The Kosova people's eight-year wait for the same right to independence allowed to other peoples of the former Yugoslavia some 15 years ago has finally reached ... anti-climax.
Attempting to please everyone — the 90% Albanian majority, the anxious Serb minority, the former occupation power Serbia, and the current Western occupiers — the UN envoy, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, created a new entity in international affairs.
On February 26, following months of negotiations between Serb and Albanian parties, Ahtisaari outlined the concept of a country that could join international organisations, have its own governing institutions and symbols of state, but that was not independent.
Leading up to the proposal, the most common names given to this concept were "conditional independence" or "independence without sovereignty". Yet in the final proposal, the word "independence", even with a qualifier, was gone.
The "high representative" appointed by the UN since 1999 to have final say over decisions made by Kosovar bodies will be replaced by one appointed by the European Union. A new internationally appointed police force will hold sway over the local police, and the NATO troops that have occupied Kosova since 1999 will remain.
The Kosova Protection Corps — the unarmed civil emergency and reconstruction corps that gathered many former members of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), which fought for the country's independence during 1997-99 — will be abolished.
Kosova will be barred from joining any other state (meaning Albania), both Albanian and Serb will be official languages, and the new national symbols, including a flag, seal and anthem, must "reflect its multi-ethnic character".
Meanwhile, a "decentralisation" plan will give increased powers for "municipalities", many of them ethnic-based. Some 10 new Serb-majority municipalities will be formed. These will have self-government, control over education, health and police systems and the majority of income made in these areas, and will be able to be directly linked to and financed by the Serbian government.
The former municipality of Mitrovica in the north will be divided into two. Serb northern Mitrovica connects the entire region to its north to the Serbian border as the largest Serb bloc, covering some 15% of Kosova. Mitrovica already has its own Serbian university, hospital, school system, currency, police, and paramilitary "bridge-watchers", who prevent Albanians from southern Mitrovica from crossing the bridge over the Ibar river.
This northern region contains the massive Trepca mining and metallurgy complex, allegedly worth some US$5 billion. In addition, the many grand Serbian Orthodox monasteries, some dating back to medieval times, will be enclosed by protective zones, barred to members of the Albanian majority.
The central government will continue to include fixed numbers of delegates of the Serb and other minorities, and similar quotas apply to the police force. Serbs are currently allotted 20 of the 120 seats in the Kosova parliament, though only a few accept the positions. Some 15% of the Kosova Police Service consists of minority recruits.
According to Ahtisaari, the question of status must now be decided upon by the UN Security Council. The current plan is the blueprint on which such a vote will be based. It is likely the UNSC may vote to accept an "independent" Kosova, with all the above trappings. If not, there remains the possibility of Kosova declaring independence unilaterally.
A republic but not a republic
While Serbia believes Kosova is still part of its territory, and that any form of independence is a violation of its sovereignty, most Western governments now recognise the reality that if Kosova was ever returned to Serbian rule, the unanimous and absolute hostility of the Albanian majority would re-ignite armed resistance.
However, to understand why such complex arrangements are seen as necessary by the "international community", we have had to wade through much confusion in the media. Most commentary accepts that Kosova is Serbian territory, and that while independence may be the only realistic option, it opens a pandora's box of claims by oppressed peoples for independent states. This constant repetition obscures the fact that Kosova was never simply "a province" or "an autonomous region" of Serbia in the former Yugoslavia. While Kosova was not a full Yugoslav "republic" (like Serbia, Croatia etc), its status of "high level autonomous province" of Serbia was complemented by also being a direct member of the Yugoslav federation, with its own representative on the eight-member Yugoslav presidency, equal to the republics, its own central bank and territorial defence force and similar attributes of republics.
The Albanians were never satisfied with even this situation, as being a republic in all but name still indicated inequality. Being by far the poorest region of Yugoslavia, and the least represented in the bureaucracy and military officialdom, made this worse.
In fact, Albanians never had any choice in being subjected to Serbian rule — either originally, when capitalist Serbia conquered the region in 1913, or in 1945, when Communist leader Broz Tito had promised them a republic but later backtracked. Tito did this to prevent opposition from Serbian nationalists — who nevertheless hated Tito for granting such a high level of autonomy for Kosova.
This delicate compromise stood on tenterhooks. As "market socialism" evolved after Tito's death into capitalist restoration, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 1989 revoked Kosovar autonomy and suppressed its parliament, as he rode the wave of rising Serbian nationalism, the ideological expression of the new Serbian bourgeoisie.
