Tensions as Kosovo inks Constitution

The document, signed Sunday, is seen as key to stability. But many issues remain unresolved.

Fisnik Dobreci/AP
Inked: Kosovo's President Sejdiu (l.) and the head of parliament signed the Constitution in Pristina Sunday.

A new Kosovo Constitution signed Sunday represents another milestone for the disputed nation in the heart of the Balkans.

But this next step toward legitimacy for the 90 percent Albanian state, while applauded by the European Union and the US as a step toward normalcy, takes place in the middle of what many senior diplomats describe as a "mess."

There is no agreement by Russia over how the UN mission here will hand over police and civil duties to the EU in the volatile region. Nor has the EU mission, described as crucial in Brussels after Kosovo declared independence Feb. 17, started to deploy some 2,200 police needed to avoid Serb-Albanian violence.

Indeed, Serbs in north Kosovo responded to the Constitution by declaring a "parallel" parliament, to start June 28. Russia and Serbia still assert that Kosovo is an illegitimate state. One UN official here says that Serbia and Russia are "trying to create dust-ups and dissonance in order to scare other nations away from recognizing [Kosovo.]"

Kosovars declared independence after nine years in limbo, following NATO's bombing of Serbia. On Sunday, the new state was legally born in a room with a picture of Kosovo father figure Ibrahim Rugova meeting with Pope John Paul II, and sealed in a ceremony where the Kosovo Philharmonic debuted a national anthem, titled "Europe." No United Nations officials were invited, and yesterday it was unclear under what terms the UN would continue its presence, which has been deeply unpopular. "I think you are going to see the UN vehicles get a lot of parking tickets," said one local.

The Constitution day was called "historic" by US diplomats who offered congratulations along with representatives of the 43 states that recognize Kosovo. Kosovo abandoned its unofficial and controversial intelligence service and created official state ministries of foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence.

Optimists say the Constitution will speed Kosovo's recognition. Kosovo is recognized by 20 of the 27 EU states. A Constitution is seen as vital for political legitimacy and investment.

But Balkan history is never simple. On the eve of the signing, Pristina was dealt a confusing blow by letters sent to the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. The letters offer two interpretations of the UN mandate for the two sides, something Tim Judah, author of an upcoming book on Kosovo, terms a "conjuring trick."

The Ban letters vaguely tell Pristina the door is open for an "enhanced [EU] role," and vaguely tell Belgrade that role will be worked out with EU President Javier Solana. For the EU, the letters suggest a complex road ahead, since it must police both Kosovar and Serb areas. That mission has not begun to materialize; diplomats say the EU is gauging the volatile political climate in Belgrade, whose recently elected pro-European party has not yet formed a government.

Many Western officials in Kosovo view the letters as a tortured concession to both sides and say the EU must simply move in. "No one can reconcile the interests of the two sides," says a knowledgeable diplomat. "But this will allow the UN to extricate itself. There's nothing easy about Kosovo. But the Constitution is another step."

"Ban Ki Moon recognizes the situation has changed with the Constitution, but he hasn't been able to find a way to withdraw [the UN mission]," says Austrian diplomat Albert Rohan. "It is a genuine dilemma on both sides when there are permanent members of the Security Council with constituencies."

The chief issue is how authority is to be exercised in Serbian enclaves. The region of Mitrovica, north of the Ibar River, is contiguous with Serbia proper, and is de facto controlled by Serbs.

The Constitution embodies human rights and multiethnic safeguards enshrined in the Ahtisaari Plan – the document worked out by the international community giving Serbs in the enclaves unprecedented access to Belgrade.

Since the declaration of independence, there have not been instances of widespread ethnic violence, and almost no individual cases. A Serb radical on Sunday entered a Kosovo police station with a Serbian flag and was shot after shooting an officer. But such cases have been rare. Most older Kosovars in Pristina and other large cities describe a certain sense of satisfaction, compared with the days in which they lived under Serbs as second-class citizens and with jails full of Albanians often subject to torture. Yet some elites feel uneasy that radical Serbs have not given up their claims on the territory.

Many Kosovo insiders are now closely watching the scattered Serbian enclaves south of the Ibar River. Western diplomats say Mitrovica is too strongly held by the Serbs to ever be regained except by force. What would constitute progress for Kosovo as a state is to integrate the southern enclaves peacefully. The EU mission is expected to fully engage next October.

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