Keeping the Lid On

Friday, July 30, 2004

An outbreak of mob violence in Kosovo in mid-March of this year left 19 dead and 900 wounded; hundreds of vehicles, buildings, and churches destroyed; and thousands displaced from their homes. The violence occurred near the fifth anniversary of the start of the 78-day NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia (now Serbia and Montenegro) that was intended to stop Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. The rioting by ethnic Albanians was directed against ethnic Serbs, Roma (Gypsies), and the U.N. administration. It started spontaneously after three Albanian children drowned near a Serb settlement under unexplained circumstances but was spread by inflammatory local television coverage and organized efforts of disgruntled military veterans and criminal elements. Military and security forces (22,000 foreign and 5,000 local) were caught by surprise and initially unable to halt the unrest.

Root causes of the violence can be traced to the unfinished business of nation building in Kosovo in the five years following NATO’s intervention. Since 1999, as authorized by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, Kosovo in theory has remained a part of Serbia and Montenegro but in practice has become an international protectorate with military security provided by the international Kosovo Force (KFOR), subordinated to NATO, with governance and administration the responsibility of the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMiK). The Serbia and Montenegro state constitution and Serb parliamentary declarations reassert Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo, but that claim is today as meaningless as is Cuban sovereignty over the Guantanamo Naval Base.

Since 1993 the European Union, the United States, and other involved countries have backed a policy of “standards before status,” meaning that Kosovars should reach benchmarks of democracy (rule of law, property rights, market economy framework, etc.) before the international community will discuss Kosovo’s place in the world, its “final status.” The current U.N. Security Council head and other officials have restated this policy since March, adding that violence will not be rewarded and declaring their intention to review in mid-2005 Kosovo’s progress toward achieving democracy.

I visited Kosovo in early April for a first-hand look at nation building after five years. All discussions with Kosovars and foreigners quickly became focused on Kosovo’s unsettled international situation. The ethnic Albanians I spoke with uniformly assume that Kosovo (population about two million) will become another sovereign Balkan state and eventually join the European Union. (By way of comparison, Macedonia also has about two million inhabitants, and Albania has three and a half million.) These views reflect popular attitudes of the ethnic Albanians who now make up about 90 percent of the total population of Kosovo. An opinion poll in November 2003 found that 86 percent of ethnic Albanians favor independence within current borders; 14 percent are for union with Albania. Within Kosovo, ethnic Albanians foresee decentralized administration on regional, not ethnic, grounds. In their view, the minority Serb population could enjoy dual citizenship with Serbia, provided they are loyal to the Kosovo state, accept the authority of the Pristina government, and participate in multiethnic local administration.

The views of Kosovo’s Serbs are diametrically opposed. According to the same opinion poll, 82 percent of Serbs (who now make up only 7 percent of the total population of Kosovo) favor Kosovo remaining part of Serbia as an “autonomous province”; 13 percent favor partition (meaning inclusion in Serbia of the contiguous area of Kosovo populated by Serbs); and 4 percent favor confederation with Serbia, similar to Montenegro. Serbs see no future for themselves in an independent Kosovo. They reject multiethnic decentralization as cover for Albanian domination and demand decentralization on an ethnic basis, “separate but equal.” They see themselves as part of Serbia and emphasize the psychological as well as practical importance of continuing the so-called parallel structures (outside the UNMiK framework) that provide teachers, doctors, other social services, and financial subsidies from Serbia. They feel that the ethnic gulf between Serbs and Albanians has widened so much after the March violence that it is wishful thinking to imagine the return to Kosovo of the 150,000 refugees who were expelled or fled to Serbia in 1999. “I cannot put Serbs and Albanians in the same room,” said one local Serb official, speaking not only of his constituents but also of his municipal assembly members.

If Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbs have sharply opposed views of the future, they share common dissatisfaction with and resentment of UNMiK. Their grievances focus on delays in establishing and empowering Kosovo government institutions and on the U.N. administration itself. They complain that the quality of the U.N. international staff has declined and is constituted primarily of nationals from countries less democratic than Kosovo. A common complaint is, “Are we supposed to learn democratic practices from former Soviet Union, African, and Southeast Asian countries?” UNMiK’s economic administration receives the most criticism—for constant turnover of international personnel, for aborted privatization, and for failing to reduce massive unemployment (affecting more than half of the employable workforce) and to promote economic development. UNMiK’s approval rating (respondents who were at least “satisfied” with its performance) declined in opinion polls from 64 percent in November 2002 to 28 percent in November 2003.

Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbs both also resent, albeit from different points of view, the policy of “standards before status” that is the proclaimed stepping-stone to the future. Although ethnic Albanian elites acknowledge the reality of the benchmarks they are expected to meet—“They are the Bible”—they do not hide their disdain for being treated as the object of an E.U. “social experiment” and being given an impossible mission: achieving high political and social standards not yet realized in all old, let alone new, E.U. countries. Serbs dismiss the standards as “useless” window dressing that, even if implemented, would not bring security or self-governance to the Serb population.