Along with the sacking of the entire Albanian public-employed work force, the brutal suppression of the Albanian miners' strike with 24 deaths, and the enforcing of a Serbian educational curriculum, the Yugoslav constitution was abolished and the compromise collapsed. During this constitutional limbo, in 1990 the Kosova underground parliament conducted an independence referendum, carried by 99% of the population.
The Western powers ignored Kosova's pleas for independence as Yugoslavia unravelled in 1991-92, setting the stage for bloody confrontation. Following a decade of "Ghandian" resistance against this imposed apartheid, the collapse of the Albanian state in 1997 allowed a flow of looted arms into Kosova. The KLA began an armed struggle, which by early 1999 threatened to seize independence in a revolutionary manner.
Fearful of the consequences and aiming to impose its own diktat on the region, the US led NATO into a brutal air war against Serbia in 1999. Milosevic reacted by attempting to expel the entire population, forcing some 850,000 Albanians across borders into refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia. This posed an even worse descent into regional instability, in this case embarrassingly brought about by NATO action.
With Serbia's surrender, Albanian refugees returned to their wrecked country, where 100,000 homes had been destroyed. As thousands of Serbian police and officials fled, thousands more Serb civilians fled with them, fearful of revenge once majority rule was established. Many more later fled the often brutal Albanian reprisal attacks. The half of the Serb population that remained gathered into a number of major clusters.
The UN imposed a "high representative" to run the province, which was occupied by tens of thousands of NATO troops. The UN resolution ending the war declared Kosova to be still part of the long-dead state "Yugoslavia", i.e., Serbia. Kosova's status was left in limbo for eight years, making it impossible to get development credits, or much investment, to restart the economy, leading to 60-70% unemployment.
The main justification for the foreign presence was to "protect the Serb minority". Given the enormity of what happened outside their control in 1999, Serb civilians certainly did deserve protection. The problem was that this task was combined with that of denying the majority population its right to independence, creating growing Albanian hostility to the bloated foreign presence. Thus it was precisely the denial of independence, or any road towards it, that intensified Albanian ethnic radicalisation. The fact that leaders of the Serb minority acted as Belgrade's tool in opposing independence reinforced the anti-Serb bias of this radicalisation. Meanwhile, spread thin to prevent the natives running their own country, the international forces were not very effective in protecting the minority.
In 2003, the UN announced "standards before status", whereby the Kosovars would be judged in carrying out eight major standards, mostly related to the Serb minority, before status would even be considered; even then there was no suggestion that status meant independence. This new colonialism backfired in March 2004, when unemployed Albanian gangs launched brutal attacks on Serbs, leaving 11 Albanians and eight Serbs dead, while also attacking the occupation forces, destroying 72 UN vehicles.
However, there have been very few ethnic attacks in the years since then. This is partly due to a shift from "standards before status" to "standards with status" as the UN began to understand the problem. That is why the clarity of independence, the recognition of equality with other nations, is so important. The great powers have no more right to be judging the country's every move than to be running other countries in the region, all of which have human rights issues.
Nevertheless, given that the Albanian leadership was unable until recent years to stem revenge violence, the desire of the minorities for large-scale autonomy, including links to Belgrade, is understandable. Belgrade will likely use it to create a state within a state, but if so, the Albanian leadership has partly itself to blame, though most blame falls on the international occupation. However, the majority will not look very favourably on wide autonomous arrangements if their own right — to complete independence — is frustrated.
Not quite independence
The international presence to enforce "standards" will coalesce with the long-term process of negotiations for EU membership. As all the former Yugoslav states are involved in this process, the idea is that "conditional independence" will never become full independence, but will eventually evolve into equal EU membership. As Serbia will be ahead of Kosova in the EU, it will hold a veto over membership, but Kosovar EU membership will reunite the two.
While much of this is aimed at consoling the Serbian bourgeoisie, following such a blow to the nationalism upon which it built its post-communist order, Western control also allows control of the privatisation process. In 1997, Milosevic put the whole of Kosova up for sale. However, the underground Kosova assembly declared that any foreign companies buying in would be treated as "neo-colonialists". Given the lack of independence and the desperate need for money and to get the economy rolling, Kosovar leaders in the last few years have had to accept bargain prices for the sale of the country's assets.