Friday, August 26, 2005

Dilemmas in Kosova 2005: Benign peacekeeping or destructive occupation?

Dilemmas in Kosova: Benign peacekeeping or destructive occupation?

By Michael Karadjis


Six years after taking control of Kosova, western powers are soon to announce whether the country has met the ‘standards’ required to begin discussion of its ‘final status’.

To those concerned with human rights and self-determination, this presents a dilemma. The major ‘standards’ Kosova must reach are concerned with protection of the Serb and other minorities and the right of those who fled after 1999 to return and live in safety, an eminently supportable standard.

Yet this ‘white man’s burden’ by which self-appointed powers decide what a country must do before it can rule itself, creates resentment among Kosovar Albanians. No other state emerging from former Yugoslavia or the USSR was subjected to years of foreign occupation till ‘standards’ were reached.

The violent clashes in March 2004 highlighted that the denial of self-determination to the Albanian majority does nothing to protect the security of minorities, given both the outbreak itself after five years of occupation, and the inability of occupation troops to adequately protect the victims.

The only salvation for the Serb minority lies with offering partnership to the Albanian majority in building a state. Whatever traditional affection Serbs might hold for being ruled by Belgrade, the reality is that the 90 percent Albanian population living all around them will settle for nothing less than independence. But the trust required for such partnership building will take time, and last year’s terror against Serb communities strengthens their desire for foreign forces to stay to protect them, however inadequately.

However, the UN-NATO forces, whose role it is to protect minorities, also have as their major role denying the right of self-determination to the Albanian majority. The UN-NATO ‘standards before status’ dogma does not promise independence even if Albanians meet the standards, but merely a beginning of status talks. This intensifies the frustration and ethnic radicalisation of the Albanian majority. Only unambiguous self-determination can separate the role of international forces in protecting minorities from their role as occupiers.

The clashes of March 2004

Violent clashes between Albanians and Serbs in the northern city of Mitrovica broke out in March 2004 on the bridge separating the northern, Serb-controlled, from the southern, Albanian-controlled, part of the city. The spark was the drowning of three Albanian children.
Albanians forced KFOR (the NATO occupation force) checkpoints, attempting to cross to the north, while KFOR troops and UN police fought to keep them back. Eight Albanians and two Serbs were reported killed, and eleven French NATO troops injured (AFP, 2004).
Meanwhile, in the village of Caglavica near the capital Pristina, Serbs blocked the main highway to Macedonia, the country’s major communications artery, following the shooting injury of a Serb youth. When an Albanian mob attacked the Serb roadblock, KFOR and UN troops blocked their way, and were attacked by the Albanians, who then violently attempted to reach the 1000 Serbs in the village.

Albanian mobs elsewhere in Kosova then launched pogroms against small, isolated pockets of minority Serbs and other minorities, and attacked the occupation forces, who responded with teargas, rubber bullets and sometimes live ammunition, and evacuated Serbs to safer towns or NATO barracks (AFP, 2004).

The death toll reached 19 – eight Serbs and 11 Albanians – and 900 injured. Some 3,600 Serbs were displaced, and 900 Serb homes and 30 Serb Orthodox churches were destroyed. Some 150 KFOR troops and UN police were injured, and 72 UN vehicles destroyed, and 200 people were arrested.

Background to the violence

The expulsion of 850,000 Kosovar Albanians and the destruction of 100,000 Albanian homes by Serbian armed forces in 1999, during NATO’s brutal air attack on Serbia (mostly hitting civilian targets), led to revenge attacks against the Serb minority when the refugees returned. Large numbers of Serbs fled, their population dropping from 200,000 to an estimated 100,000 today. (1)

Many Serbs live in isolated ghettoes protected by NATO, others in larger concentrations, such as the Gracanica region, while some 60,000 live between northern Mitrovica and the Serbian border, to where Albanians have been unable to return, and state structures are extensions of those in Serbia. This region contains the Trepca mining and metallurgy complex, Kosova’s most valuable asset.

While the Serb leadership claim, somewhat justly, that the north is the only place Serbs feel safe, the very fact of partitioning off Kosova’s most valuable region further encourages anti-Serb violence.

Since June 1999, Kosova has been run by the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, which controls foreign relations, justice, law and order, finance and the Kosova Protection Corps (KPC), and can overrule parliamentary decisions. The elected parliament “is no stronger than a high school student council” (Fron Nazi, 2004).

As the UN, NATO and western powers have always opposed Kosovar independence, the goal of virtually all Albanians, parliamentary decisions which push in that direction are vetoed.

