has languished in for the past six years.

In a few weeks, a UN envoy is due to release a report on how well Kosovo's provisional government has met certain standards - democracy, a constitutional framework, minority rights - so that it can move to open negotiations about the province's future with both the international community and Serbia, of which Kosovo is still technically a part.

The talks will determine whether Kosovo becomes independent, as its majority Albanians want, or whether it will gain what Serbian President Boris Tadic calls "more than autonomy, less than independence."

So how will Kosovo measure up? "The report will present a very mixed picture, because Kosovo is a mixed picture," says UNMIK head Soren Jessen-Petersen. He notes that while the government has made strides in building its own institutions and police, those have fallen short in making Kosovo's Serb minority feel safe outside the small enclaves in which they live.

Even a bad grade, most residents say, is unlikely to spark Albanian riots similar to the one that engulfed Kosovo last March, leaving 19 people dead, and hundreds of Serb homes and dozens of Orthodox churches gutted. Kosovo's Albanian politicians say they have their eye too firmly on independence to let that happen.

Opposition leader Hashim Thaci could be speaking for all of Kosovo's Albanians - 90 percent of the population - when he says, "There is only one solution, and that is Kosovo as an independent and sovereign country."

Western capitals, including Washington, have indicated that Kosovo can work on standards while talks continue. Officials say they'll work on the standards for as long as it takes to make Kosovo a proper European country.

"We didn't implement standards because of Brussels or the [UN] Security Council - we have done it for ourselves," says Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi, who replaced Ramush Haradinaj in March after he resigned to answer to war-crimes charges at the Hague tribunal.

Mr. Kosumi, like Mr. Haradinaj before him, also extends the olive branch to Kosovo's Serbs, who boycotted last year's election. "Serbs in Kosovo live here in Kosovo," he says. "They should get engaged more in their futures here. I do not expect them to cut their relationship with Belgrade, but these will be the people who will work together with us and decide together about our future."

Kosovo's Serbs, for the most part, aren't buying it. Some 80,000 Serbs live here, mostly in enclaves protected in part by 18,000 NATO peacekeepers. The March riots, the Albanians' choosing a war-crimes suspect - Haradinaj - as prime minister last year, and anxiety about their safety has left them looking to Belgrade, 220 miles north of Pristina, because it's the capital of Serbia proper and is still, on paper, sovereign over Kosovo.

Because he has a job in Pristina, Nenad Maksimovic may not be a typical resident of Gracanica, a Serb enclave about a 10-minute drive southeast of the capital. But he doesn't trust the Kosovo government. Take the constitutional framework, he says. The way things are set up now, Serbs will have at most 40 seats in the 120-seat assembly, leaving them without political clout.

"You can participate, but you don't have substantial influence," he says. "As long as I see Serbs not having influence, I'm not going to vote. I'm not going to vote for a puppet."

The majority of Albanians aren't happy either. Unemployment is gauged at between 33 and 60 percent. A typical monthly wage is about 150 euros ($183). In western Kosovo, which in the late 1990s saw the first clashes between Serbian police and Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas, analysts have noted that weapons and organized crime have proliferated in the past six years.

"If I'd known it was like this, I wouldn't have returned from Germany," says Istref Kelmndi, at his tire shop outside Pec, in western Kosovo. Mafia assassinations in the town, he says, now mean that people driving from Pristina stop at his shop to ask, "Is it safe?" Business, he says, is catastrophic.

Some 30 minutes down the road, Baskim Kryziu still flies the American flag at his sack shop. He lost more than 20 relatives, including his brother, to Serb forces before NATO intervened in 1999, but says he's willing to wait for whatever has to be done before Kosovo becomes independent.

"We have always been patient. If we look at the will of the people, then you have to implement it," he says. "If [the Americans and the international community] don't want to have their investment in Kosovo up until now lost, they'll listen to us."

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