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Analysis: Kosovo's Decentralization Debate

UN peacekeepers were called upon to quell the violence in March Many observers inside and outside Kosovo have long felt that the communist-era internal administrative units should be broken up into more manageable ones, but there the agreement ends. A recent broadcast by RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service made clear that the Albanian and Serbian approaches to the issue seem hard to reconcile.

Political leaders from the ethnic Albanian majority have criticized a recent Austrian-backed proposal to decentralize the administration by giving the largely rural Serbian minority more control over its own affairs while supposedly strengthening central institutions. Those Albanians feel that the plan will delay clarification of the province's final status while encouraging unrealistic hopes for territorial autonomy among geographically dispersed ethnic minorities.

Some Serbs see the plan as a step in the right direction toward "cantonization," while others feel that it does not do enough to check Albanian aspirations for independence (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 30 July 2004).

Both the Albanian leaders and the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) had previously criticized proposals from Belgrade to "cantonize" Kosovo along ethnic lines on the grounds that this could lead to an unacceptable ethnically based partition. The official policy in Prishtina is to promote a multiethnic Kosovo, as unrealistic as that might seem (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 April and 9 July 2004).

But since the violence of 17-18 March, many Serbs have come to see some form of territorial autonomy as absolutely essential for their security. At the same time, many Albanians have come to suspect any proposal for decentralization to be a thinly disguised form of partition.

These and other hopes and fears were reflected in a recent broadcast of Radio Most (Bridge) moderated by Omer Karabeg of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. He spoke with Aleksandar Simic, who is an adviser to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, and Enver Hasani, who heads the Kosovar government's Foreign Affairs Office.

Simic stresses that it is vital in the wake of the March violence to ensure that Serbs remain in Kosovo. He notes that it is not realistic to expect them to be able to return soon to places like Prizren, Peja, or Prishtina, but stresses that the Serbian government's plan to set up several administrative units will give them the necessary degree of self-rule to ensure their future and to go back to their homes where they can. He adds that relations between the local autonomous units and the central authority in Prishtina must be clearly defined so as to prevent one side or the other from acting "arbitrarily."

Simic denies that this is a form of ethnically based partition, arguing that there are too few Serbs in Kosovo to make the situation comparable to Bosnia in 1991. He also notes that the Serbs are too widely dispersed (except possibly for Gracanica and northern Mitrovica) for anyone to regard their administrative units as a threat to Kosovo's integrity. In Kosovo, he stresses, one cannot envision a "San Marino or Monaco" emerging.

Hasani objects, arguing that it is necessary to divide the concepts of territorial and institutional autonomy if Kosovo is to escape ethnically based partition into several mini-states. He calls for multiethnic decentralization based on the civic rather than on the ethnic principle, adding that this is the only way for Kosovo to go forward.

Hasani stresses that the Serbian government's proposal is a nonstarter, because it means partition and would simply establish "permanent frontlines" between Serbs and Albanians, like in Bosnia after the 1995 Dayton peace agreements.

He argues, moreover, that Kosovo's potential for setting up a society based on the civic principle is no better or worse than is the case elsewhere in the Balkans, a point with which Simic disagrees (as would many others).

Hasani fears, however, that the Albanians will remain nervous and prone to "irrational and aggressive behavior" as long as the specter of Mitrovica-style partition remains, just as people in Serbia will remain prone to "irrational and aggressive behavior" as long as the Kosovo issue as a whole remains unresolved.

Melazim Koci, who heads the Kosovo sub-unit of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, recently told "Balkan Report" that resolving the status question is the key to ending the nervousness that could become the basis of future violence. Koci argues that as long as the Albanians fear that Belgrade's rule will return in some form or another -- including a possible joint state imposed by the EU -- they will remain jittery and prone to exploitation by nationalist extremists.

Resolving the status question will not only create the legal conditions for better economic development but will enable the Albanians to define their relations with the Serbs and other minorities in a calm, confident, and generous frame of mind, Koci stresses. He believes that as soon as the ethnic Albanian majority loses its fear of a return of Serbian rule, work can begin on constructing a state based on the civic principle, as has begun in Macedonia, however shakily.

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