03 June 2007

Kosovo's independence drive kindles ethnic fears


MITROVICA, Kosovo - Thuggish Serbian "bridge watchers" still maintain their vigil on the north side of the Ibar River here, ready to punish any ethnic Albanian who dares to cross the unofficial boundary between Serbian and ethnic Albanian territory in Europe's unfinished war.

Kosovo, still officially a province of Serbia, is bitterly divided between Serbian enclaves, including a large chunk of the north, and the rest of the territory, which is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian. Now, as the United Nations nudges Kosovo toward what it calls "final status" and Belgrade calls independence, many of northern Kosovo's Serbs are threatening to break away.

"Northern Kosovo will secede," warned Oliver Ivanovic, a moderate Serbian politician here. Mr. Ivanovic says he has been warning the United Nations, NATO, the European Union and the United States that, nearly eight years after a NATO bombing campaign drove the Serbian Army and other security forces out of Kosovo, it is still too early to settle the status of the disputed territory. "Kosovo's independence will leave no space for the moderates to act."

Secession by northern Serbs could provoke Albanian reprisals against Serbian enclaves elsewhere in Kosovo, warn Serbs and Albanians alike, and could destabilize a still fragile region full of ethnic slivers separated from their homelands.

Kosovo, which is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian, has struggled since the early 20th century to free itself from the dominance of Belgrade. With the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s the fight began anew, but Serbia resisted fiercely.

The war was marked by atrocities on both sides and a horrific cycle of "ethnic cleansing," as the formerly mixed Serbian and ethnic Albanian populations pulled apart. Nearly 10,000 ethnic Albanians died as well as many Serbs. Thousands more, mostly ethnic Albanians, remain missing.

It ended with NATO's intervention in 1999, and the province has been administered by the United Nations ever since.

[A United Nations mediator, Martti Ahtisaari, presented his proposals for Kosovo's final status to officials in Belgrade and Pristina on Friday, but the two sides remained far apart. The Serbian president, Boris Tadic, immediately rejected the plans as a prelude to independence while Kosovo Albanians - who with the United States' blessing have said they will accept nothing less than independence - welcomed them. The continued standoff suggested that the intended end may instead be a prologue to another difficult chapter in a troubled history.]

Most of the Kosovo Serbs insist that they will never accept an independent Kosovo. Even if the government in Pristina does hoist a new national flag, they say, they will fight to recover the province that Serbs still consider their cultural heartland - the cradle and, in 1389 at the hand of the Turks, the grave of their great medieval empire.

"It would create a situation like Iraq or Lebanon here in Serbia," said Milan Ivanovic, a doctor at Mitrovica's hospital and head of Kosovo's hard-line Serbian National Council (no relation to Oliver Ivanovic). He cited the Christian reconquest of Moorish Spain and France's eventual recovery of the Alsace-Lorraine region from Germany as models. "We would fight to get Kosovo back with all legitimate means."

Kosovo Albanians and their international supporters hope that a high degree of autonomy in Serbian areas with guarantees for the protection of Serbian rights and strict international oversight will eventually persuade Serbs in the territory to accept an Albanian-led government in Pristina.

"Hopefully, with independence, a local Serb leadership will emerge to address the needs of the Serbs within the Kosovo system," said Muhamet Hamiti, an adviser to Kosovo's president, Fatmir Sejdiu.

Some moderate Serbian politicians are already willing to work within a Kosovo national system, even if their political support in the Serbian community is small.

But Serbian enclaves, particularly northern Kosovo, still operate under Serbian national authority and draw most of their financial support from Belgrade, raising questions about how Pristina could enforce sovereignty over Kosovo Serbs without coercive actions that would risk provoking more violence.

Nowhere is the divide as clear as in the region around this northern city. A United Nations-financed train that links the rest of Kosovo's Serb enclaves with the north carries Serbs and Albanians alike until it reaches the Mitrovica station south of the river. There, even the Albanian conductor gets off. Only Serbs ride on for another 15 minutes across an iron railroad bridge to the end of the line.

"I'm not brave enough to go up there," the conductor said, watching the train pull away. "I survived the war. I don't need another challenge."

Cars carry Serbian license plates and the economy still operates on the Serbian dinar even though the Albanian areas of this long-disputed territory, now administered by the United Nations, long ago converted to the euro. Serbia's Ministry of Education in Belgrade has even set up what it calls the "University of Pristina, Temporarily Located in Mitrovica."

"How can they force us to accept independence?" asked Dr. Ivanovic, the Serbian politician, who like many people working for Serbian institutions in Kosovo's Serbian enclaves is paid an above average salary by Belgrade as a reward for his loyalty.

While many people see fixing Kosovo's eventual independence as the last chapter of Yugoslav disintegration, Serbs see it as the dismemberment of their homeland.

The province, ringed by snowy mountains and populated with great colonies of inky rooks that gave it its name (kos means blackbird in Serbian), is home to the Serbian Orthodox Church's most sacred sites.

"This is the spiritual center of the Serbian Church," said Sister Dobrila, a nun at the monastery of the Patriarchate of Pec, which was built around a richly frescoed Byzantine church from the 13th century that holds the tombs of Serbia's medieval archbishops.

She noted that western Kosovo, the site of the monastery, is called Metohija in Serbian, which means "church land." "It's sacred territory," she said.

Even the birds, which swarm over Pristina to settle in its trees at night, are woven into the nationalist myth. According to Serbian folklore, the birds are the souls of the dead from the 14th century battle of Kosovo, in which a Serbian-led Christian army sought to stop the Ottoman advance - an advance whose legacy is the nominally Muslim Albanian majority in the province today.

The common analogy given to Americans, imperfect but pertinent in the emotions it stirs, is the notion of secession by Florida or New Mexico, if the Spanish-speaking populations in those states became a majority. The analogy is imperfect because few Americans, most of whom are already long separated from their cultural roots, have as deep an emotional connection to place as many Europeans have.

That is why Europe, understanding the violence of such emotions, is not united behind the United Nations plan. Countries facing their own secessionist movements - Spain with the Basques, Romania with ethnic Hungarians, and Russia with Chechens and peoples of other rebellious territories - are skeptical of what they see as an American effort to jam a solution into place so Washington can turn its attention elsewhere.

"A forced solution is not a solution," said Marko Jaksic, head of the Democratic Party of Serbia and widely regarded as the most powerful politician in Mitrovica.