Dec 7th 2006
From The Economist print edition
A cloud hangs over the province's long-expected independence
AT THE start of the year, Kosovo's Albanians were confident of being independent by the end of it. Now they are nervous. A week ago, thousands marked the Albanians' national day by protesting in Pristina, Kosovo's capital. Paint and rocks were thrown at United Nations buildings.
Kosovo is part of Serbia, although since the war of 1999 it has been under UN jurisdiction. Some 90% of its 2m people are ethnic Albanians who want independence, which Serbia's leaders refuse to concede. In February the UN asked Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, to preside over talks on Kosovo's future, but the talks have failed—a failure that Mr Ahtisaari blames on Serbia's unwillingness to engage in constructive dialogue. So Mr Ahtisaari has prepared his own plan. But he is keen not to boost Serbia's extremist Radical Party, whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial (and on hunger strike) at The Hague war-crimes tribunal, in the January 21st election. He has therefore put off its delivery.
The plan is expected to suggest a conditional form of independence for Kosovo. So why the nervousness among Kosovars? Diplomats talk of a “double disappointment”. Kosovar leaders promised independence by the end of this year, but it has now been delayed. And all the signs are that the Kosovars will gain less control over their lives than they had hoped.
After Mr Ahtisaari presents his plan in early February, there will be weeks of bargaining inside the UN Security Council, most of whose members favour independence, though Russia does not. With luck a new resolution might be passed in March—but Russia's ambassador to Belgrade says his country is ready to veto Kosovo's independence. Kosovars had assumed that individual countries would quickly recognise their new state, but that may be in question too. If there is a new resolution, a new mission will succeed the UN's. The European Union, which will dominate this mission, wants the handover to take no more than three months, but the UN wants up to six. So “status day” may come at least six months late.
Agron Bajrami, editor of Koha Ditore, a Kosovo daily, says that delay is bad, but the real fear is that it “could result in a different outcome.” That does not mean Kosovo would stay part of Serbia, but that independence would be hedged about with unacceptable conditions. As one diplomat involved says, the new international mission will have “far-reaching correctional powers”. In practical terms, many people may see little difference between the EU-led mission and the UN-led one.
Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank based in Berlin, points to a third source of disappointment in Kosovo. Research by ESI has found that fewer families now get the remittances from relatives abroad that have kept them afloat for the past 15 years. There are equally false expectations that independence will quickly bring prosperity to this economic basket-case.
Kosovars are not the only ones fretting about the future. A top Serbian official notes that Russia's hardening of its position could encourage headstrong Albanians to resort to violence again—leading to an exodus of tens of thousands of remaining Kosovo Serbs. Foreign investment in Serbia, which is expected to be worth $3.5 billion this year, could soon dry up if the region heads back into conflict.
If Russia blocks a new resolution on Kosovo, there is no fallback plan. Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister, has hinted to neighbours such as Macedonia that they might be subjected to an embargo if they unilaterally recognised Kosovo. Mr Kostunica feels some things are going his way. At its Riga summit last month, NATO invited Serbia to join its Partnership for Peace programme, the first step to membership. Previously, it had insisted that Serbia must first arrest General Ratko Mladic, indicted by the war-crimes tribunal. Mr Kostunica's conclusion from NATO's willingness to overlook this condition is that, if only he hangs tough, foreign unity will crack. He is hoping to see this happen over Kosovo.