Friday, December 15, 2006

Beginning and ending with Kosovo

The new UN Governor of Kosovo has called for the international community to quickly decide the fate of the province’s plea for independence from Serbia. Western powers had promised a decision on Kosovo's future by the end of this year, but recently postponed it until after a 21 January general election in Serbia.

Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku also hoped Kosovo would soon be granted independence. ”Any political association with Belgrade simply will not work," he said. But Russia says the settlement must also satisfy Serbia, which flatly rejects independence preferring instead some sort of autonomy within Serbia. Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin accused Kosovo's leaders of resorting to blackmail in threatening mass unrest in the event of more delays. However, the German diplomat Joachim Rücker, who was appointed UN governor in September, has warned against delaying the decision any further. Rücker told the Security Council “Delay will only prolong the tensions existing in Kosovo society, which will feed frustration and make the new start, when it does come, even harder to get right."

The UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is the interim civilian administration of the country while it waits for the UN to decide on its future. UNMIK was established in 1999 by UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Resolution 1244 defined the legal status of Kosovo as a UN protectorate, while being legally an autonomous constituency of what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The task before UNMIK was defined at the time by Kofi Annan as "The task before the international community is to help the people in Kosovo to rebuild their lives and heal the wounds of conflict." But Kosovo is a troubled province at the heart of the complicated life of the Balkans. As author Miranda Vickers said about the history of Yugoslavia "Everything started with Kosovo, and everything will finish with Kosovo.

Kosovo has been at the heart of Serbian life since the 13th century. The Albanians claim that they are its original inhabitants, being the descendants of the ancient Illyrians. But Kosovo came to prominence as the site of a bloody battleground of a battle between Serbs and Ottomans in 1389. The outnumbered Serbs lost the battle and the Ottoman Empire gained a crucial toehold in the Balkans. The Serbs never forgot this battle and used it as a rallying cry in campaigns throughout the centuries. In the 17th century Serbs were replaced in Kosovo by mostly Muslim Albanians who came to the fertile lands from the hostile mountains of Albania proper. In 1878, Serbia gained independence but Kosovo still lay under Ottoman rule. The Muslim peoples of Kosovo founded the League of Prizren a pan-Albanian nationalist group. The aim of the League of Prizren was to unite the four Albanian areas within the Ottoman Empire into one Albanian State.

In 1912, the Balkan states took advantage of a power struggle within the Ottoman Empire to drive the Turks out of Europe. The Kingdom of Serbia claimed newly independent Kosovo. It was determined to recolonise Kosovo and thousands of Serb families moved in. The ancient 1389 battle of Kosovo was invoked as a touchstone of Serb nationalism. Many Albanians fled into the mountains as the Serbs conducted ethnic cleansing of the areas they controlled. Serb immigration continued during the inter-war years. In 1941, most of Kosovo became part of an Italian-controlled Greater Albania. Tito found it hard to recruit Albanians in his partisan army until he promised Kosovo Albanians the right to unite with Albania after the war. But the newly independent Yugoslavia had no intention of keeping that promise. Kosovo was declared an "autonomous province" within Serbia and Albanian insurrection broke out again.

Finally in 1974 Kosovo was granted full autonomy, which gave it almost the same rights as Yugoslavia's six republics. However Serbs complained of harassment by Albanians who were demanding the status of a full republic for the province. Due to Serb emigration and high Albanian birth rate, the proportion of Serbs in the province had now fallen to one for every nine Albanians. The new head of he Serbian Communist party Slobodan Milosevic manipulated these fears. He became a hero overnight in Serbia when two years earlier he went to Kosovo to quell the fears of local Serbs amid a strike by Kosovar Albanian miners that brought the province to a halt. In a speech televised throughout Serbia, he told the waiting crowd of angry Serbs, "You will not be beaten again." He stripped Kosovo of its autonomy on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1989.

Ibrahim Rugova led a non violent resistance movement against Milosevic. He formed a political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). However his actions were not fast enough for some Kosovars. While the war raged in Croatia and Bosnia, Serbia held tight control of Kosovo. In 1995, some Albanians impatient with Rugova’s Ghandi-like tactics formed a new resistance movement called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Tit-for-tat violence and response escalated until the West started to pay attention to Kosovo in 1998. Throughout that year Milosevic increased his troop strength in Kosovo and began a scorched-earth policy of destroying whole villages in his attempt to wipe out the KLA.

The violence continued to escalate despite the introduction of 2,000 unarmed verifiers under OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). In 1999 a group of nations known as the Contact Group (the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia) brought Kosovar and Serb negotiators together in Rambouillet, France, to agree to a peace plan. The agreement called for the KLA to disarm and Milosevic to reduce troop numbers. Kosovo agreed to sign up but Milosevic refused. In March 1999, NATO launched an air campaign against Serb military targets in Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. In retaliation Milosevic stepped up his campaign to ethnically cleanse Kosovo.

But the international community put Yugoslavia under increasing pressure to come to a compromise and withdraw its forces. Finally on 10 June 1999, the 77 day NATO air campaign was ended after confirmation from General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, that the full withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo had begun. That same day the Security Council passed Resolution 1244 by a vote of 14 in favour and none against, with only China abstaining.

After Serb withdrawal, the first big issue was establishing a peace framework that would lead to long-term stabilisation. The establishment of the provisional governmental institutions through fair and democratic elections in 2001 marked the beginning of a new political era in Kosovo. There is an uneasy truce with the Serb minority in the country but on the whole they are treated with respect. The Muslim majority want to push for full independence similar to Montenegro however the official Serb position remains that such an outcome is “impossible”. Even in the post-Milosevic era, dreams of a Greater Serbia exist in the minds of the power hungry leaders in Belgrade. Everything has yet to finish with Kosovo.

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