Friday, October 07, 2005

Annan set to call for Kosovo independence talks

By Eric Jansson, recently in Mitrovica, Kosovo
Financial Times

Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, is expected to call later this month for talks on independence for the UN-administered province of Kosovo.

The UN's view on whether Kosovo is ready for independence from Serbia will be based heavily on the report submitted on Tuesday night by Kai Eide, Mr Annan's special envoy to the region. Mr Eide is understood to have recommended imminent negotiations, after heavy, behind the scenes diplomatic pressure to end the stalemate.

Talks on the status of Kosovo will force the Security Council to return to an issue that caused sharp divisions in 1999. Boris Yeltsin, Russia's president at the time, threatened "world war" when US and Nato forces intervened to end Serbian rule without UN backing.

Since then, conflict over Kosovo's future and the issue of Serbia's territorial integrity has faded globally. Russia, supporting Serbia, remains officially unhappy with the idea of Kosovan independence.

Yet even if diplomats believe they can agree a suitable way forward for the province, it is far from clear that the 2m inhabitants will embrace the idea of reconciliation. The almost deserted zone of razor wire and steel barriers around the Ibar bridge in Mitrovica is a stark reminder of the ethnic hatred that divides Kosovo's Albanians from the Serbs who live on the other side of the river.

Six years have passed since the Kosovo war pitted these former neighbours against each other. Heavily armed French soldiers patrol the bridge, which has become a symbol of division between roughly 15,000 Serbs living north of the river, and 65,000 Albanians on the southern side.

A sign warning that "Malicious or provocative behaviour will be repressed immediately" is a reminder that in spite of the calm atmosphere, reinforced by a warm autumn sun, the bridge has been a magnet for riots and clashes since the town was divided in 1989.

Difficulties in Mitrovica highlight the tensions still prevalent in several pockets of the western Balkans, in spite of the region's diplomatic progress; most recently seen in the European Union's decision this week to open membership negotiations with Croatia and to invite Serbia-Montenegro into the organisation's waiting room for future candidate countries.

Residents of Mitrovica have grown accustomed to the de facto ethnic partition that some observers say could become a dangerous template for Kosovo.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, last month called for swift international action to "save the situation".

But Soren Jessen-Petersen, the UN's top official in Kosovo, says it may be too late for "radical measures". He proposes softer "confidence-building measures" to establish "functional co-operation" between north and south Mitrovica. "It is important that one does not inject more fear into the situation," he says.

On the bridge and in the surrounding "confidence zone" patrolled by the French steps towards normality have been small. Schoolchildren have been allowed back into a cultural centre next to the bridge, but only after they submit to frisking by the soldiers.

When a handful of local journalists this summer launched M, a bilingual magazine covering both sides of the river, they discovered the depth of the alienation that has set in since 1999.

Valdete Idrizi, executive editor of M, says the monthly offers readers a "first glimpse" of life on the other side. "Many Albanians did not even know until we published it that the Serbs also have power cuts on their side."

Petar Miletic, a Serb editor, says ignorance about how the other side lives must be overcome.

"People here shared the same childhood together. They played together, worked together. That is a big part of reality here ... But it is as if people have a wall in their heads."

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