Kosovo tries to launch independence softly
Despite Serbia's ire, province may declare independence as soon as Sunday.
Albanians here have craved independence for nine long years of loud tearoom debates. Now with a declaration expected as soon as Sunday, Kosovo officials hope independence from Serbia will be so quiet it will scarcely be noticed.Skip to next paragraph
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The hallmark phrase repeated by Prime Minister Hashim Thaci to local mayors all week is "independence with dignity." This means no bacchanalian outbursts, no in-your-face waving of Albanian flags around Serb enclaves, no mass rallies – nothing to provoke the incidents that officials here think Belgrade would like to see.
Popular expectations in the breakaway province are being scaled back by officials – that independence can magically solve all the difficulties of this sensitive Balkan flash point that has been overseen by the United Nations since 1999.
"You only get a chance to declare independence once, so you need to do it right," says Louis Sell, a former US diplomat with Balkan experience.
Kosovo's independence closes a chapter of grief and genocide in the Balkans dating from 1992. Analysts concerned about a "domino effect" of a bloody re-ordering of ethnic borders see Kosovo's peaceful evolution as a test for EU and US resolve in southern Europe. But the province's independence is bitterly opposed by Serbia, which enjoys at least rhetorical backing from Russia.
Since 2000, the EU has spent $4 billion here and will send its largest ever (1,800) civil and police mission in days.
Serb Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica stated Tuesday, "We shall not allow a fictitious state to exist for a minute on Serbian territory. It has to be legally annulled."
The precise manner of Kosovo's declaration remains unclear. Officials hint at 48 hours notice; some say it will be only six – ahead of an EU foreign ministers' meeting next Monday. NATO-KFOR has been increasing its 17,000-strong presence with soldiers having combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kosovo police leaves are cancelled as of this week.
"I almost think the idea is to have everyone wake up in the morning to find we declared at 3 a.m.," says Pristina columnist Baton Haxhiu. "Many of us might feel like waving flags and making a big fire. But the international community and Serbs could say we are just primitives, untrustworthy Albanians. So we will be on good behavior. Everyone knows – no big fires."
Kosovo is 90 percent Albanian, with several small Serb enclaves. The most sensitive area is the divided city of Mitrovica, a zone that borders Serbia, and home to many Serb radicals. Serbs unofficially control the city north of the Ibar River; few Albanians live there. Last week an association of Serb refugees formed a parliament in Mitrovica. Authorities do not want a repeat of March 2004 when Serb and Albanian communities rioted. Most Albanian homes have a weapon, and informal armies are said to be poised.
But the '04 riots, which caught KFOR unprepared, were spontaneous.