Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kosovo strikes out towards independence

The stakes are rising in Kosovo. Yesterday ethnic Albanians rallied in their thousands in the streets of the capital Pristina in support of an independent Kosovo. Thousands of students marched from the city’s University to Kosovo's parliament demanding an immediate declaration of independence. They carried American and Albanian flags, as well as posters bearing slogans such as "No more delays” and "Independence is the only option". They were buoyed by the spokesman for Kosovo's negotiating team with Serbia, who said yesterday the breakaway province’s future would be decided in the first quarter of 2008.

Kosovar Spokesman Skender Hyseni said independence was "not an issue of if but when”. His statement came a few days after the negotiators of the UN appointed three-party "troika" (US, EU and Russia) admitted defeat in getting Serbia and Kosovo to agree on a way forward after four months of talks. Hyseni said his government will press now ahead with independence plans. "Kosovo will look at its own agenda,” he said “Kosovo is only going to follow its own roadmap."

However Serbia is now threatening to go to the International Court of Justice to prevent Kosovo from being recognised as a state. Boris Tadic, Serbia's president, told state television Serbia would ask the UN Security Council to seek an International Court of Justice opinion on the "legality or illegality" of Kosovo's possible independence. Serbia had indicated that it would use any means necessary, except force, to prevent Kosovo's secession.

Serbia’s position is strongly supported by long-term ally Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that countries planning to recognise the independence of Kosovo should "think very carefully about the consequences". He said those countries would be violating international law. "This will cause a chain reaction in the Balkans and other areas of the world,” he said. “Those making such plans must think very carefully about the consequences."

Kosovo descended into an ethnic cleansing war in the late 1990s. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was established in 1996 and began sporadic attacks on Serb authorities. In retaliation Serbian forces killed 11,000 Albanians between 1997 and 1999. Another 1,500 mostly Serb civilians were killed in the NATO high-altitude bombing of Serb military forces that followed. Serbian forces withdrew in June 1999 allowing the Security Council to adopt Resolution 1244 for a UN takeover of the province.

As a result of Resolution 1244, Kosovo has been governed by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission (UNMIK) since 1999. UNMIK’s job is to administer the region and promote the establishment of the authority of the Kosovar people. There are four pillars of UNMIK leadership. Pillars I (police and justice) and II (civil administration) are run directly by the UN. Pillar III (democratisation and institution building) is run by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Pillar IV (reconstruction and economic development) is run by the EU. UNMIK’s rule is supported by 16,000 NATO peacekeepers.

Kosovo has a population of 1.8 million, 90 per cent of whom are Albanian Muslims. While all local political parties support an independent Kosovo, the parliamentary elections in Kosovo last month saw an important shifting of the ground. Hashim Thaci‘s Democratic Party (PDK) defeated the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) which had a policy of passive resistance to Serb rule. Kosovo's new prime minister-designate is now anxious to take the initiative. The 39 year old former KLA guerrilla resistance leader said yesterday independence from Serbia is “just weeks" away. He knows he has the backing of the West and has ruled out a division of Kosovo along ethnic lines. “The internal problems of Serbia cannot depend on the political process of Kosovo," he said. “Kosovo has its own way, and we would like to have a democratic country too."

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