Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hope and fear as Europe awaits birth of a new country

Ian Traynor in Pristina-February 20, 2007

Kosovo and Monaco have next to nothing in common. But every time you make a mobile phone call to the majority Albanian province in the southern Balkans you use the +377 international prefix for the millionaires' playground on the Riviera.

"They did us a favour, they lent us their prefix," said Kosovo's minister for the environment and spatial planning, Ardian Gjini. "But we paid dearly for it." Tens of millions of euros every year, in fact, from the youngest and poorest region in Europe to the wealthy principality to have a separate telephone code to Serbia, Kosovo's intimate enemy.

It is one of the problems of not having a country to call your own. There are plenty of others.
Queuing at Pristina airport to go to visit relatives in Zurich, Stockholm or Frankfurt, Kosovan Albanians hold dark blue documents that look and feel like passports. But the plastic cover bears the crest of the United Nations and the name of a mysterious entity called "Unmik". The "Unmikians", Kosovan Albanians, cannot get any other travel documents unless they bribe Serbian officials to run them up a Serbian passport - €500 (£338) the going rate, any identity you like. Few do so. More than half a million have "passports" with the acronym for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

All this is about to change. In addition to its own telephone code and passports, Kosovo is to have its own flag and constitution, a central bank and a currency, a customs service on a new international border, an anthem, an army and control of its own airspace.
In short, a new country is being born. "Of course, it will be better. It's always better to have your own country," said Mustafa Blakqorri, an ethnic Albanian who has returned from a decade in Cologne to play a small part in building a country. "Right now everything's a disaster. But independence will bring jobs and investment and industry."

There has never been a country called Kosovo. And in the post-colonial era there has never been a country created in the same manner - by international imposition and against the will of Serbia, the historical overlord of almost two million ethnic Albanians.

In Vienna tomorrow two teams of Kosovan Albanian politicians and Serbian officials will meet the former Finnish president and UN envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, to try to finalise the settlement establishing this small new state. They do so against a backdrop of rising tension over the anticipated solution. Last night, an explosion damaged three UN vehicles in Pristina. Nato-led peacekeepers launched an investigation; a bomb attack was not ruled out.

Mr Ahtisaari has spent more than a year crafting the blueprint for an independent Kosovo. The result is a masterpiece of nuanced nation-building that creates all the conditions and rules for the new country without declaring it independent or sovereign. The independence declaration bit will come from Kosovo if and when the Ahtisaari plan is blessed by the UN security council. "It's a good package, a decent compromise," said a western diplomat in Pristina. "The Albanian side can work with it. The Serbs got everything they asked for, but will still reject it in its entirety."

Mr Gjini has taken part in every session in Vienna in the past 14 months. "We're mostly happy. It leaves all the doors open for the future," he said.
Zivorad Stakic disagrees. The elderly Serb from the village of Ugljare outside Pristina complains that the Serbs of Kosovo are now to be turned into "a minority in our own country. My father, my grandfather, my great grandfather all lived here. And I'm a citizen of Serbia. I doubt if the Serbs will stay here."

In his Serbian village every second house is for sale. A neighbouring village, Serbian a decade ago, is now Albanian. Mr Blakqorri came home from Cologne and bought out a Serbian family. Other Serb farmsteads and cottages have been torched or dynamited.
Nato forces and UN agencies are preparing for an exodus. "We'll see a number of Serbs leave," a senior western official said. "The Serbs of Kosovo are scared. It might be irrational, but they fear the majority population."

For Serbia, the Ahtisaari formula is a humiliation. The independence of Kosovo is the last act in the bloody drama of 15 years of Yugoslavia's disintegration. But whereas the other parts of the former Yugoslavia that are now countries were republics in the old communist federation, Kosovo was always a province within Serbia, even after Nato drove the Serbs out eight years ago and the region came under UN administration. Up to 150,000 Serbs still live there.

Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, has ordered Kosovo's Serbs to sever all links with Kosovan Albanian authorities. A Serb-dominated northern stretch of the province, concentrated around the northern half of the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, functions essentially as part of Serbia, which it borders. The car plates are Serbian, the currency is the Serbian dinar. Teaching and hospital staff are paid by Belgrade, which pours in €135m a year.

"The Ahtisaari plan will be accepted and implemented, but it will never work," said Oliver Ivanovic, a moderate Serb politician in Mitrovica. "This [Serb] northern bit will secede." The region is run by hardliners. Paramilitary thugs sit in the cafes overlooking the Ibar river that divides the town to ensure no Albanians cross over. Mitrovica follows orders from Belgrade and few step out of line. When a Serb basketball team started playing in the Kosovo league the coach's car was blown up.

Albanian extremists are also chafing at what they see as excessive concessions to Serbs in the Ahtisaari plan, which provides for 10 Serb municipalities in Kosovo, wholesale decentralisation, and Serb minority veto rights over almost all legislation.

Albanian radicals say this is tantamount to partition and may bring war. "Our freedom is non-negotiable. We shouldn't even be talking to the Serbs," said student leader Glauk Konjufca.
Tensions are rising and things could easily career out of control. "We've had ethnic cleansing, heavy bombing, attempted genocide here," said Veton Surroi, a Kosovan Albanian liberal politician. "The Serbs have to decide if this is their home. We've paid a heavy price, but we're getting our independence."

What happens now?
To avoid a messy and potentially violent crisis in Europe, the UN security council has to endorse Kosovo's roadmap to independence, the Ahtisaari plan. Russia is threatening to block it, but a promising coincidence of diplomatic positions in the months ahead brightens the prospects for a deal. The US, Britain, and Germany are the biggest supporters of a Kosovo state. Britain chairs the security council in April when the plan is on the table, the Americans in May and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, will be hosting the G8 and EU summits in June.

Talks with Serbs and Albanians in Vienna will run from tomorrow until March 10. The UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, right, will then fine-tune the plan and take it to the security council. Last week the 27 EU members backed the plan. But that consensus could fragment if there is no security council consensus. A UN mandate is needed for the new EU mission replacing the UN. Fair use from The Guardian.

No comments: