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Kosovo: Violence Threatens Prospects For Multiethnic Society

  • Julia Geshakova

Kosovo this week has been rocked by the worst violence since the end of the war in the province in 1999. The rioting, which began on 17 March and quickly spread to all the major cities in the province, was followed by violent protests in Serbia. It is the latest evidence that interethnic tensions persist in the United Nations protectorate and could jeopardize the UN's vision of a multiethnic Kosovo.

Prague, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions remain high, but no major incidents were reported today in Kosovo after two days of interethnic clashes left 31 people dead and wounded about 500 others.

The violence flared on 17 March, amid claims that three Albanian boys had drowned near the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica after being driven into a river by Serb assailants. One day earlier, a Serbian teenager was reported shot and injured in a village south of Pristina.

After those incidents, violence quickly spread. Albanians burned Serbian homes and churches. Nationalist protesters came out in the streets of Belgrade and other Serbian cities and burned down a mosque.

"A multiethnic Kosovo cannot be established. We are talking about a region where relations between Albanians and Serbs have been more of an exception than a rule, [where there are] two parallel worlds."
Kosovo's Albanian leaders urged restraint, saying violence was damaging Kosovo's image and future. But Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi also accused the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which runs the province, of failing to act effectively to halt the bloodletting.

Serbian officials claimed the violence was planned and aimed at the "ethnic cleansing" of Serbs from Kosovo. They accused NATO-led peacekeepers of failing to protect Serbs in the province.

Human Rights Watch yesterday warned that NATO and the United Nations must act quickly to avoid a repeat of 1999, when some 200,000 Serbs left Kosovo fearing revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians for the brutal crackdown by Serbian forces on ethnic Albanians. That crackdown sparked a NATO-led air campaign against Yugoslavia.

NATO, apparently caught off guard by the scale of the latest violence, is now rushing troops in to reinforce its 18,000-strong peacekeeping mission.

The UN Security Council yesterday demanded an immediate halt to the violence and that its perpetrators be brought to justice. The Security Council also reiterated its commitment to establishing a multiethnic society in Kosovo. Building a multiethnic Kosovo was never an easy task, but following this week's crisis it may prove even more daunting. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica spoke about the situation yesterday.

"A multiethnic Kosovo cannot be established. We are talking about a region where relations between Albanians and Serbs have been more of an exception than a rule, [where there are] two parallel worlds. Yet, it has become clear that there could be long periods of time when those two parallel worlds can function alongside each other," Kostunica said.

Kostunica reiterated his proposal to divide the province into ethnic cantons. Both the UN and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders have already rejected that proposal. The unresolved issue of Kosovo's final status will be decided by the UN Security Council.

Kosovar Albanian leader Hashim Thaci yesterday said violence is not a way to solve the Kosovo issue -- but neither is partition. "Violence is not a way for solving problems. Violence only creates problems. Neither we, neither UNMIK, nor NATO agree with the partition of Kosovo," he said. "None of us agrees with the functioning of parallel structures. None of us agrees with the proposal of cantonization of Kosovo. None of us agrees with unrest in Kosovo. We have invested in having progress in Kosovo, and this progress has been hailed in Washington, Brussels, and by all progressive forces."

Nicholas Whyte, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, told RFE/RL's Kosovo Unit that both a general frustration with the lack of progress, as well as dissatisfaction with the UN administration of the province, played a role in this week's violence.

"The roots of [the 17 March] clashes come from a certain dissatisfaction with the pace of progress in Kosovo, a certain sense that UNMIK has not really been able to prevent the development of parallel institutions among Serbs, and a certain general frustration with the political situation, with the continuing squabbling between the [local] institutions and the UN," Whyte said.

Ethnic Albanians who want independence for Kosovo are demanding greater powers for their institutions. The UN says Kosovo must fulfill a set of standards -- including the return of Serbian refugees to their homes -- before its final status will be discussed, possibly in mid-2005. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday said that, despite progress made since 1999, Kosovo has not come far enough. He said the UN needs to study carefully the implications of this week's incidents for Kosovo's future.

Analyst Nicholas Whyte says the violence will further complicate the task that Kosovo's Albanian leaders face. "I think it is going to be very difficult now," he said. "It certainly increases the amount of work that Kosovo Albanians are going to have to do to assure the international community that they are prepared to meet [the UN-set] standards -- and to tell the internationals, to present a convincing picture that they are able to make Kosovo a place where the various minorities are going to be respected."

Whyte, however, says that the onus of proving that progress is possible lies not only with Albanians, but also with UNMIK. "[UNMIK] now also has a significant mountain to climb to demonstrate that it is capable of maintaining law and order," he said. "And the most important thing that must happen now is for the UN to demonstrate that they can, in fact, present a convincing security response to this."

Despite the violent nationalistic protests on 17 March, Whyte says the reaction from official Belgrade was relatively restrained. Today, following a call by the government and the Orthodox Church for mass protests, some 10,000 marched peacefully in Belgrade. The show of support for Kosovo Serbs was led by Prime Minister Kostunica. Hundreds of mostly high-school students chanting provocative nationalistic slogans -- apparently released from school -- tried to reach the Albanian Embassy but were prevented from doing so by riot police.

For all the rhetoric, Serbian officials seem to be saying there is not much they can do. Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Boris Tadic yesterday said: "The armed forces of Serbia and Montenegro are prepared to carry out their constitutional duties. A decision on this lies with the Supreme Defense Council. But it is very important that our citizens realize that Serbia and Montenegro, the Serbian government, the army and the police must not violate their international commitments. This would, first of all, as far as the security of [Serbs] in Kosovo and Metohija is concerned, lead to an absolutely tragic and an unresolvable situation."

Analyst Nicholas Whyte says the relatively restrained official reaction does not mean that Belgrade will not try to use the incident to its advantage, however.

(Vulnet Poshka from the Kosovo Unit of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service contributed to this report.)