Though independence was eventually accepted for other Yugoslav republics, Kosova was considered different because it had not had ‘republic’ status. However, it had ‘high level autonomy’ before being suppressed by Milosevic in 1989, and was historically a distinct Albanian-majority region that had never accepted Serb rule. The West’s believes Kosovar independence might encourage all kinds of independence claims in the Balkans, particularly in neighbouring Macedonia, which could lead to a ‘nightmare scenario’ of conflict between NATO allies Greece and Turkey.

Thus when the KLA appeared in early 1998, US special envoy Robert Gelbard declared it was “without any question, a terrorist organisation’ (Gowan, 1999), giving Milosevic a green light. However, Milosevic’s brutal tactics did not suppress the KLA, but boosted it from a few hundred guerrillas in early 1998 to an army of 20-30,000 later that year. Thus western powers wanted their own troops in to control the situation, and Serbia was bombed to show NATO ‘resolve’ because it said ‘no’, rather than to support Albanian claims. Writing in the US establishment’s Foreign Affairs, Chris Hedges explained:

The Western alliance is working feverishly - even as it bombs the Serbs - to blunt the momentum toward a war of independence … The underlying idea behind creating a theoretically temporary, NATO-enforced military protectorate in Kosovo is to buy time for a three-year transition period in which ethnic Albanians will be allowed to elect a parliament and other governing bodies - meeting enough of their aspirations, it is hoped, to keep Kosovo from seceding” (Hedges, 1999).

With the status of Kosova unresolved, it is unable to negotiate development credits, thus the economy is at a standstill. It had already been de-industrialised in the previous decade after Milosevic sacked the entire Albanian industrial workforce. Unemployment now stands at 60-70 percent and over half the population live below the poverty line. Infrastructures have barely been restored, power cuts occurring daily.

Ironically, while politically free from Belgrade, this non-economy has made Kosova dependent on Serbian imports:

Every week, ethnic Albanians from Pristina head into the city's supermarket and fill their shopping baskets with goods from Serbia. Stores in the international protectorate are lined with Serbian goods, ranging from foodstuffs to shopping powder and even bricks and mortar … Milos Boskovic, sales director of the Vojvodina-based Potisje brick factory, told IWPR that since the end of conflict, "up to 70 per cent of our annual production goes there (Kosovo)" … Serbia exported goods to Kosovo in first nine months of 2003 worth 108 million euro. Over the same period, Kosovo sold Serbia goods worth some 3.5 million euro. Goods heading north were worth less than one-thirtieth of the amount traveling south (Matic and Ahmeti, 2004).

The former state enterprises which had been destroyed under Milosevic still have no money to get production going again. The lack of a state which can control its own revenue raising gives Kosova little bargaining power regarding the 2004 UNMIK plan to privatise state firms, even on terms more favourable to investors than the state – UNMIK now grants 99-year land-leases with the privatized firms. On the other, the very instability of the situation makes Kosova unattractive for investors anyway; only 19 medium firms were sold, for a total of 16 million Euro (KTA/ECIKS, 2004).

Despite billions poured into the UN/NATO bureaucracy, large numbers of houses destroyed in 1999 have not been rebuilt. Thousands of former rural dwellers who lost homes have crowded into cities, taking the homes of minorities. According to a report on homeless Albanians in the village of Biti e Epërme, “since the conflict, they have been living with relatives or in collective centres.” Albanian returnee Shyqeri Hamiti explained, “we live in tents under the open sky” (OSCE, 2003).

Nearly 3000 Albanians are still missing since the end of the war, despite the 4000 dug out of mass graves in Kosova and another 836 Albanian bodies discovered in Serbia (Humanitarian Law Centre, 2004). The post-war revenge has also left around 1000 non-Albanians missing. (2)

This sea of desperation among the dispossessed in Kosova’s slums is the context leading to this explosion.

Reactions of Albanian leaders

A number of western leaders, such as German Defense Minister Peter Struck, suggested the former Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) was behind the March violence (Al-Jazeera, 2004).

The KLA was dissolved by NATO in September 1999. It had become a mass-based armed movement aimed at ridding Kosova of Serbian occupation; once this was achieved, most went back to jobs and fields; some became part of the unarmed KPC; some formed the parliamentary Kosova Democratic Party (PDK) and Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK); others continued as small leftist factions, like the Kosova Peoples Movement (PMK) and the National Movement for the Liberation of Kosova (LKCK); former KLA leader Adem Demaci now heads the ‘Committee for Tolerance and Co-existence’ and is one of the harshest critics of anti-Serb violence.

