International Herald Tribune
PRISTINA, Kosovo Talks on Kosovo's future status will begin soon. The central issue in these talks will be "sovereignty" and little else. Belgrade has already said that ethnic Albanians can run their own affairs, but that ethnic Serbs must run theirs. What Belgrade has said it will not negotiate is the issue of sovereignty. It is this issue that will be the most contentious.
The people of Kosovo have earned their right to sovereignty.
Like the oppressed people of Iraq and Afghanistan after their liberation, the new century saw us breathe the air of a free people for the first time, hold our first free and fair elections, install democratically elected leaders and write a new set of laws and a constitutional framework that set the standard for the region. We are not finished, but much has been achieved.
The people of Kosovo deserve independence. We lived under the control of Belgrade much too long. Whether under Serbian kings, Communists or nationalists, Albanians suffered purges, expulsions, and ethnic cleansing - three times in the 20th century alone. Why should we think a democratically elected government will be any different when the same old nationalism continues to be a force in Serbian politics?
The Serbian state and the Serbian people have lost their moral right to continued sovereignty over the land and people of Kosovo, but not their right to live there as free and equal citizens. However, the Albanian people of Kosovo will never again risk living under Belgrade's rule.
We understand very well the international community's concern for minority groups in Kosovo, especially the Serbs; after all, we share those same concerns for minority communities in Serbia and Macedonia. But let's be clear about one thing. Kosovo is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian, at least 90 percent by any reasonable estimate.
There is certainly an element of prejudice in our society toward ethnic Serbs, just as hostility to ethnic Albanians remains in Serbian society. But keep in mind that every single Albanian family, as well as those of other ethnic communities, experienced murder, beatings, expulsion and property damage, as well as years of humiliation and brutality from the Serbian government throughout the decade of the 1990s. We know of many war criminals still active in the Serbian police and military who have not been brought to justice.
Yet, in spite of all this, the Kosovo government did the right thing after the ethnic clashes of March 2004 that left hundreds homeless and 30 churches destroyed or damaged. Ethnic Albanian political and religious leaders condemned the violence, the government moved quickly to allocate funds to repair the damaged homes and churches, and reconstruction was under way within weeks.
In contrast, up to now the Serbian government in Belgrade has not offered to compensate a single Albanian family for property destroyed by Serbian government forces, nor offered to pay to rebuild any of almost 200 mosques that were damaged or destroyed, even though all of this was done by their own forces or paramilitaries they controlled. What clearer proof is there that Pristina has earned the right to sovereignty over the territory of Kosovo while Belgrade has lost it?
Belgrade talks of "more than autonomy but less than independence," but we had autonomy before. In 1974, we had the highest degree of autonomy imaginable, and Belgrade has already made it clear they are not willing to let us have even that level, not that we would want it at this point, anyway. Because of Belgrade's sovereignty over Kosovo, that autonomy was lost at Belgrade's whim. It could happen again.
It is simply not in the interest of the international community to set the people of Kosovo back 30 years or more after what we have endured and the efforts we have made to meet the standards of the world community.
Perhaps the best incentive for all of us is for the European Union to admit Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro as three independent countries who have implemented the same standards of democratic development, minority protections and economic safeguards, under the umbrella of NATO. In this way, the entire region can be demilitarized with open borders, a free flow of people, goods and services, strong rule of law, and a vibrant economy with a common currency that unites our various communities. Then and only then will the hatreds and conflicts of the past be truly consigned to collective memory and not resurrected in the experience of each successive generation.
(Hashim Thaci is president of the Democratic Party of Kosovo and former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army.)