Kosovo tries to launch independence softly

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

Playing bill: Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci played soccer with Serb children after donating a tractor to a local family on Sunday. The Serb minority fear mistreatment in an independent Kosovo.
VIsar kryeziu/ap
Early photo op: In the Kosovo town of Kacanik, an ethnic Albanian poses in front of a giant Albanian flag with the words ‘Congratulations for Independence’ painted beside it. Serbia plans to retaliate against countries that recognize the province’s expected declaration.
Rich Clabaugh

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.

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.

"We want to be a peaceful nation joining Europe, and we want that from the start," says Interior Minister Zenun Pajaziti. "A crisis is not in our interest."

"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.

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."

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."

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