Is there a way out of this impasse? Former U.S. Kosovo envoy James Dobbins recently argued that Kosovo’s internal political dynamics had been frozen after 1999 for the sake of regional stability but that it is time to reconsider that cost-benefit ratio: “Kosovo is somewhat better prepared for self-government. The region is somewhat better prepared to cope with that development. The United States and Europe are less able to keep the lid on Kosovo.”

The balance sheet does look different today. Regional conditions have changed since 1999. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s long-term future as a viable state is by no means guaranteed, but its Serb and Croat populations have less reason and opportunity now to think of separating from Bosnia-Herzegovina than they did five years ago. The merger of Kosovo and Albania, possible in the future, is not on the current political agenda. Kosovo’s ambiguous international status has contributed to radicalization, not liberalization, of politics in Serbia since the ouster of Milosevic. The Albanian minority in Montenegro is quiescent. In regional terms, it is perhaps only Macedonia that might be affected negatively by an independent Kosovo state, given the close connections between Kosovo Albanians and the restive substantial Albanian minority in Macedonia.

The “facts on the ground” in Kosovo have also changed since 1999. Kosovo’s 1.7 million ethnic Albanians are increasingly frustrated at what they see as a denial by the international community of their right to self-determination. They believe they expressed their will in an underground referendum in 1991, when they voted overwhelmingly for independence, and their underground “parliament” then proclaimed the independent “Republic of Kosovo.” They recall the language of the stillborn 1999 Rambouillet Accords (language accepted by the international community and the Kosovo Albanians but not Milosevic) pledging in three years “a mechanism for a final settlement for Kosovo, on the basis of the will of the people.” Given this history, and Albanians’ increasing frustration with their limbo status, it should come as no surprise that Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi—often considered the most capable and moderate of the local leaders—threatens the international community with another referendum and a declaration of independence.

Popular frustration with Kosovo’s political limbo is matched by increased social tensions as the economy has stagnated. An economic upturn assumes privatization and foreign investment—both unlikely until Kosovo’s status is settled. Meanwhile, the minority Serb population has become less secure and more dependent on subsidies from Serbia.

Peoples governed by outsiders increasingly resent their masters, and Kosovo is no exception. Kosovars’ political and economic frustrations resulting from their ambiguous position in the world have been compounded by five years of U.N. administration. The United Nations has an admirable record of setting up new governments (as in Afghanistan) and in separating hostile parties (as it has done in Cyprus for many years). But it has never administered a sizable region for very long—and never without an exit strategy. It administered East Timor for two and a half years on the basis of a prior popular referendum and UNSC Resolution 1272, which called for transition to an independent state. It administered Eastern Slavonia for two years on the basis of the Dayton Peace Accords and UNSC Resolution 1039, which provided for peaceful reintegration into Croatia. In contrast, it is administering Kosovo ad infinitum on the basis of UNSC 1244 prescribing “democratic self-governing institutions” and “substantial autonomy within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”—a framework viewed by the overwhelming majority of Kosovars as a denial of their right of self-determination. The dedication and capability of many UNMiK officials notwithstanding, it is no wonder that, five years on, local resentment against U.N. administration of Kosovo is mounting rapidly.

It is against this background that most nongovernmental studies of post-1999 Kosovo have argued for the international community to adopt a road map pointing to independence for Kosovo, with international security guarantees. Equally important, the studies call for a change in the role of the U.N. protectorate, for giving the Pristina government the authority and responsibility to exercise most governmental and administrative functions, with limited powers reserved to a U.N. plenipotentiary and KFOR and with guarantees for the Serb minority. Such an approach can be characterized as “more status, less UNMiK, more realistic standards.”

And what is to become of Kosovo’s Serbs—a constituent, if by now small, minority Kosovo population? Serbs would like Kosovo to remain a part of Serbia. Short of that, they rightly expect an end to violence against Serbs and Serb churches and monuments and the right to run their own local affairs. If Serbs are to have a long-term future in an independent Kosovo, they will need to develop an allegiance to the Kosovo state and respect for a Pristina government comparable to what is expected of minority Russian populations in Estonia and Latvia. This may never happen, and in the end most Serbs may choose to leave Kosovo (or perhaps the north Mitrovica region, populated primarily by Serbs, will be partitioned and joined to Serbia). But the Serbs cannot be driven out, and, in the meantime, Kosovo may be better off if they are permitted to exercise municipal self-government on an ethnic basis in the more compact Serb-populated areas. This would differ from the Serbian government’s ambitious proposal of April 2004 to somehow create a contiguous autonomous Serb region within Kosovo. Ethnic-based municipal self-government was foreshadowed in Rambouillet discussions of an institutional role for “national communities” in the future Kosovo. This would not mean jettisoning a multiethnic Kosovo and the need for representation of Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs in Pristina. It would mean recognizing that in Kosovo it is the Serb ethnic minority that opposes the local multiethnic institutions the Albanian majority and the international community seek to impose.

Five years after NATO’s intervention, it is time to rethink nation building in Kosovo. It will be easiest for the international community to continue its past policy of “standards before status.” But absent a defined outcome or timetable, this approach threatens another round of even more violent social explosion and ethnic violence—and a further setback to nation building in Kosovo.