When US and other foreign troops rolled into this predominantly Muslim province in 1999, they got the kind of reception once dreamed of in Iraq: They were showered with flowers and candy, and hailed as liberators from Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The main street through the capital city of Pristina was renamed "Bill Clinton Boulevard."
But five years after the world's first "humanitarian war," Kosovars say the promises of democracy and European integration now seem to be slipping further away, rather than getting any closer.
"If the US can't succeed at nation-building in Kosovo, it can't succeed anywhere," says one American working here. "This is the ideal foundation upon which to help them build what they already want."
Early this year, an estimated 50,000 Albanians lashed out against the two forces now seen as blocking Kosovar ambitions for independence - ethnic Serbs and, more surprising, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The riots here in March left a brutal tally of 19 killed, 1,000 injured, Serb homes and churches burned - and dozens of UNMIK vehicles torched.
Bajram Redenica was one of those angry demonstrators. In a dark, smoky office in Pristina, he recounts why he returned home from Germany to fight, describes his four gunshot wounds, his gratitude to America for the 78 days of NATO airstrikes in 1999 that lifted Serbia's yoke off Kosovar Albanians, after 10,000 had been killed.
But with unemployment of 60 to 70 percent, Mr. Redenica's family of six now relies on handouts from relatives and friends still working abroad. And Kosovo remains wedded to Serbia - technically a Serbian province, but legally a UN protectorate. "If someone had told me back then we wouldn't have independence by now, I might have shot them," says Redenica, executive director of the Society of War Invalids of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). "This isn't what we fought for, to be half-free."
The eruption of discontent here in March pierced the global perception that the relative quiet of Kosovo - where NATO forces still protect some 100,000 Serbs and other minorities from 1.8 million Albanians - was an "unqualified success," as UN officials once said. Half the population is younger than 25 - the highest rate in Europe - with most of them jobless and angry. Analysts of the International Crisis Group warn that Kosovo may become "the West Bank of Europe." And the Ombudsperson Institution in Kosovo, affiliated with UNMIK itself, reported: "It has now become increasingly difficult to maintain any form of pretense that there is a reasonable possibility of creating a real multiethnic society in Kosovo in [the] foreseeable future."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan discussed the tenuous situation with European foreign ministers and US officials on Monday as they gathered for the opening of UN General Assembly Tuesday. All of which has some observers wondering: Who lost Kosovo? Analysts blame all sides: Kosovar leaders reluctant to condemn violence, ex-KLA extremists, and Belgrade's efforts to undermine progress, not to mention US inattention because of its war on terror.
Yet the greatest blame may lie with the UN itself, according to an internal UN report. Annan dispatched Norwegian UN Ambassador Kai Eide to Kosovo this summer to investigate what's gone wrong and recommend a way out. The report, delivered to Annan in July, was unusually scathing.
"The international community in Kosovo is today seen by Kosovo Albanians as having gone from opening the way to now standing in the way," Eide wrote. "It is seen by Kosovo Serbs as having gone from securing the return of so many to being unable to ensure the return of so few."
Annan has yet to act on the report. "It's still being absorbed," says a UN official.
Back in 1999, reluctance to discuss Kosovo's future was not surprising. After the wars in Bosnia and Croatia claimed more than 200,000 lives, Kosovo earned Milosevic a third strike. So the international community, spooked by a decade of Balkan warfare and potential for further splintering along ethnic lines, intervened on behalf of the Kosovars.
It was a major investment for NATO - an estimated $45 billion - and the West worried what message an independent Kosovo might send around the world: if you want independence, insurgency pays. Kosovo's fate rested in the hands of the UN Security Council. Russia and China are two of the Council's five veto-wielding permanent members, along with the US, Britain, and France. For the Russians, who had allied themselves with their Slavic brethren in Belgrade, an independent Kosovo bolsters the case for an independent Chechnya, not to mention Dagestan, Ingushetia, and so on; for Beijing, there's the specter of statehood for Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
So the UN opted for a familiar tack - kick-the-can diplomacy, as analysts describe it - putting off hard decisions until later. In his report, Eide often cites the world body's lack of clear goals when it comes to Kosovo's future.
"One of the profound problems bedeviling the international community is that it has not yet defined the goal of what we're working toward here," agrees Carne Ross, UNMIK's chief strategist in Pristina.
