21 March 2007

Albanians look to 2007 for Kosovo independence

Deutsche Presse Agentur, Wednesday, December 20, 2006 By Fatmir Aliu

Pristina, Kosovo- Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians had been expecting independence in the expiring year, but will, with gnawing impatience and concern, have to wait until late January 2007 just to hear a United Nations proposal on the future status of the breakaway Serbian province.
As the international community was preparing finally to launch direct talks between Pristina and Belgrade at the end of 2005, Albanian leaders - who make up some 90 per cent of Kosovans - read all the signals and confidently promised a sovereign state quickly.

In his final appearance in December 2005, then with less than a month to live, father-of-the-nation Ibrahim Rugova said, "We did not achieve independence (in 2005), but we will have it in 2006."

But a year on and after 10 months of talks with Serbia, held under UN auspices in Vienna, independence still lurks behind a corner.

"We believed the Contact Group (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States) that the status would be resolved," Deputy Premier Lutfi Haziri said, admitting that the delay has "damaged" the credibility of Kosovo's leadership.

He and other leaders remain confident that no outcome but independence is possible - and it is the course which the west appears to be favouring, though with the usual diplomatic coyness.

"Our work is done. We're within reach and are now just waiting for the results," Haziri, also a local government minister and a key negotiator with Belgrade, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

"Regarding independence, we crossed Rubicon," said Veton Suroi, another Pristina negotiator, journalist, publicist and leader of the opposition ORA party.

The UN envoy in the talks, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, is due to reveal his proposal for Kosovo's status after the January 21 parliamentary elections in Serbia, instead of as originally planned in late 2006.

No Kosovo Albanian leader expects a change from the Serbian elections. "I don't think anybody has an illusion that whatever government is elected there will recognize the right of Kosovo to be independent," Suroi told dpa.

So, without a compromise in sight, it will be up to Ahtisaari, the UN and the big powers to impose a solution. The Serbs are wary, while Albanians expect Ahtisaari to open the door to Kosovo's independence.

"We expect the finalization of the status process, paving the way for Kosovo's statehood," Haziri said. "Then, a new constitution, local and parliamentary polls, ratification of the European Integration Strategy with Brussels (and) the drafting of social policies."

Suroi says Ahtisaari would propose "a clear, explicit formulation for independence," though "without doubt" conditioned by the implementation of laid-out standards.

"We will have an international military presence and an international civilian presence," he added.

But Albin Kurti, a former political prisoner of Serbia, now leader of the Vetvendosja (Self-determination) movement, dismissed the talks and the international presence as a joke at the expense of the Albanians.

"We do not know yet what that (Ahtisaari's) proposal will contain, but we know what it will not contain," said Kurti. "It will not contain foreign and defence ministries and a seat in the UN."

"We will have one bureaucracy instead of another, from UN to EU, another interim mission with control over police, courts, economy and defence," he added.

The talks failed to bring Belgrade and Pristina any closer - Serbs insist on sovereignty over Kosovo, while Albanians want nothing but independence. Haziri and Suroi say there was nothing left to discuss.

"All issues we negotiated with Serbia do not need to be negotiated any more," Haziri said. "Otherwise we'd return the process to square one - and we're not interested to see it go backwards and face problems that may arise from the delays."

The hottest issue in the talks, apart from the status itself, was decentralization. Internal borders and local authority were crucial because they are seen as a means of protecting the embattled Serbs, mostly living in enclaves in northern Kosovo, near Serbia proper.

While Belgrade and Pristina stick adamantly to their positions regarding independence, Haziri said decentralization talks were brining benefits to the Serbs.

"Apart from rights derived from international norms, we have defined protection mechanisms for minorities in Kosovo and their representation in institutions," he said.

In his words, after the re-drawing of Kosovo's municipal lines, "90 per cent of Kosovo's Serbs will self-administer in the sectors of health, education and local politics dealing with everyday life."

Kurti said the "territorial concessions" were a threat to Kosovo's integrity. He voiced the concern in Pristina that a consolidated Serb territory would be more prone to seek unification with Serbia.

But while international officials tend to be vague regarding Kosovo, they have explicitly laid out three rules: Kosovo would not return to Belgrade's rule as it was before the bloodshed in 1999, it may not in the future join other states and it may not be divided.