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Kosovo tries to launch independence softly

Despite Serbia's ire, province may declare independence as soon as Sunday.

(Page 2 of 2)

Western security officials say the long run-up has changed the situation markedly: "I think KFOR has a very high level of vision inside Kosovo today," says a senior Western official. "They are ready to stamp out violence. For KFOR, peace in Kosovo has ramifications for Europe and the world. It is being seen in a larger context than Kosovo alone."

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Serbs view Kosovo as the spiritual heartland of their identity – the site of epic medieval battles against the Ottoman empire. Kosovo was a cultural crossroads in the Balkans, though as recently as the 1920s, a Bulgarian geographer called it "almost as unknown and inaccessible as a stretch of land in Central Africa."

Among Albanians, the third largest ethnic group in the Balkans, Kosovo independence has been anticipated for decades. It has been an emotional refrain – not unlike the Jewish phrase "See you in Jerusalem" – repeated through years of trauma and uncertainty.

Under Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Belgrade, Kosovo's status as a special province was removed, and a terrifically repressive administration instituted. The Albanians lived in fear as second-class citizens in one of the most oppressive political arrangements in Europe – picked up randomly, questioned and tortured in a system of jails and police stations. Paramilitary units operated out of the main hotel. The Albanians opted out, creating their own schools, parliament, and infrastructure under president Ibrahim Rugova, who adopted Gandhi's tactics of passive resistance.

The creation of a Kosovo Liberation Army followed by NATO intervention drove the Serbs out.

"After eight years, Kosovo is getting its place in the sun. This should have happened earlier," says William Walker. His January 1999 eyewitness accounts here as Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ambassador, of a scene of evident mass execution of Albanians in Racak, was a turning point leading to the "humanitarian intervention" that NATO used to enter Kosovo.

"Most Kosovars really do understand they have to be good winners," Ambassador Walker adds. "The world doesn't like sore losers or sore or arrogant winners."

In Pristina, English language translators are quietly being seconded for unspecified weekend events. Hotels are doubling room rates. On Sunday or Monday, festivities are expected to include Kosovo's own Philharmonia playing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as the independence hymn.

Under the UN "Ahtisaari" blueprint governing Kosovo's transition, Serbs will receive a level of minority rights that no other group in the Balkans is ensured, diplomats point out. Yet the Serbs remain unplacated.

Walker points out that in the Slavonia plains of Croatia during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, many of the remaining Serbs "were unwilling to accept that at some point they were going to be Serbs of Croatian nationality…. If the Serbs in Kosovo can accept the fact that they will be a minority, it will be fine. But that may be a big if."

Walker, considered a national hero here, added that Kosovo independence can't be seen as a final goal. "Some Kosovars think that independence means reaching your destiny, that it is an antedote to all problems. But it may not be that simple."

The international mission in Kosovo is the butt of many Albanian jokes, and the UN is often criticized for taking a colonialist approach. But both Kosovo and Western authorities are concerned about expectations as well. "I'm with the Kosovars 100 percent," says a high-ranking UN official. "But I think they aren't yet clear on the responsibilities that being a state will involve."