30 March 2006

For many, UN's grip worse than civil war (Part 2/5)



PRISTINA, KOSOVO - The skinny young man with the black-framed glasses and the explosion of frizzy hair comes across as a bookish, somewhat bohemian, undergraduate. From his tired demeanour, you might guess that he was studying late in the library the previous night.


In fact, 30-year-old Albin Kurti was out late deflating the tires of United Nations vehicles on the streets of Kosovo's capital, Pristina. He was accompanied by a crowd of fellow young Kosovo Albanians who have eagerly joined his crusade to make life difficult for the international peacekeepers.


Those UN vehicles are part of the effort that has for six years provided effective independence from Serbia for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo such as Mr. Kurti. But he is far from grateful. In fact, he has covered the region with huge spray-painted stencils calling for the UN to leave.


To many members of the new generation in Kosovo, who came of age under the UN's guardianship, the international peacekeepers are not seen as liberators. Rather, they are viewed as colonial occupiers.


"I have spent months in prison for this, but more and more they're refusing to arrest us because it gives us more publicity," Mr. Kurti says in the lobby of the communist-era Grand Hotel, a long-time hangout for Kosovo Albanian guerrillas.


"This is a fake peace we're enduring, and we'd prefer to return to war than lose our freedom this way."


Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, had been the final victim of the Serb ethnic-cleansing campaigns in the 1990s, during which Slobodan Milosevic had viciously oppressed members of the Albanian-speaking majority in a campaign that outlawed their language and eventually led to the killing of thousands of ethnic Albanians and the expulsion of almost a million.


Ever since NATO bombs in 1999 put a stop to Mr. Milosevic, Kosovo has existed as a semi-independent entity, with its own parliament, under expensive international supervision.


Mr. Kurti, a gifted orator in several languages who first led student protests in 1997, has become the leader of this surprising new youth movement opposed to the UN status quo. Its existence causes much consternation among international leaders who are in the midst of talks in Vienna that will finally determine Kosovo's status, and most likely put it on a path to full national autonomy by the end of this year.


The Kosovo talks, along with a Montenegrin independence referendum and efforts to remove European Union oversight for the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina, make this a crucial year for the countries of the former Yugoslavia. These developments also represent a chance to prove that international military and diplomatic efforts can result in successful nation building at a time when such efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan look increasingly ineffective.


Rather than welcoming those talks, though, Mr. Kurti wants them stopped -- and he seems to have a large following. He doesn't want an internationally negotiated road map to independence, he wants a mass popular uprising -- bloody if necessary -- that will instantly free Kosovo not just from Serbia but from the UN's clutches.


Dressed fashionably and surrounded by rapt followers, Mr. Kurti calmly denounced the United Nations Mission In Kosovo.


"UNMIK made sense for the first two years, the postwar recovery stage, but when it came to the development stage, they failed us," he says. "And now UNMIK's role here is as a neo-colonial institution. They are preventing us from becoming a nation, from developing."


On the dusty streets of Pristina, you can see why young Kosovo Albanians, struggling on developing-world incomes and rationed electricity might be losing patience with the "internationals." The 100,000 foreign aid and military workers in Kosovo drive around in spotless new SUVs, govern the region from within walled compounds and often earn six-figure salaries during their brief work terms. Their spending in Pristina's shops and restaurants, according to the chamber of commerce, provides the lion's share of the city's revenues. It also makes the Kosovo Albanians feel like second-class citizens.


But if the ethnic Albanians are second-class citizens, then the 120,000 ethnic Serbs of Kosovo (with a population of 2.4 million) are a third class. Many of them live in hiding, or in refugee camps, after Kosovo Albanians went on rampages that have killed at least a thousand Serbs and forced many more out of their homes; first in waves of revenge after the war in 1999, and then in March of 2004 after false radio reports of Serb murders sent angry mobs into Serb villages, destroying the homes of 4,100 people.


The 2004 event has led UN and EU officials to worry that, should Kosovo become independent, the Kosovo Albanians will be as oppressive as Mr. Milosevic was in his time. Therefore, the safety and status of Kosovo's Serbs has become the central issue in the status talks. NATO and UN leaders worry they might have fought a war in the name of ethnic co-operation, only to create a series of artificial countries that are uni-ethnic strongholds.