The LKCK and the PMK, war veterans associations and student unions organised an anti-occupation demonstration in October 2003, raising slogans like ‘UNMIK get out’ and ‘NATO get out’, but raising no anti-Serb slogans (Dérens, 2003).

Kosovar Albanian leaders such as Hashim Thaci and Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi from the PDK went out into the streets to calm the crowds and encourage them to disperse. Kosova’s leaders declared a day of mourning. Rexhepi, announcing the creation of a 12 million euro fund to repair damage to Serb houses and churches, strongly condemned “the unprecedented acts of destruction of Kosovo's cultural and religious heritage” (Abrashi, 2004).

The Serbian Orthodox Decani monastery reported that the Decani mayor, Ibrahim Selmonaj of the AAK, phoned Fr Sava Janjic “to inform him that the leadership of the municipality and the AAK, the most influential party there, were making all possible efforts to prevent the violence and damage to the monastery. Fr Sava thanked Selmonaj for his political leadership and responsibility” (Bjelajac, 2004).

It is difficult to judge the extent to which these actions were the exception rather than the rule. However, anti-Serb violence is against the interests of Kosovar leaders. They are determined to attain independence, yet protecting minorities against Albanian violence has been the West’s main excuse for denying Kosovar self-determination.

The fact that some former KLA elements may have taken the road of criminal activity or anti-Serb extremism is hardly surprising given that the KLA had represented a broad cross-section of Albanian society. However, fingering a long-dissolved ‘KLA’ seems a convenient way for the foreign forces who have controlled Kosova for years to avoid their responsibility for the chaos in which they have left it.

West demands ‘standards before status’

In October 2003, US Under-Secretary of State, Marc Grossman, presented seven ‘standards’ which Kosova must attain before the “international community” will begin a discussion on “final status.” These are democratic institutions, the rule of law, freedom of movement for all ethnic communities, safe return and reintegration of refugees, market economy, property rights, dialogue with Belgrade, and reform of the KPC, including minority representation (US State Department, 2003).

There is no suggestion that independence would be granted if these standards were met. Peter Rondorf, Germany's chief diplomat in Kosova, said in January 2004 that there will be no decision on the final status of Kosova in opposition to Serbia, a condition set by the “international community” (RFE/RL, 2004). In April 2005, US ambassador to Serbia-Montenegro, Michael Polt, said that “Belgrade will have a seat at the discussion table” and the status question must be solved through “compromise” (B92, April 28, 2005).

The March violence left independence more remote. According to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, “no ethnic community should have the illusion that they can force the international community to come closer to the fulfilment of their ambitions by inciting ethnic hatred and violence … that goes specifically for the ethnic Albanian community” (Stratfor, 2004). The Council of Europe warned “the Albanian majority – and its political leadership - are failing to demonstrate that they can create a future of Kosovo in which all its people will have a chance to live in peace and stability” (Cvijanovic, 2004).

The pogroms also strengthened Belgrade’s hand. In March 2004, Serbian President Kostunica announced he would push for the ethnic cantonisation of Kosova. Serbian diplomat Dusan Batakovic detailed a proposal to create 5 Serbian cantons covering 30 percent of Kosova's territory (Government of Serbia, 2004). While not fully accepting Kostunica’s plan, the EU changed the wording to ‘decentralisation’, discussion of which is now on the table.

Kosovar leaders blamed the occupation which limits their powers to control the violence while giving their people no roadmaps, creating an atmosphere of hopelessness. The Kosovars are blamed for allowing these attacks, yet are given no control over security.

Thaci noted “for five years nobody in the country has known their future. This uncertainty has led to instability for all of us, whatever our ethnicity. It is difficult to underestimate how frightened the Albanians of Kosova are of being ruled again by Belgrade” (Thaci, 2004).

Fron Nazi notes that “to meet the standards, UNMIK has to relinquish more power to the Kosovar parliament. But UNMIK is hesitant about doing this, as it would place Kosova further on the road to independence, and there is no guarantee even if the standards are met that Kosova's independence will follow” (Fron Nazi, 2004).

The responsibility of Serb and Albanian nationalism

However, ceding real power to the Kosovar people is a Catch-22 for minorities – authorities with effective powers may exist, but they would feel little trust in the Albanian-dominated authorities. But the longer the situation remains on hold, the more the underlying tensions worsen.

The post-Milosevic Serbian regime aims to return Kosova to Serb rule or partition it, so the Kosovar Serb leadership refuses to cooperate with any process to build local Kosovar institutions, as it may aid Kosovar self-rule. Maintaining it has the right to decide, as a 10 percent minority, that the Albanians must be returned to Serb rule, greatly intensifies Albanian hostility. While claiming to want to protect the minority, Belgrade ensures it remains isolated and a target of Albanian frustration.

