16 February 2008

Kosovo on the brink of nationhood

Kosovo is poised to become a nation. From Daily Telegraph (UK)
Kosovo's Serbs face a bleak future
By Thomas Harding

In the Balkans, there are many dates in the calendar full of dread symbolism: the date the Ottomans defeated the Serbs; the date the Nazis invaded; the date of the Srebrenica massacre. Now in Kosovo two dates are set to resonate among its ethnic Albanian and minority Serb population.

This Sunday, February 17, is likely to be the day when the province under the titular control of Serbia forcibly becomes a state under UN supervision.

The centuries-held dream of self-governance will be realised with jubilation by Kosovo's two million Muslim Albanians, who form 90 per cent of the population. Meanwhile, the 100,000 Serbs left in Kosovo are going to have their noses rubbed in the flag of the world's newest country.

For the Serbs, March 17, 2004 is the date to remember. Violent unrest erupted between the Serbs and Albanians, and during the fortnight that followed, Albanians burnt Orthodox churches and 60,000 Serbs were driven from their homes in the small enclaves of Kosovo. At least 19 civilians were killed while the Kfor peacekeepers largely sat back and did very little.

Many Serbs have since retreated to the northern town of Mitrovica, where a spiked mountain capped by an old Serb castle acts as a redoubt to the dispossessed and fearful.

Mitrovica resonates like Belfast of old, with the River Ibar providing a barrier between ancient enmities. On one side, the Albanians appear energised, like Northern Ireland's Roman Catholic nationalists emerging from dark days; on the other, the Serbs are like east Belfast's working-class Protestants: neglected, largely ignored and with bleak prospects.

North of the Ibar, there is defiance. The shops are shabby and its thick-set people are apprehensive but stoic. The Serb sense of disfranchisement and victimisation is deepened by the bright new apartment blocks springing up on the southern side and the Albanians' thriving market.

The span of a UN-guarded bridge separates them - and, until now, has been enough to keep them apart. The rolls of barbed wire on the pavement wait to be thrown across the road - possibly on Sunday.

Independence is inevitable, the Serbs have accepted that. They no longer harbour any illusions that their brothers in Belgrade will ride to the rescue and Russia's pro-Slav talk of brotherhood is seen as rhetoric.

After decades of doing it to others, the 100,000 Serbs in Kosovo are now in line for ethnic cleansing. On the front line in Mitrovica stands the Dolce Vita café, a name that perhaps reflects the black humour of its patrons.

Inside, Serbs sip coffee, speaking quietly and looking over their shoulders aware that, two years ago, an Albanian threw a bomb into the building, injuring nine drinkers. The owner, Sasha Radosavljevic, is a strong-jawed Serbian with sharp blue eyes.

He speaks with little hope for the future, but also with defiance: "The Albanians will never manage to push us out. For the time being, it is impossible for us to live together, but we can live side by side. Let time heal the wounds. If I was not optimistic, I would not invest money here."

However he warns that Serb groups, some with access to weapons, would "provide help" if comrades were attacked in the southern enclaves. "March 17 broke the confidence of the Serb people in the police. We don't have faith that those Serbs living in enclaves will be safe."

A short walk up the street, which is lined with posters of Serbs' Right-wing nationalist leaders, Stashic Cica had little to commend independence. "The insecurity here is very stressful," she said.

"The international community wants to achieve independence at the cost of our human rights. We are very much afraid, because we don't trust the Albanian leadership. The people running the country are all former terrorists from the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army]."

There is some paranoia, too, and not just among the Serbs, about a nascent Islamic extremist movement that is being closely monitored by the Americans.

New and refurbished mosques are appearing, mainly through Saudi funding. While Kosovo Muslims are secular, there are reports of women being paid 250 euros a month to wear the hijab. Moderate Albanians mutter of young men appearing in mosques with extremist views, but their powerbase is small.

Much of the "cream" of the Serbian middle class has already deserted Kosovo, leaving behind those who might be less thoughtful in response to provocation. With the UN, the international media and even their fellow countrymen unable or unwilling to help, there is despair at what the future may hold.

The UN peacekeepers, which could soon include an extra battalion of British infantry drafted in at 24 hours' notice, are braced for the violence that will announce Kosovo's arrival.
More analysis from the Daily Telegraph
Russia overshadows Kosovo independence bid
By Harry de Quetteville in Pristina

Kosovo is poised to declare its independence from Serbia tomorrow, despite threats that Russia may encourage separatist movements elsewhere in response.

With the United States entrenched as Kosovo's most powerful friend, Russia said yesterday that the new state's split from Serbia would force it to reconsider its own position on territorial disputes.

As a first step, Russia's foreign ministry announced it would review its relations with two breakaway regions of neighbouring Western-backed Georgia.

"The recognition of the independence of Kosovo will be taken into account as far as the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is concerned," it said.

It underlined that Kosovo's independence "presupposes a revision of commonly accepted norms and principles of international law" that govern separatist movements from Moldova to Indonesia.

The superpower stand-off over Kosovo is unlikely to dim celebrations in the province's capital Pristina however, where huge crowds of ethnic Albanians are expected to gather tomorrow for a concert, firework display and street party.

Everything from hotel rooms to a series of stamps are being especially tailored to commemorate the occasion.

During a press conference yesterday Hashim Thaci, the prime minister, announced the creation of a new government office to liaise with Kosovo's Serb minority and address their concerns.

But his announcement did not have the intended soothing effect in the Serbian population of Kosovo's ethnically divided town of Mitrovica. A political association there announced it would form a Serb-only parliament to take part in Serbia's local elections due in May. In the Serbian capital Belgrade, Boris Tadic, the recently re-elected pro-Western president, was sworn in to office vowing "never to give up the fight for our Kosovo".

Graphic: Kosovo map

On the streets of Pristina however, a palpable sense of anticipation indicated that Mr Tadic's struggle would fail in a matter of hours.

Around the buildings housing Kosovo's fledgling administration, crowds milled about as if expecting a party to start. Walls were covered with posters thanking Britain, the US and the EU for their support.

Kosovo has been administered by a UN mission since 1999, after Nato bombed Belgrade to end a bloody crack-down by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic on ethnic Albanian separatists.

The timing of the new state's independence is still a secret, though a Sunday afternoon announcement is likely. It should be accompanied by the unveiling of Kosovo's new flag, designed to be as inoffensive as possible. There will be no trace of Albania's double headed eagle, and red and black will be replaced by the blue and yellow of the European Union.

This is actually a turning point. Self-determination seems to be supported by the international community. Newer members of the United Nations were Eritrea (1993) from Ethiopia, Timor-Leste (2002) from Indonesia, and Montenegro (2006) from Serbia.

Then there are trouble spots around the world where people are also seeking 'self-determination', such as Chechnya, which seeks independence from Russia; Tamil nationalists seeking a separate state in Sri Lanka; the Uyghurs who seek independence for the Chinese province of Xinjiang as East Turkestan; ETA, which seeks a Basque homeland from Spain; amongst many.

Where does one draw the line between supporting 'democracy' and peoples' right to self-governance and 'meddling' in the internal affairs of sovereign states? Who decides whether 'separatist movements' are freedom fighters or terrorists?

Should supporters of Tibet also support the other movements?

I had to wake early today as Sue D and I went to the farmers market at 7.30am. Stone fruits are still in season and apples and pears are just coming in now. It was good to catch up with Sue.

Today has been a do nothing day, which is thoroughly understandable and deserving after the past week at work. I finally finished watching all the Angel episodes. I'm not going start on re-watching Buffy for awhile.

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