There are some Kosovo Albanians who share this worry. They glance at Mr. Kurti, and worry that he represents the future of Kosovo.


"Our people seem to have inherited a 19th-century sort of nationalism -- it's this idea that if you can run your flag up the pole, then you've got a nation," says Dukagjin Gorani, a veteran Kosovo journalist who now runs the Human Rights Centre at Pristina University.


"We Kosovo Albanians have an image of ourselves as an a priori justifiable population -- our victimization over the centuries cannot be easily consumed; our suffering must be continuous. So everything the Serbs do has to be bad; everything we do is by definition forgivable and justifiable."


Mr. Kurti, on the other hand, argues that a sudden declaration of independence will be the best thing for the Serbs. "I think the conflict in Kosovo is not ethnic," he says. "And that will become apparent when we get our freedom. The best conditions for Kosovo Serbs will occur after autonomy, because we will no longer be in an adversarial position. After that, Serbs will never again be seen by Albanians here as a threat. I think that integration comes with development."


In Vienna this week, negotiators from both Serbia and Kosovo are presenting Mr. Kurti as a threat. For the Kosovo negotiators, he represents the ethnic extremism that could erupt if independence doesn't happen fast enough. Veton Surroi, the leader of the Kosovo opposition Hour party and a member of the negotiating team, warned in an interview that Mr. Kurti's view could end up winning the day.


"This is the year when independence will have to stop being a four-letter word. The world will have to bite the bullet and accept that," he says. "I don't think that this place can afford another transition to a transition to a transition. The people are getting very impatient."


And negotiators from Serbia warn that Mr. Kurti's actions could inflame Serbian citizens, causing them to elect an extremist government. Trapped in between are the Kosovo Serbs, equally afraid of both possibilities.


"I am not just afraid of the Albanian radicals taking power in Pristina; I am equally afraid of Serbian radicals taking power in Belgrade," says Oliver Ivanovic, a leader of the Kosovo Serbs. "We don't need Serbia on our side, we need the Kosovo Albanians on our side -- only with their co-operation will we get our homes and our lives back."


Mr. Kurti swears that his movement would be good for Serbs and Albanians alike. But after he gets up from his seat in the hotel, he receives a series of warm embraces from aging figures from the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, whose members killed numerous Serbs after the 1999 war.


Mr. Kurti says he has nothing to do with this approach. But he warns, ominously and vaguely, that if things don't move fast enough, there might be actions that will be a lot more frightening than a deflated tire.


Road to independence


After centuries of on-again, off-again self rule, talks under way are expected to yield plans for an independent Kosovo controlled by the ethnic-Albanian majority.


* The origins of both ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs may be traced to what is now Kosovo. It was the centre of the Serb Empire until the mid-14th century, when it fell to the Ottoman Empire.


* Many Serbs then left and were replaced by a growing Albanian population.


* The Serbs regained control of Kosovo in 1912 during the first Balkan War, but through the following decades, Serbs and Albanians vied for control and undertook mutual expulsions.


* Yugoslav leader Josip (Marshall) Tito kept the province on a tight leash in the years after the Second World War, but in 1974, he granted it autonomy and its own vote in the Yugoslav federal council. Albanians, however, continued to demand the status of a full republic for Kosovo.


* By the latter part of the 20th century, Serb emigration and a high Albanian birth rate had drastically reduced the proportion of Serbs. Playing on Serb minority fears, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989 and instituted military rule.


* In 1991, ethnic-Albanian leaders declared unilateral independence and waged a passive-resistance movement. Their failure to secure independence or restore autonomy peacefully gave rise to a guerrilla movement in the mid-1990s. The Serbian forces' brutal crackdown and campaign of ethnic cleansing forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians to flee the province.


* After the failure of internationally brokered peace talks, NATO conducted air strikes against Serbian targets in March, 1999. Serbian forces were driven out that summer and the United Nations took over administration of the province.