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Preserving Kosovo's Separate Peace

Six years ago, NATO halted a bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing in which 10,000 Albanians died at the hands of Serb paramilitaries. Is the polarized region ready for independence?
 
 
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The military checkpoints had been dismantled and the bridge open to civilian traffic for a week. But in the middle of the afternoon on a busy weekday, the main bridge in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica stood empty. Beneath its gleaming French-designed arches, a bored police officer lounged in the guard shack left vacant by international peacekeepers. All was quiet at Dolce Vita, the cafe where the "bridge watchers," Serb vigilantes, keep an eye out for Albanians crossing into their part of town.

Things looked calm enough as Alastair Butchart-Livingston, of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), steered us past the Dolce Vita in an official four-wheel-drive.

"We had trouble there on Sunday night," he said. A drunken Serb had chucked a bottle at a policeman guarding the bridge and then resisted arrest, prompting a nervous call for reinforcements by the officers on duty. "It backed down, but it showed how quickly things can boil up."

Mitrovica is Kosovo's most bitterly divided city, the front line in a standoff between the Serb-dominated northern tip of the province and its Albanian-majority main portion. Mitrovica's 15,000 ethnic Serbs and 65,000 ethnic Albanians rarely cross paths, so rigidly do they stick to their respective sides of the Ibar River.

In June, when the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) opened the bridge and turned it over to Kosovo police, it was supposed to foster freedom of movement -- a key civil right for the ethnic Serb minority sequestered in North Mitrovica. Instead, hundreds of Serbs turned out to protest the measure.

"They do not want the Kosovar Albanians trying to come north of the river," Butchart-Livingston told me. In fact, he said, Mitrovica's Serbs would like to turn back the clock to when KFOR stood squarely between them and the rest of Kosovo. "They want to provoke the international community into perhaps closing the bridge again and bringing back an effective form of partition."

The memory of war and the specter of more violence make people intensely fearful in this beautiful and dangerous mountain-ringed place. It's hard to imagine anyone arguing that Kosovo -- segregated, tense, a sea of effusive Muslim Albanians surrounding islands of frightened, angry Orthodox Serbs -- is ready for anything even approaching independence. But on Oct. 24 the United Nations Security Council is set to discuss precisely this issue.

Breakaway Province

Six years after NATO stopped a bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing in which 10,000 Albanians died at the hands of Serb paramilitaries, Kosovo is ready to graduate from its status as a U.N. protectorate. Negotiations on its "permanent status" will determine whether Kosovo remains a province of Serbia, as it legally is now, or gains its independence.

Kosovo's Serbs want to see the breakaway province reunited with Serbia proper. But a return to rule by Belgrade is widely acknowledged to be out of the question. So is the outright independent statehood demanded by the ethnic Albanian majority. What's left, then, is some form of provisional independence for Kosovo. The problem is determining what that means and getting the relevant parties -- in Kosovo's capital Pristina, in Belgrade and at the Security Council -- to agree on it.

Experts, among them former Clinton envoy James Dobbins, agree that Kosovo will probably be emancipated from Serbia but will still have to answer to international authority for years to come, much like Bosnia. KFOR soldiers, now numbering 17,000 (down from a postwar high of 46,000), will probably remain in place. So will groups like the U.N. and OSCE, to ensure that Kosovo's 1.7 million ethnic Albanians respect the rights of the 130,000 ethnic Serbs who live among them.

To the Albanians, the Kosovar Serbs represent their former oppressors. Since just after the first World War, Serbia had maintained a colonial-style presence in Kosovo that fluctuated with the political tides. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic stripped Kosovo of the semi-autonomy it had enjoyed under Tito. Exploiting a psychic wound Serbs had nursed since losing Kosovo to the Ottomans in 1389, he also clamped down on Albanian culture. An ethnic Albanian separatist movement flourished accordingly.

Then came the atrocities of ethnic cleansing, and the reprisals. It took American bombs and an international peacekeeping force to pull the warring parties apart.

It's clear that Kosovo's troubles are far from over. First, the U.N.-led negotiating team must persuade Belgrade to gracefully relinquish Kosovo. That will not be easy for the proud Serbs to swallow. Kosovo is "Old Serbia," the birthplace of the Serbian nation and -- crucially -- historic seat of the 800-year-old Serbian Orthodox Church. International officials are banking heavily on the enticement of EU membership to persuade Belgrade to let go -- and that just might work.

But then comes the task of crafting a domestic arrangement that is acceptable to both Kosovo's Serbs and Albanians. That will require compromises by both sides, and compromise is something neither side is very good at. In general, the parties remain polarized and mistrustful and solve the problem of coexistence by simply avoiding each other. To an outsider's eye, the reality of this is shocking.

