Six years in transition, Kosovo eyes final status talks

UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, who helped end the last of the Balkan conflicts, is touring the war-torn region this week.

Albanian politicians here say they're more than ready to start negotiating their way out of the six-year limbo as a UN-administered province of Serbia.

"This is the final piece of the puzzle," says Blerim Shala, who coordinates the Albanian negotiators' expert groups. "Everybody's fed up with these transitional periods. Nobody wants to see Kosovo as a failed state."

Determining the final status of this province, roughly the size of greater Los Angeles, is seen as the key to wider stability in the Balkans. Talks will probably begin before the end of the year, and UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president who helped negotiate an end to the Kosovo conflict six years ago, arrived in the region this week to lay the groundwork for his shuttle diplomacy between Pristina and the Serbian capital Belgrade.

Mr. Shala says the bickering that disrupted the Albanians' negotiating team this fall is over. But no one says the negotiations will be easy. While the ethnic Albanian majority here has hankered for independence since a US-led NATO bombing drove Serbian police and military out of the province in 1999, Serbs have always wanted to remain part of Serbia.

The northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, divided since 1999 into an Albanian-dominated south and a Serb-dominated north, typifies the rifts between the two sides. In March 2004, ethnic Albanian riots targeting Serbs left more than a dozen people dead and hundreds of Serb houses burned, and turned the bridge that connects north and south into a no-man's land.

Today, people and cars are again crossing the bridge, though Serb minivans taking people south switch their Serbian license plates for Kosovo ones before crossing the bridge - in fear of drive-by shooting attacks.

Serbs recently polled by a UN agency said that their biggest problem was public and personal security. Some Albanians say those fears are exaggerated.

"What (the Serbs) want, they have," says Sylejman Klinaku, who is visiting south Mitrovica on business. "They want more and more and more, but they have enough. They can go everywhere in Kosovo, but they don't want to because of politics. This way they have the advantage."

But a different story is heard on the other side of the river. "There's no water, there's no power, there's no freedom of movement," says Dragana Nerandzic, a young Serb.

"I have a plan to try to go to Graz [in Austria] to do post-diplomatic work," says Ms. Nerandzic. "If that doesn't work out, I'll go to Belgrade."

Kosovo is also troubled by constant power outages, an unemployment rate of up to 60 percent,and estimated average monthly wages of 150 to 200 euros. Albanian insiders say status is the only way to solve the problems.

"Status will calm the region and help the economy - many investors hesitate while Kosovo remains unsolved," says Avni Arifi, senior political adviser to Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi. "And it would be a huge attack on extremists on all sides. Kosovar extremists wouldn't have any reason to exist."

Fears of such extremists were renewed last month when a group calling itself the Kosovo Independence Army began issuing threatening communiqués. At the same time, reports surfaced of masked, armed men stopping cars at night in western Kosovo. The UN and other organizations warned their staffs not to travel there after dark. Representatives of the 18,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force here, KFOR, say they have no indication that the groups are organized. Kosovo's fledgling police force has also increased patrols out of the western hub of Pec in the past month.

"Some people are scared and not going out at night," says Naser Humaj, who owns a car repair shop near Gjakova. "You have many people who want to take advantage of the situation, but they don't have support of the people. This is an army that nobody wants. We elected the people we want to do this for us in Pristina."

While ethnic Albanians look to Pristina, Kosovo's Serbs look to Belgrade for answers.

This tendency on Serbs' part has been the "most serious setback" in the past six years of UN administration, says the head of the UN Mission to Kosovo, Soren Jessen-Petersen.

"We have not been good enough in engaging them, but I also believe Belgrade must share a lot of the blame," he says.

"There has basically been a policy of boycotts, in that the Kosovo Serbs have never received the green light from Belgrade to engage in institutions here and to engage with us."

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