The security of Kosovar Serbs would be better served if their leadership offered a hand in partnership to the Albanians to build an independent multi-ethnic state. The belief that occupying forces can protect anyone’s rights has been proven an illusion. However, if minorities wish some troops to remain to protect them, this would not be resented by Albanians if it was disconnected from ruling over them. However, while Albanian leaders condemn anti-Serb violence and are right to point to their lack of powers, they have failed to prioritise fighting anti-Serb chauvinism among the Albanian majority as their key task. Veteran Kosovar Albanian human rights campaigner Veton Surroi, while condemning both UNMIK's and Belgrade’s role, also condemns “the incompetence displayed by the Kosovar leadership” and “those who wanted to embark on ethnic cleansing as an act of revenge” (Surroi, 2004).

If the Albanian leadership is incapable of stemming chauvinism, it will have itself to blame if Kosova’s independence is postponed, or if it is partitioned and loses the mineral-rich north.

These are the limitations of the nationalism that arose on the corpse of Tito’s Yugoslavia, which, whatever its faults, ideologically professed ‘brotherhood and unity’, holding back nationalism among strong nations like Serbs and Croats. Once Communism collapsed, national chauvinism was cultivated by demagogues like Milosevic and Tudjman, attempting to divide the region between them.

Signs of Kosovar Albanian-Serb convergence

Following Kosova elections in December 2004, the coalition between the three main Albanian parties (PDK, AAK and Ibrahim Rugova’s Kosova League for Democracy – LDK) broke down. An alliance between the moderate LDK and the radical AAK emerged. Controversially, the government chose AAK leader Ramush Haradinaj as new prime minister.

Haradinaj was under investigation by the Hague for war crimes allegedly committed against Serb civilians during the KLA’s guerrilla war. NATO representative Gunther Altenburg said that Haradinaj was a “problem” who could seriously affect the progress of standards and status” (B92, December 2, 2004). EU chief Javier Solana called Haradinaj “an inconvenient person,” and leading German media mouthpiece Der Spiegel called him “a prime minister with blood on his hands” (Flottau, 2004).

Western leaders pushed for the resumption of an “all-inclusive” government, even sending Solana to Pristina to press the point. No foreign representative, except UNMIK, greeted the new agreement (Qirezi, 2004; Çollaku, 2005).

Yet it is hardly the first time that radical guerrilla leaders have become pragmatists once their goals have been fulfilled. Haradinaj emerged as the strongest advocate of reconciliation with the Serb minority, and his moves converged with a wing of the Kosovar Serb leadership breaking with Belgrade.

Haradinaj immediately opened “intensive talks on all levels” with Serbs, and declared “I’m ready at any moment, even tomorrow, to begin dialogue with Belgrade,” to discuss “everything” with no preconditions (B92, December 24, 2004). “For us, the neighbour is one of the most important partners for the future,” Haradinaj stated, requesting Brussels give Belgrade an offer of EU accession (B92, February 16, 2005).

He declared he was ready to meet the Serb “Bridge Guardians” of northern Mitrovica, which have helped partition the city since 1999. If they demanded northern Mitrovica become a self-governing district, he said he would like to see their plans. While opposing the Serbian cantonisation plan, he submitted his own decentralisation plan, including new municipalities dominated by Serb and Turkish minorities (B92, December 6, 2004).Calling on Serb refugees to return, he linked this to an independent Kosova with jurisdiction over security. “What we need is for the majority of Albanians to be strong enough to guarantee security for the minorities.” He called on the Albanian majority “to create conditions of free movement for the Serbian minority” (B92, December 6, 2004).

He declared that Serbs would have the right to dual citizenship in an independent Kosova (B92, December 6, 2004), and asserted that not only Serbs but also Albanians must apologise to each other (B92, February 16, 2005).

Meanwhile, a number of Serb groups split with Belgrade over its election boycott call, most notably the Civil Initiative of Serbia, led by Slavisa Petkovic, and Oliver Ivanovic, former hard-line head of northern Mitrovica.

Haradinaj appointed Petkovic Minister of Returns, providing a budget of 14 million euros. Petkovic lashed out against Belgrade: “The more dead Serbs there are, the easier it makes politics. Kosovo Serbs will never again work against their own interests for the sake of the authorities in Belgrade, but will think with their own heads” (B92, February 9, 2005). He denounced Serbian politicians who had served in Kosova's parliament and "for the past three years did nothing.” He argued that they think legitimacy is based on the extent to which they promote "the interests of the current government in Belgrade and not the interest of their own people in Kosovo.” He claimed Belgrade politicians "went ballistic over some of my views because they are used only to Serbs from Kosovo who always do what Belgrade tells them to do, even if it is to their detriment” (RFE/RL, February 2005).

