Deep divide over Kosovo's future

The first direct talks between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians since the war in 1999 start Tuesday in Vienna.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the purpose of a meeting, and the nationality of the participants.]

Ilhan Gjaka and Petar Basharevic have a lot in common. Both grew up playing soccer in the same town, and both are now refugees stranded on opposite sides of their city in northern Kosovo.

But these two young men are separated by sharply differing views of Kosovo's future. Whether it will become an independent, mainly ethnic Albanian state or remain a technically Serbian province is a question that permeates life in Mitrovica, where the Ibar River divides Serbs in the north and Albanians in the south.

One war has already been fought over the issue and more bloodshed appears possible. But after four years of legal limbo, Kosovo will take the first step toward resolution with a symbolic bilateral dialogue that starts Tuesday in Vienna.

Like virtually all Kosovo Albanians, Mr. Gjaka insists that Kosovo must become independent, and soon. "That is what we fought the war in 1999 for," he says. "We can never trust the Serbs again and we must have independence to get foreign investment and jobs."

But Mr. Basharevic, like most Kosovo Serbs, vehemently defends Serbian sovereignty in Kosovo. "If the Albanians take over, no Serb will remain alive in Kosovo. No refugees will be able to return. The Serbian Army must return to protect us."

The talks come at the request of the international Contact Group on Kosovo, which includes the United States, Britain, Russia, France, Italy, and Germany. Although the first meetings will focus on technical issues such as license plates, environmental concerns, and missing-person cases, all parties are acutely aware that the future of Kosovo looms large.

International officials in Kosovo are guarded about the possible outcome. "The UN has been hesitant to make any decisions about the future status of Kosovo because everyone knows that it could all turn very ugly very quickly," says one US official in the Kosovar capital, Pristina, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We are balancing between potentially disastrous scenarios, in which this fragile peace could easily turn back into war. If Kosovo is pushed in either direction, the result will be violence, and yet the status quo is becoming increasingly unsustainable."

Kosovo Albanians have been clamoring for independence since the 1960s. The area is historically a Serbian province and the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, although the population is now mainly ethnic Albanian. The 1990s saw the rise of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army and low-intensity conflict, culminating in a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that forced Serb security forces to leave. The brief war ended with UN Resolution 1244, which made Kosovo an international protectorate while maintaining that it is still technically part of Yugoslavia.

Since then, administration and peacekeeping in Kosovo have cost the UN and NATO about $1 billion per year. Analysts estimate that Kosovo has received a staggering $200,000 per person in international aid. Yet the protectorate remains impoverished and unstable, with dilapidated roads and electrical systems, and almost 70 percent unemployment.

"The internationals are exhausted and ready to leave Kosovo," says one UN official in Pristina. "No one wants to pay for Kosovo anymore but, to leave, we have to find a political solution."

Several high-ranking US officials have already stated openly that the only realistic option for Kosovo is some form of independence, despite the protests of Serb leaders, who insist that Resolution 1244 promised the eventual return of Serbian security forces to Kosovo.

Many international officials suggest some form of conditional independence will be achieved within two to three years, although officially the UN remains neutral.

"Although we can not say what Kosovo's future status will be, we can say what it won't be," says Whit Mason, an adviser to the UN governor of Kosovo. "It's not going to be centralized rule from Belgrade.... The Albanians don't get to ethnically cleanse the place and it is not going to be partitioned."

Yet local leaders here most commonly see compromise coming in some form of division. Some propose a system of cantons or entities such as those that created the jagged administrative boundaries within Bosnia. Others suggest a clean break along the Ibar, which would leave many refugees stranded.

In Mitrovica, for example, Basharevic's family used to live south of the river. He fled north when KLA fighters swarmed into southern Mitrovica on the heels of NATO forces in June 1999. Northern Mitrovica now resembles a large refugee camp with scores of beggars and garbage spilling into the streets.

Nearly three-quarters of current residents are refugees. Many of them are squatting in homes of ethnic Albanians, like Gjaka's family, who fled south when a grenade attack by Serbian paramilitaries eight months after the war officially ended left his mother dead and his sister wounded.

Both Serb and Albanian leaders are pessimistic about the current dialogue, predicting its swift collapse - and violence if the international community doesn't favor their side.

Immediately before the talks Bajram Rexhepi, the ethnic Albanian Prime Minister of Kosovo, decided to boycott the meeting.

"There is no other option but independence for Kosovo," he said in an interview before the talks were to begin. "We are ready to pay any price for the independence of Kosovo, and if it is put off much longer, we will lose our ability to preserve calm."

Just north of the Ibar, in the Serb enclave of Svechin, Kosovo Serb leader Milan Ivanovic is just as certain of the opposite outcome. "There is no way Kosovo can become independent," he says. "Any such move would reignite instability in the Balkans and reopen the question of Bosnia."

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