Talking Kosovo

Final Round on the Serbian Province

The last round of talks on Kosovo’s future began in Vienna Wednesday, Feb. 21. The meagre scattering of journalists in the foyer of the Austria Centre awaiting the third day’s press briefing reflected the languid tone: No breaking news expected here.

Even before they had begun, the results of the talks were considered a foregone conclusion. With the Kosovar and Serbian delegations diametrically opposed – the Kosovars willing to accept nothing less than full independence, the Serbs unwilling to accept anything of the sort – the final round of consultations are expected to end in stalemate, serving merely as a last formal step before the matter is officially turned over to the United Nations Security Council.

However, this does not mean the issue is off the screen. Increasingly over the past weeks, Kosovo has been made international headlines. At the beginning of the month, demonstrations by ethnic Albanians in the Kosovar capital of Pristina resulted in the deaths of two protestors objecting to the UN draft plan currently under discussion at the Vienna conference. They had been hit in the head by rubber bullets fired by police at close range. On Monday, Feb. 19, a bomb attack targeted UN cars in the city. A group linking itself to the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) claimed the attack as an act of revenge for the protester’s deaths. Anger in Kosovo, however, pales in comparison to anger in Serbia, where leaders rejected the UN plan outright.

So what is this UN plan, and why do all forecasts consider it doomed?

The origin of the plan dates back to February of last year, when former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari was asked to preside over negotiations. The talks – 15 rounds so far – failed, so Ahtisaari drew up his own plan for Kosovo’s future: a carefully balanced compromise that would give Kosovo independence without actually calling it such.

Under the proposal, the region – under U.N. jurisdiction since the end of the 1999 war – would get its own government, flag and anthem, could apply for membership in international organisations and establish a Kosovo Security Force. In return, it would have to agree to make no further territorial claims nor to unite with any of its neighbors. Albanian and Serbian would both be official languages, and minorities would receive a high level of protection.

The plan was sent to both Belgrade and Pristina on Feb. 2. Initially rejected by both sides, the Kosovan leaders eventually warmed to the idea, but Serbia’s entrenched refusal has resulted in rising tensions. This follows a frustrating year, which started with promises of self-government by year end, and finished in scenes of violence in the Kosovan streets.

But why is Serbia so intent on clinging to a region which is 90% ethnic Albanian? A people who prefer war to a continuing association with Serbia? Despite some autonomy under Tito, Kosovo has always been a province of Serbia, which sees the loss of Kosovo as a violation of its territorial integrity. There are still 200,000 Serbs living in Kosovo, and many still consider Kosovo the birthplace of their nation.

On the flip side, ethnic Albanian impatience is also understandable. Stripped of their autonomy by Milosevic, denied the right to self-determination following referenda in the mid 90s, the Kosovars have lived in expectation of independence ever since Security Council Resolution 1244 ended the civil war. However, the process is turning out to be a slow and uncertain for the Kosovars, while the possible reinstatement of the KLA, officially abandoned, has the Serbs worried.

Given all this, one may wonder why the charade of negotiations continues in Vienna. Asked at a press conference if he stands by his earlier comments that one “should not expect a miracle” from the talks, Ahtisaari replied that he “wouldn’t change what he said.” In other words, while the finer points of the proposal may be negotiable, the question of Kosovo’s status isn’t.

“The whole exercise is to give the parties one more chance,” Ahtisaari said. But that chance may well be wasted. A fresh Security Council resolution would then be necessary to install the EU-led mission stipulated in his plan, intended to replace the United Nations mandate and implement his proposals. However, with Russia hinting that it will exercise its veto against any plan for Kosovan independence, the process may very well stall once more.

With no backup plan in evidence and further delays foreseeable in an already drawn out process, growing Kosovar impatience could prove disastrous. Predictions of a worst-case scenario see a unilateral declaration of Kosovar independence inciting a return to large-scale violence.

But what will actually happen in the region over the next few months is anybody’s guess. One thing is however sure: the Kosovo story will remain in the headlines in the months to come.

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