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Age-Old Feud between Serbs and Albanians Continues in Kosovo - 2003-12-04

For generations Kosovo, a tiny piece of real estate in the Western Balkans, has been an object of bloody dispute between Serbs and Albanians. It has changed hands many times through the ages. Since the early 1900's, it has been a province of Serbia, always restless and defiant. Since NATO's 1999 air campaign, which drove Serb forces from Kosovo, the province has been run by a U.N. administration and secured by thousands of NATO-led troops. And although the fighting is over, Serbs and Albanians have yet to resolve Kosovo's status: will it stay part of Serbia, gain independence or be a part of some other regional arrangement? VOA's Jela de Franceschi takes a look at Kosovo's past and present.

A tiny slice of land is all that Kosovo's Serbs and ethnic Albanians have in common. They speak different languages, have different religious beliefs and hold different versions of history. Today two million Albanians constitute over 90 % of the population.

Albanians, who are mostly Muslims, claim they are Kosovo's original inhabitants, the descendants of the ancient Illyrians. It is the umbilical cord that connects them to their mythical past and it is the home of modern Albanian nationalism, not just in Kosovo but for all Albanians. To the Serbs it is the cradle of their civilization and the medieval seat of their Orthodox Church.

A key date in Kosovo's history is June 28, 1389, when a Serbian prince fought the invading Ottoman Turks at Kosovo - and lost. To this day, the story has a powerful grip on the Serbian imagination. The call to "revenge Kosovo" has been a battle cry for much of Serb history.

For most of the 20th century, Kosovo was a province of Serbia kept under a tight leash, economically depressed and beset with unrest and uprisings.

Then on June 28, 1989 at the 600th anniversary of the Kosovo battle, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic at the peak of his power summoned his fellow Serbs to wage war for Greater Serbia leading to the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia.

Mr. Milosevic's true nemesis was Kosovo, says Sonja Biserko, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. He was determined to suppress the Kosovo Liberation Army: “The Kosovars at first opted for peaceful resistance to Serbian rule under Mr Milosevic, declaring their independence and running a parallel state. But after 1995 most Albanians realized their case was not going to be taken up by the international community and that started their radicalization that inevitably led to the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Milosevic then turned on Kosovo with a heavy hand. His attempts in 1999 to drive hundreds of thousands of Albanians out of the province brought on NATO's intervention.”

Kosovo is now an international protectorate run by the U.N. Mission for Kosovo or UNMIK. Technically, it remains a province of Serbia. So the age-old feud between Serbs and Albanians continues. Albanians overwhelmingly seek independence. A majority of Serbs is opposed, though some would accept partition.

In the meantime, U.N. efforts to improve life for Kosovars are faltering. Its latest program to privatize real estate and large businesses has stalled amid legal disputes between Serbia and the Kosovo governors.

Despite $10 billion of Western aid, more than half of Kosovo's population lives below the poverty line and still more are jobless. Like its neighbors, the province suffers from organized crime and traffic in drugs and human beings.

Alex Anderson, project director for Kosovo of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says progress is stymied because of murky and overlapping authorities. The United Nations administers the province, the European Union largely funds it. NATO led forces provide security, and the United States wields diplomatic power.

“All this makes for messy governance,” says Mr. Anderson. “The United Nations administration has very few mechanisms for probing or taking into account and mobilizing pressures and advocacy from below. It responds to commands from New York and pressures and initiatives from powerful member states of the U.N. It responds to commands from New York and pressures and initiatives from powerful member states of the United Nations. The U.N. administration left to itself acts like a kind of dead hand, and we have seen several initiatives start off promisingly but then grind to a halt.”

Mr. Anderson says continued ambiguity over Kosovo's future makes Albanians restless and distrustful: “One could see this uncertainty manifested in the failure of the U.N's recent weapons amnesty program promising $250,000 to the Kosovo community that turns over the most weapons. It failed miserably, collecting something less than 200 weapons in the whole province. No municipality was interested to gather even a minimal number of weapons in order to win this development money."

After four years of peace, ethnic tensions in Kosovo seem under control. But Albanian and Serb communities barely mix, and old wounds still fester. Albanians resent Serbs for rejecting independence and are generally contemptuous of them.

Amnesty International warned recently that Serbs and Roma who make up less than six percent of the population remain at risk of Albanian revenge attacks.

Of more than 230,000 Serbs, Roma and other minorities who fled Kosovo in 1999, only 5,800 have returned. About a third of the 100,000 Serbs and Roma in Kosovo live in three predominantly Serbian municipalities in the north under NATO and U.N. police protection.

U.N. officials often criticize Kosovo Albanians for exaggerating the importance of independence. They argue that Kosovo's society and institutions must first show they are ready to govern responsibly and that includes the rule of law and protection of minorities.

Robert Hand, senior analyst of the Congressional Helsinki Committee, says it is in the interest of Albanians to improve conditions for their former foes: “It is awfully hard for me to preach on the issue because I never had to be an Albanian in Kosovo feeling the pressure that existed under Milosevic. I know many of them continue to grieve over missing family members and want to see those cases resolved. But I would hope that because of the evil that had been done to them in the past they would respond to it by saying we are not like that. We are different.”

Serbs still look to Belgrade for moral and political support. More often than not their representatives boycott Kosovo's postwar parliament. And in recent months Serbia's government has begun to pose a challenge to Kosovo's nascent democratic institutions. The Serbian Coordinating Center in Belgrade that provides aid to Kosovo Serbs is now setting up courts and political structures parallel to local government.

This is troubling, says Alex Anderson of the International Crisis Group: “UNMIK officials are very alarmed by these moves from the Belgrade government and have warned Serbian municipal officials working in the United Nations structures that by accepting Coordination Center employment they would be risking employment with UNMIK. There is some despondency among U.N. officials that at the central level the United Nations administration in Kosovo has been very weak in opposing this advance into Kosovo by this Belgrade structure.”

Ignoring Kosovo's political status could strengthen extremism on both sides, say analysts. But the international community has so far shown no appetite to address the issue, mainly because it requires a new U.N. resolution. Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council, are unlikely to approve any separatist aspirations in the Balkans. Russia fears redrawing of boundaries would inspire more separatism in its breakaway republic Chechnya. China fears the same regarding Taiwan.

The United States and the European Union believe Kosovo's future should be decided by negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina. They are trying to coax the two capitals, Pristina and Belgrade, to open a dialogue on specific issues that could lead to a final settlement.

The first such meeting was held in November in Vienna. It was intended to focus on energy matters, transportation, missing persons and the return of more than 100,000 displaced people, mostly Serbs. But the Albanians used the occasion to insist on independence, while Serbs replied that Kosovo belongs to Serbia.

Still, Daniel Serwer says initial talks usually stumble. He believes the Belgrade and Pristina can reach the kind of agreement that has occurred elsewhere: “Kosovo will certainly be self-governing. Its legal status will be whatever Belgrade and Pristine agree on. A number of recent peace agreements in similar situations, as the one in Northern Ireland, have led to a very elaborate system of cross-border arrangements and cross-border institutions. Whatever solution Belgrade and Pristine agree to might be considerably more complicated. But I think Belgrade understands perfectly well that two million Albanians in Kosovo, given the history of what happened there cannot be governed from Belgrade."

Most analysts agree an early solution to Kosovo's legal status is the best way to ensure peace and stability in the region.