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Kosovo Eyes Independence

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
February 23, 2006

Introduction

UN mediators recently launched talks with Serb and ethnic Albanian representatives in Vienna to resolve the final status of the province of Kosovo. The February 21-22 talks produced no agreement but are expected to resume in less than a month. Diplomats involved in brokering the talks have mentioned hopes for resolving the province's final status by the end of this year. The Economist went so far as to say this latest round of negotiation is "almost certain to lead to [Kosovo's] independence," though it did not hazard a timeframe.

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What is Kosovo’s political status?

Since NATO forces occupied Kosovo in 1999, the province has been a protectorate of the United Nations, with broad administrative responsibility under a mission called UNMIK. Technically, Kosovo remains a province of Serbia.

UNMIK has overseen local and province-wide elections, which have been dominated by ethnic Albanians. More than 90 percent of Kosovo's two million people are ethnically Albanian. Pockets of orthodox Christian Serbs remain, though they are often physically isolated. Tens of thousands of war refugees have not returned. The estimated 100,000 Serbs remaining in Kosovo have almost uniformly refused to recognize the legitimacy of an Albanian-led government or to participate UNMIK-led elections. Rather, they have sought to retain formal ties with Belgrade.

Kosovo's Albanians overwhelmingly support independence from the disjointed Serbia and Montenegro, the last vestige of what was formerly Yugoslavia (many Montenegrins are also, independently, seeking independence from Serbia).

What are the roots of Kosovo’s conflict?

Ethnic Albanian and Serb communities have co-existed in Kosovo for centuries and Serbs consider Kosovo the birthplace of their state.

In 1974, Kosovo was designated an "autonomous province" of Yugoslavia, giving it self-governance rights similar to those of the six Yugoslav republics: Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader from 1989 to 2001 (profiled here in Foreign Affairs), stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989 in an effort to consolidate Serbian power. There was no immediate ferment in Kosovo itself but the Yugoslav federation soon began to crumble. Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia declared independence in 1991 and the first of the Balkan wars of secession erupted, pitting Croats against Serbs. Bosnia-Herzegovina followed suit in 1992, prompting even more bloodshed between Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, and Croats.

The Dayton agreement of 1995 brought general peace to the former Yugoslavia. But tensions in the Kosovo province, which remained under Serbian control, escalated in 1997 and 1998. In response to attacks by ethnic Albanian guerrilla units, Milosevic coordinated a brutal crackdown against the majority ethnic Albanian population. NATO troops intervened and after two months of air-strikes, Serbian forces withdrew. International peacekeepers, under UN mandate, occupied Kosovo. The former Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro remain linked in a federal union called Serbia and Montenegro.

What are the prospects for Kosovo splitting from Serbia and Montenegro?

Experts say a split is increasingly likely. Pristina, the province's capital, is managed jointly by ethnic Albanian and UN leaders, and Belgrade's influence is already greatly reduced.

Kosovo's push for independence may be coming to a head, experts say. "The region needs a degree of finality," says Charles Kupchan, CFR's director for Europe studies. "Kosovo's indeterminate status is taking a toll on everybody. It's not getting investment, and it's getting less aid, because it's in limbo." U.S. diplomats are also agitating for a solution. "It's taking warm bodies and money," Kupchan says. "Especially with Iraq, the U.S. wants to get out."

Is an agreement likely to be made soon?

As UN officials have frequently reiterated, the timeframe for a possible split will rely on securing the safety of the minorities that remain in Kosovo. Serbian communities are often physically isolated in country villages. Lacking UN supervision, some experts feel these communities could well be the target of ethnically motivated attacks. Concerns remain about the recurrence of the violence that erupted in March 2004, which involved attacks by ethnic Albanians on Serbs, and which resulted in nearly twenty deaths and widespread property damage.

There are also concerns that finalizing Kosovo’s independence would prompt massive Serbian emigration out of Kosovo. Nonetheless, many experts predict a split could be achieved in the near future, perhaps even by the end of this calendar year. According to this 2006 U.S. Congressional Research Service special report, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said America’s goal was that a UN Security Council resolution would endorse a specific solution for Kosovo by the end of 2006.

What factors will influence the success of negotiations?

"I think the big unknown is the domestic politics within Belgrade," Kupchan says, adding that the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which currently wields significant power, is only strengthened by a lack of resolution in Kosovo. The leader of SRS has declared that if Kosovo is granted independence, he will consider the territory "occupied" by the ethnic Albanians.

Some experts have suggested that the best way around this problem is to offer incentives to Serbia and assurances to Kosovo's Serbs in exchange for Belgrade's cooperation. A January 2006 International Crisis Group report recommends that Kosovo's ethnic Albanians "offer packages of rights for Kosovo's Serb and other minorities in at least three areas: central institutions, decentralization, and religious and cultural heritage." There have also been recommendations for the United States and European Union to offer Belgrade inducements such as economic aid, the dismissal of debt, or the promise of eventual integration into the European Union.

Who are the key players in the negotiations over Kosovo’s independence?
  • Martti Ahtisaari. In November 2005, the UN appointed Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, as a special envoy to oversee Kosovo's negotiations for independence. Soren Jessen-Petersen, a Dane, has served as the head of UNMIK since June 2004.
  • Fatmir Sejdiu. A former law professor and parliamentarian, Sejdiu became Kosovo's president in February 2006. He succeeded longtime president Ibrahim Rugova, who led Kosovo's "shadow" government under Yugoslav rule, and then gained authority officially under UNMIK. Rugova, who died in January, was head of the Democratic League for Kosovo, the dominant political party. An ardent supporter of independence, Sejdiu has been hailed as Rugova's "double," though it remains to be seen precisely how he will exert his influence.
  • Vojislav Kostunica. Serbia's premier, Kostunica typifies the view in Belgrade that independence for Kosovo is unacceptable. Still, some experts say the apparent firmness of Kostunica's position could be a negotiation tactic to secure the best possible deal for the Serbs still in Kosovo, should independence be finalized.

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