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Yugoslavia: East Timor Gains Independence, While Kosovo Remains In Nationhood Limbo

  • Alexandra Poolos

East Timor marks its birth today as a new nation after nearly three years of administration by the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri participated today in a flag ceremony along with thousands of East Timorese. The declaration of independence brings to a close a history of foreign rule in which the half-island of East Timor was for 400 years a Portuguese colony and then, after an invasion in 1975, Indonesian for almost a quarter of a century. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos compares East Timor's independence with the situation in Kosovo, which after three years of UN administration remains in nationhood limbo.

Prague, 20 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Shortly after midnight, thousands of East Timorese gathered in the capital, Dili, to wave their new flag and celebrate as the half-island officially became the world's newest nation.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was there to lower the UN flag and turn over the governance of East Timor from an interim UN administration to a 24-member cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

At the ceremony, attended by diplomats from more than 90 countries, Annan congratulated the people of East Timor for their determination in pursuing independence:

"I salute you people of East Timor for the courage and perseverance you have shown. Yours has not been an easy path to independence. You should be very proud of your achievement. That a small nation is able to inspire the world and be the focus of our attention is the highest tribute I can pay to you."

The country's new president, Xanana Gusmao, was imprisoned by Indonesia for seven years for his role as a leader in the guerrilla war against Indonesian rule. Gusmao told visiting international diplomats that their presence at East Timor's official birth as a nation is a reminder of the responsibilities the tiny country has as a new member of the community of nations.

"Your presence here gives us confidence but not only [that]. It gives us responsibility not only to our people but also to the community of nations that we are now one of them."

The new nation of just 800,000 faces major challenges. One of the poorest nations in the world, East Timor has high unemployment, almost no economic development, limited infrastructure, and a tenuous security structure.

The Timorese fight for independence began in 1975, when more than 400 years of Portuguese occupation collapsed. The Indonesian military invaded from the West and annexed East Timor. The occupation was especially brutal. Indonesia officials later acknowledged that more than 100,000 Timorese had been killed or had died of disease.

In August 1999, the UN organized a referendum on independence from Indonesia. Close to 80 percent of the population voted for independence. But pro-Jakarta militia members and Indonesian soldiers occupying East Timor rejected the vote and destroyed much of Dili and other parts of the half-island. The UN estimates that close to 1,000 people were killed during the violence, after which it was forced to step in.

The birth of East Timor as an independent nation begs comparison to Kosovo, which after three years of UN administration still remains in nationhood limbo, with no movement toward a resolution of the province's final status.

Evliana Berani is an analyst from Kosovo who worked in media development in East Timor. Berani tells RFE/RL that Kosovo and East Timor share many historical similarities:

"We, to a certain extent, can compare the past. [There] was a conflict [in East Timor], a conflict [in Kosovo]. [There] was huge destruction in East Timor. [There] was huge destruction in Kosovo. There have been many massacres in East Timor. There have been many massacres in Kosovo during the past. Since three years ago, both places are under UN protectorate."

Berani goes on to say that both East Timor and Kosovo share similar economic woes, which will keep both places on international donor lists for at least the next few years.

Berani says that in many ways, Kosovo would seem a better candidate for independence than East Timor, a smaller territory with a much wider diversity in language and ethnicity.

"In territorial aspect, [Kosovo] is the bigger place. [The population] is much bigger than it is in East Timor. The population here is a quite compact population with a majority of Albanians that speak one language, that have one national flag, that used to have its own [governing] institutions in the past. [East Timor] is a [poorer] place, with a [smaller] population, with a [smaller territory], with [fewer] peace times as a nation, and today [it] became an independent nation.... while Kosovo is still in limbo status."

But Berani says East Timor's nationhood was virtually guaranteed three years ago, when the United Nations organized the independence referendum. She says the subsequent massacres by pro-Indonesian militias and Indonesian soldiers, which were broadcast around the world, obliged the UN to take a stand and run the country:

"The biggest number of the massacres that have been shown in the world media appeared after the UN had recognized the right of East Timorese for a referendum and for an election, where they have a right to chose their own leaders and their own institutions. This political moment was never recognized in Kosovo. Most of the political analysts actually believe that is the crucial [reason] of why East Timor today is an independent country."

Indonesian President Sukarnoputri also was in Dili today to congratulate the East Timorese on their statehood, a marked change of heart from her rejection of the referendum's results in 1999.

While Indonesia gave up East Timor, Berani says Kosovo's nationhood aspirations are still being stymied by nationalists in Belgrade, who do not want to loosen their hold on the province.

"In Kosovo, the situation is quite different. While Indonesia gave up East Timor [easier], here we still have very strong Serbian nationalism that is generated in Belgrade. We can see a slight difference after the fall of [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic, but still politicians in Belgrade are not willing to discuss the matter of a possible referendum or the matter of the final status of Kosovo that could be different from what they want."

Despite the similarities between East Timor and Kosovo, Berani does not think Timorese independence will have much of an impact on Kosovo's unresolved status. She says East Timor's celebrations barely registered in the local press.

Kosovo will have its own path to forge, Berani says. But like East Timor, she says much will depend on how far the UN is willing to go.

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