In Kosovo, uneasy truce among neighbors

Ljubisa Vitosevic, a Serb, lost his elderly father days after the end of NATO's 1999 bombing campaign in Kosovo. Witnesses said he was led away by a group of Albanians, never to be seen again.

"I cannot forgive the people who did that, but I'm not angry at all Albanians," says Mr. Vitosevic.

Since open hostilities ended more than seven years ago, Serbs and Albanians in this breakaway province of Serbia have reached a kind of truce, albeit punctuated in 2004 by ethnic rioting.

That's partly because the hard decision of what to do with Kosovo has been delayed. Now it looms, as UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari issued his long-awaited recommendations Friday, which laid the groundwork for eventual statehood.

But if Kosovo is eventually to become a functioning, multiethnic state, much will depend on whether its Serb minority will stay, and whether Serbs and Albanians can do more than simply coexist.

"It will be very embarrassing for the international community if people start to leave in large numbers," says Verena Knaus, a Kosovo analyst with the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank. Such an exodus could be thwarted, she says, if Serbs' concerns about their prospects for their future are addressed.

"In order to create conditions for people to stay here, there needs to be an economic focus," she says. Kosovo has a per capita income of about $1,600 per year.

Randjel Nojkic, a Serb representative to the Assembly of Kosovo, agrees. "The strategy of the international community has been to solve the problem of Kosovo politically, [but] it will be solved in an economic way."

That's a test the international community and the provisional government seem to be failing in Novo Brdo/Novoberde, a majority-Serb mining town (referred to here by its Serb and Albanian names) that is often portrayed as a place where Albanians and Serbs live together in peace.

Svetislav Ivanovic, a Serb, is the deputy mayor of Novo Brdo/Novoberde. He says the local zinc and coal mine employs 150 Albanians, but no Serbs. In a province where unemployment is estimated to be more than 40 percent, some Serbs here imply that ethnicity can play a key role in who gets a coveted job.

The economic issues will be tough to tackle: The country lacks even a predictable supply of electricity and has a reputation for corruption. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions and security questions persist.

"It is very hard to predict how Serbs will react [if the province is granted independence]," Mr. Nojkic says. "What is for sure is that some percentage of Serbs will leave Kosovo."

Nojkic represents Gracanica, a majority Serbian town just outside Pristina that's home to a 14th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery built when Serbia was an empire, before the Ottoman conquest. It is places like Gracanica that make some Serbs claim Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian civilization, never to be surrendered.

"Serbs, up to this point, didn't think about [the possibility of independence] because the story for all this time was that Belgrade would never leave the Serbs here, forgotten," Nojkic says.

Nojkic says that life could become especially difficult for those Serbs who live in isolated areas, noting that buses carrying Serbs through Albanian areas have been stoned recently.

In Novo Brdo/Novoberde, Ivanovic says his town's reputation as an ethnic melting pot is a facade. "In March 2004, [Albanians] proved how interested they were in multiethnicity. They threw a hand grenade at the apartment of the mayor and at the municipal building," he says.

Serb couple Tihomir and Rada Petrovic have lived in Novo Brdo/Novoberde for 41 years. They say they are not frightened, but if independence comes, they'll leave Kosovo.

"Imagine if Mexicans wanted to create a country from part of America. How would you feel?" Mrs. Petrovic asks. Those sentiments are hard for some Albanians to understand. Halit Kryeziu, a former economist for the town of Klina, fled attacks by the Yugoslav police and Army with his family in early 1999. Asked if he knows how many Serbs have returned to his town, he says he doesn't. "The reason we left and the reason they left are completely different. They took us out of our homes by force. The Serbs left because they were guilty, because of what they had done. They weren't able to face us."

Kryeziu now owns a glass-repair shop, and he says he willingly speaks Serbian with his Serb customers.

In Novo Brdo/Novoberde, as in some other villages, Serbian and Albanian children attend separate schools, although the British government is building a school to serve both communities.

Vitosevic says his hometown of Orahovac/Rahovec today seems a world away from where he grew up in the late 1970s, playing in the street with Albanians, Serbs, and Roma. He will stay, regardless of Kosovo's fate, but he says that all the security guarantees in the world will not persuade his Serbian neighbors to follow suit if Kosovo becomes a country. "If they read the word 'independence,' they won't read any further," he says.

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