More than the sense of insecurity this generates among Kosovars, the fuzzy status means financial institutions won't extend loans, foreign investors won't invest, governments won't sign bilateral agreements.
The UN has adopted a process it calls "standards before status," requiring Kosovo to meet satisfactory levels of democratic governance, rule of law, and multiethnic tolerance before beginning discussion of permanent status. Review of Kosovo's standards-before-status progress is slated for mid-2005.
But the standards process is seen as an unreasonably high threshold for a war- ravaged region with little to no tradition of democracy and a generation of Kosovars who opted out of Serbia's repressive administration for underground, Albanian-run institutions. Moreover, the process is seen by Kosovars as demeaning. They note that no such standards-before-status formula was laid out for, say, Iraq, before it regained its sovereignty this summer. Or, in a closer parallel, when East Timor won independence from Indonesia in 2002. And if Israelis and Palestinians were to ever hammer out a peace deal, the United Nations would probably recognize an independent Palestine the next day - before any guarantee of a democratic, tolerant society.
"It's like a teacher who says if you do your homework, you get an 'A' and a chocolate," says Alban Kurti, a human rights activist jailed by Serbs in 1999. "This infantilization affirms their authority, not only as a judicial but moral authority - they alone know what's right, what's wrong. But freedom is not something I should deserve, I should merit. It belongs to my being, because I am here. "
There are other grievances. Kosovo has a freely elected parliament, the 120-seat Kosovo Assembly, with 10 seats reserved for Serbs. But UNMIK has the last word, retaining veto power over all Assembly decisions - a system Kosovars deride as "democracy imposed undemocratically." UNMIK is also accused of corruption and arrogance, with accountability to no one.
The Eide report recommends scrapping standards-before-status for a "more dynamic standards policy with achievable priorities," empowering Kosovo's lawmakers with greater "ownership," and reducing UNMIK to an advisory, not administrative role. But Eide was mum on independence. That is for the UN Security Council to decide.
The Kosovars lay out several arguments in favor of independence. Mr. Kurti calls for independence as "moral compensation for all the losses and suffering of the past." Government spokeswoman Mimoza Kusari says, "The people of Kosovo need one address to bring their problems to; what better place than to their elected officials? UNMIK officials are unelected, but have more power than us. They are not accountable, as we are to our constituencies."
And Albanian political analyst Nexhmedin Spahiu looks at the flip side. "You may say we don't deserve independence," says Mr. Spahiu, who hosts a television show on politics. "But we also don't deserve to remain a part of Serbia, which first tried to exhaust us, then tried to exterminate us."
But with Russia and China standing in Kosovo's way, some have floated other options unpalatable to the Kosovars. EU foreign-affairs envoy Javier Solana has suggested a Serbia-Montenegro-Kosovo tripartite federation. And speculation is that Belgrade may be willing to shear off Serb enclaves and sites of centuries-old Serb Orthodox monasteries.
The key may be the US presidential elections. Some analysts suggest a reelected President Bush will continue to focus on his war on terror, with Kosovo considered only in terms of a US exit strategy. A President Kerry, however, might be influenced by the Clinton administration figures who intervened in 1999, and prod the Security Council to embrace Kosovo's independence.
The Kosovo Serbs, meanwhile, say they will never relinquish a region they consider the cradle of Serb civilization. Oliver Ivanovic, a leading Serb politician in Kosovo, blames the March riots not on Albanian frustration, but on the ruthless Kosovar mafia that now controls much of the drug trade in Europe and would profit from a Kosovo free of UN officials and non-Albanian minorities.
Ivanovic assails the international community for nursing Kosovar aspirations by not resolving Kosovo's status. "As long as you're encouraging that hope, the Albanians will continue to think in this way," says Ivanovic, who lives in Kosovo's last multiethnic city, Mitrovica. "They need to look to Belgrade as their own capital."
But any alternative short of statehood, or even perpetuating the status quo, may trigger more violence- against minorities, against UNMIK, even among Albanians. "In March we opened their eyes a little, for them to see what can happen in the future," says Redenica, the war-invalids leader. "We're dedicated to independence. And whoever gets in the way, Albanians will not take it calmly."