20 April 2007

Kosovo Albanians euphoric on eve of UN plan

Agence France Presse, 01 février 2007 04:21


PRISTINA, Serbia, Feb 1, 2007 (AFP)


Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority are excitedly counting down the hours until a UN envoy presents a plan on Friday that they are convinced will lead to independence.


"Frankly speaking, we have been independent since NATO expelled the Serbian military and police in 1999," says a beaming Ardita Musliu.


"I don't even expect in the worst dreams that Kosovo could return under Serbia's regime," says the 24-year-old resident of the capital Pristina.


"Of course, it doesn't mean the proposal is not important. On the contrary, we have to be assured officially by the international community that we have nothing to do with Serbia from now on," she adds.


UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, who led fruitless talks between Serbia and Kosovo Albanian leaders last year, is set to deliver his proposal for the future status of the disputed province to Belgrade and Pristina on Friday.


Technically still a Serbian province, Kosovo has been in limbo since mid-1999, when NATO drove out Serbian forces over repression of ethnic Albanian civilians during a war with separatist rebels.


People in Pristina's main Mother Teresa Street were bustling with a palpable euphoria ahead of the unveiling of Ahtisaari's plan.


Nobody here, including Kosovo Albanian political leaders, is expecting anything but independence to come from the Finnish diplomat's proposal.


"The times when Serbia ruled Kosovo are over," says Fehim Aliu, a 33-year-old taxi driver.


"Independence is the only way to make moves forward to a prosperous future."


A day ahead of Ahtisaari's visit to Kosovo to deliver the draft proposal that is expected to pave the way for Kosovo's independence, there was still uncertainty in the province's media on the content of the package.


The Lajm newspaper published four blank pages which were supposed to carry the text of Ahtisaari's proposal.


"We apologise sincerely to the readers for taking Ahtisaari's draft off our pages after many suggestions from different circles," the daily said on its front page, which featured pictures of Ahtisaari walking with his briefcase.


The anticipation for significant changes after independence was strengthened by almost omnipresent US-funded posters declaring: "Kosovo welcomes the future."


However the problems in the province extend beyond independence -- the word on most Kosovo Albanian lips.


Some politicians warn that the trappings of statehood would not be able to resolve all problems in Kosovo, where an economic crisis may yet threaten peace and stability.


Veton Surroi, journalist-turned-politician, says the very fact the government did not foresee economic growth for the next three years was "alarming," in particular for civil servants who earn some 150 euros a month.


"It would be fair for the institutions to come up publicly and tell to teachers, health care workers and other civil servants that there won't be any pay increases, because they haven't planned for such an increase," he says.


Unemployment in Kosovo stands at 40-45 percent, and is rising; around half its people live below the poverty line, with 15 percent of them extreme cases; and annual per capita income is the lowest in the region at around 1,250 euros (1,615 dollars).


But citizens are convinced the economy will improve significantly once Kosovo becomes independent. Politicians assure them that access to much-needed foreign investment was badly affected by Kosovo's unresolved status.


Mazllum Zymberi, a 17-year-old pre-paid phonecard seller in the area around the UN mission's headquarters, says he earns around five euros (6.50 dollars) a day at best.


"With my (monthly) income of around 100 euros, I keep alive my elderly parents and two sisters. Finally, it's time to live a worthy life," he says optimistically.


"No one, not even our international friends, will take better care of our country than we ourselves."


Sixty-four-year-old pensioner Habib Krasniqi, who as a former miner suffers from bronchial asthma, gets 40 euros a month in social assistance.


"In the last week of January, I didn't have enough money for my medicine," he says.


"Kosovo as an independent country will for sure take care of its pensioners who spent almost their whole life under the iron boot of Serbia," he says.