Recreating Serbia

Driving down a road in Kosovo, through one Albanian town after another, shop signs suddenly change from Roman to Cyrillic; the neighborhoods from the rambling semi-rural Albanian model to a tidier European look -- the signs of a Serbian enclave.

Throughout the province, ethnic Serbs cling to the safety of their isolated villages and neighborhoods. There, they recreate Serbia as best they can. At Serb-run stores they pay for goods trucked in from Serbia proper using Serbian dinars that are useless in the next town, since Kosovo Albanians long ago switched to euros. They read Serbian newspapers, listen to Serbian pop music and board buses that take them directly to other Serbian enclaves, skipping the Albanian towns between.

Officials from Belgrade maintain a strong presence in Kosovo via these enclaves, visiting them, offering financial incentives for people to stay and issuing "suggestions," such as urging people not to vote, that do not go unheeded.

In Albanian Kosovo -- the vast majority of Kosovo -- horse-drawn carts and blaring wedding convoys take turns disrupting traffic, and peasants set up impromptu stands on the side of the road where they sell watermelons and onions. A mosque or two gleams in every town, along with dozens of ramshackle carwashes, the cottage industry of choice.

Kosovo Albanians make it clear they have not forgotten their heroes or their suffering at the hands of Serb military forces during the 1998-99 guerrilla war. Shrines to fallen KLA fighters dot the roadsides, festooned with fresh flowers and bright red Albanian flags, the standard of the KLA. (At one time extremists wanted to merge with neighboring Albania, but sources told me that nowadays the flag is a symbol of ethnic identity rather than political aspiration.)

On signposts at the limits of certain towns, vandals have inked out the Serb spelling of the town's name, leaving only the Albanian version -- clear retaliation for a decade of outlawed Albanian speech under Milosevic.

The low simmer of resentment among Kosovo Albanians boiled over in March 2004 into three days of anti-Serb riots that left 19 people dead (11 of them ethnic Albanian), 550 Serb homes and 27 holy sites burned, and 4,000 people on the run.

Toward Decentralization

The compromises now under consideration are not geared toward a healthy, multiethnic Kosovo. They are geared toward preserving a separate peace -- or a dysfunctional society that may never integrate, depending on your point of view.

A centerpiece of negotiations will be "decentralization," or the reassignment of certain powers from the central government to the local level. In theory this would soothe Serb fears by granting them some self-governance within their enclaves. They would have the authority to choose, for example, a police chief -- a key power in a violence-prone place.

But many Kosovo Albanians view decentralization as cover for the Serbian government's continued presence in Kosovo. This is more than an irritant to the Albanian psyche, it's terrifying.

Albert Prenkaj, an OSCE community affairs officer and former leader in a moderate Albanian party, told me that Kosovo analysts consider decentralization "political masochism." If Serbs maintain a foothold in Kosovo, the logic goes, they will one day wrest it back and Albanians will have no one but themselves to blame. Prenkaj also revealed the depth of Albanian suspicion when he referred to the Serbs' "mathematically well-spread enclaves" found throughout Kosovo.

Kosovo Serbs have trust issues of their own. Of the 200,000 who fled Kosovo after the war, only a few thousand have returned. This is in spite of official invitations by moderate Albanian leaders.

For Kosovo to gain the credibility required for independence, ethnic Albanians must show they have made the Serbs feel safe enough to return. Understanding the political calculus, Serbs doubt the sincerity of these invitations.

Father Sava Janjic, deputy abbot at a 13th-century Serb Orthodox monastery in Decani that receives round-the-clock KFOR protection, explains why. "We are under the impression they are doing things now just for status, and then things will be the same," he told me.

The Deep Divide

The deep distrust on both sides of the Kosovo divide will make the negotiations to come, and the years to follow, hard. Harder, maybe, than international officials are willing to admit.

Butchart-Livingston, a 13-year veteran of Balkan reconstruction, believes violence could break out. He predicts that if Kosovo wins even conditional independence, ethnic Serbs in Mitrovica and points north will try to resurrect an option that is totally repugnant to ethnic Albanians: partition Kosovo, with the territory north of the river reverting to Serbian rule.

"That's quite a bit of land, and most Albanians would say, 'No, we won't allow the Serbs to do that.' Well, there may have to be compromises made, because to try to stop the Serbs doing that if in fact that's what they wanted to do would be very bloody," he told us.

Asked if this wasn't a pessimistic view, he dodged. "I've been here long enough to be a realist," he said.

People underestimate Serbian pride, he went on. "What nobody seems to realize is that Serbs don't want to lose again. They lost in '99, they feel they lost in 2004. And they don't want to lose a third time."

Traci Hukill is a freelance journalist based in Monterey, Calif.