Stressing that jobs for Kosovars, including returnees, is the crucial issue, he claimed that Kosova's problems are "99 percent economic...and only 1 percent political," converging with the Albanian view that the lack of an economy is responsible for the woes of both communities. He also told Albanian leaders to tell their own people "every day...that the Serbs must return to their homes," and called on Albanians to help Serbs overcome fear by "taking a walk through town with a Serbian neighbour” (RFE/RL, February 2005).
Haradinaj was indicted by the Hague only 100 days into his tenure. However, his successor, Bajram Kosumi, emphasised that finding a united stance with Kosovar Serbs was for him “the essence of the problem,” and that Serb repatriation “is an inviolable right of the people to return to their own property” (B92, April 25, 2005).

Meanwhile, Kosumi has also appealed for funds to help reconstruct the Roma Mahala in Mitrovica, one of the largest Roma neighbourhoods, which was destroyed by Albanian mobs after the 1999 war. Since then, some of the 7,000 Roma have been living in makeshift camps near the Trepca mine, where the dangers of lead poisoning great. The post-war treatment of Kosovar Roma has if anything been worse than for Serbs, as they are a convenient and easy target without powerful protectors and a traditional victim of racism in all Balkan states. There is also a real danger of Roma and smaller minorities being left out of possible Albanian-Serb deals, so this initiative may be a hopeful sign (RFE/RL, May 2005).

The change of direction by the Serb leadership has its own logic, as locals increasingly see that the idea of ruling their Albanian neighbours is futile. Western leaders can hardly claim responsibility for this, given their insistence that Kosova remains part of Yugoslavia, thus encouraging Belgrade’s games, combined with their inability to protect local Serbs.

The change in direction by the Albanian leadership may have been influenced by ‘standards before status’, but this is debateable, given that Albanians were never promised independence whatever their efforts. There is a sense in which it is the frustrations with the lack of western roadmaps that has led the Albanian leadership to see that real independence, without partition, can only be achieved via genuine reconciliation.

The hostile reception with which Haradinaj was greeted by western powers makes it difficult for them to claim responsibility for progress. Their call for another ‘national unity government’ was based on the view that Albanians were incapable of having a government and opposition without this upping the chauvinist ante, or even violent clashes. The idea that it might result in competing over how to build real independence, necessarily based on multi-ethnicity, was beyond western imagination. While the previous Rexhepi government had already made significant progress after the March violence (which shocked the Albanian leadership out of its complacency), the real sense of breakthrough has come with the new arrangement where Albanian parties have to show progress to maintain power rather than having it guaranteed; attempts by westerners to tell them what government they should have played no role.

It remains to be seen whether this convergence can maintain momentum, given the socio-economic catastrophe. If it can, self-determination without partition may be a real possibility. However, to date western powers remain most ardent that independence is undesirable or that ‘compromise’ is essential. If independence does not materialise, a return of Albanian radicalism is guaranteed, meaning continued western occupation, with unofficial partition to protect Serbs. The worst of both worlds for Albanians, neither would it offer security for Serbs living beyond the partitioned regions.


(1) The actual numbers of Serbs who fled is an issue of controversy, with unverified claims of some 250,000 Kosovar Serb refugees in Serbia. However, according to the last Yugoslav census, there were 194,000 Serbs resident in Kosovo in 1991, and no-one suggests their numbers rose in the 1990s. Yet the Belgrade-based Kosovo Coordination Centre (CCK), published a report in January 2003 which gives a figure of 129,474 Serbs in Kosovo in 2002. This corresponds closely with European Stability Initiative estimates based on primary school enrolment figures from the Kosovo Ministry for Education (European Stability Initiative, ‘The Lausanne Principle: Multiethnicity, Territory and the Future of Kosovo's Serbs’, Thus based entirely on official Serbian/Yugoslav sources, it appears the number of refugees in Serbia may be around 70,000, and two-thirds of those Serbs resident in 1999 may remain. Nevertheless, the lower figures do not change the appalling insecurity situation which keeps these still significant numbers from returning.

(2) The numbers of missing are unclear and vary between Red Cross, UNMIK, Serb and Albanian figures. In 2004, UNMIK chief Harri Holkieri there were 3,566 missing, made up of 2924 Albanians and 641 Serbs (B92, March 9, 2005). However, this leaves out missing Roma, Goranci, Bosniaks etc. Both Serbs and Albanians claim much higher figures for their own groups.


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