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Belgrade May Steal Kosovo's Thunder

November 19, 2000|Cynthia Scharf | Cynthia Scharf, a former correspondent for The Times, was an international election monitor in Kosovo's municipal elections

FERIZAJ, KOSOVO — The results of last month's voting in Kosovo, the first-ever democratic elections in this province of Serbia, portend good news for the forces of moderation. While nearly all of Kosovo's tiny Serb community boycotted the vote, the province's Albanian majority demonstrated they are ready and willing to turn to the ballot box, not a Kalashnikov, to voice their views. Kosovo's fate now rests largely in the hands of its residents, who, more than at any time in the last decade, have a chance to determine their future.

But that path will not be an easy one to navigate, even in the absence of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, indicted last year by the United Nation's International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague for orchestrating war crimes in Kosovo. Now that a democratically elected government sits in Belgrade, the greatest challenge facing Kosovars may not be Serbian nationalists, but extremists within their ranks who would insist on nothing less than full independence for the province.

Independence is a goal shared by all non-Serbian political parties in Kosovo, including the moderate Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the party headed by Ibrahim Rugova, which triumphed in recent municipal elections. For Albanian Kosovars, the question is not "if" independence but when, how and at what cost. Rugova's party advocates independence, but its more immediate goal focuses on domestic housecleaning: attacking Kosovo's pervasive corruption and crime, which has impeded progress on such basic issues as health and education.

The LDK's main rival, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), is composed of former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leaders like Hashim Thaci, whose reputation for highhandness and belligerence served the KLA well during wartime but has since alienated Kosovars eager for normalcy. Independence is at the top of the PDK's agenda. If the past is prologue, the PDK will continue to resist dialogue with Belgrade and scorn, intimidate and physically threaten Albanian moderates who oppose their take-no-prisoners approach to exercising power. Indeed, were it not for the thousands of foreign troops occupying Kosovo, the KLA would undoubtedly continue to hold the reins of power, if necessary, by force.

For the United States and its NATO allies, the question of Kosovo's independence is increasingly seen as a threat to their broader strategic objectives in the Balkans: peace, stability and the economic integration of Yugoslavia into the European Community. Though Western politicians are reluctant to say so publicly, a precipitous push for independence, especially if led by the PDK or other former KLA commanders, would fundamentally undermine this goal. In the Western strategic equation, Serbia, with its vastly greater economic resources, is the main theater of action; Kosovo is merely a sideshow. The West will not jeopardize the windfall that is Milosevic's demise for Kosovo's dream of independence.

Foreign troops will remain in Kosovo for some time, especially if sizable numbers of Kosovo's Serbs return to their homeland, as newly elected Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has vowed. Political support from the international community--and the millions of dollars of aid that comes with it--will continue to be a critical factor in Kosovo's development. Yugoslavia has already reclaimed its membership in the United Nations. Western currency is flowing into Belgrade, with promises of millions more on the way.

Following the money, scores of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with operations in Kosovo are rushing to reopen their offices in Serbia. Many Kosovars fear, with good reason, that media attention and donor support will dry up for Kosovo in the next year if the trend continues. Suddenly, unpredictably, Belgrade is the place to be.

Kosovo's Albanian community is, understandably, not at all pleased with the new love fest in Belgrade. A nurse in Ferizaj who works for an international NGO recently summed-up the feelings of many of her Albanian colleagues: "What, you're now working with the Serbs? But how can that be after all they've done to us? How could you?"

Rugova has pledged to respect minority rights in Kosovo, a stance as commendable as it is courageous in Kosovo's ethnically fractured polis. He has also stated his willingness to enter into a dialogue with Kostunica. But if no promises of independence are on the table, how much pressure can Rugova and the LDK withstand from radical forces within Kosovo demanding independence? For better or worse, both the West (implicitly) and Moscow (explicitly) are backing Kostunica in his refusal to consider independence for Kosovo. In this scenario, Kosovo Albanians will feel they have little to gain by pursuing a quiet path of conciliation on their key demand.

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