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Kosovo: Jessen-Petersen's Departure Begins The Endgame

UNMIK head Soren Jessen-Petersen (file photo) (epa) Denmark's Soren Jessen-Petersen leaves Kosovo as head of the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) at the end of June. His successor is likely to be the last person in that post before the international community and Kosovar leaders agree on the details of how Kosovo will move toward independence.

Jessen-Petersen will probably be remembered by most Kosovar Albanians as the best leader of UNMIK during the transition from Serbian rule, which effectively ended with the departure of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces in June 1999, and the declaration of Kosovo's independence, the circumstances of which are likely to be clear before the end of 2006.

The End Of UNMIK

The international community has made it clear that Belgrade will not have a veto over Kosovo's future. Most commentators agree that Jessen-Petersen's successor will be the last person to head UNMIK, which has long since begun to hand over some of its functions to officials of the elected Kosovar government.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Jessen-Petersen did his homework relating to his job and did not consider himself bound to steer a middle course in every controversy that came along. It was during his term in office that the UN and the major international powers -- whether they said so in public or not -- came to accept that "political limbo" could not be continued indefinitely because it would compound the fears and frustrations of the province's 90 percent ethnic-Albanian majority and possibly lead to more violence like that which shook the province in March 2004. He also recognized that the only way forward was to move toward independence, albeit with strong guarantees for the Serbs and other minorities.

Serbs Battling A Lost Cause

His unambiguous views and his reputed closeness to some ethnic Albanian political leaders, such as Ramush Haradinaj of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), prompted some Serbian politicians to call for his resignation, but such tactics only served to underscore the weakness of the Serbian position. The local Serbs, whose future will ultimately lie with their Albanian neighbors in an independent state, by and large boycott Kosovo's growing institutions of self-government at the behest of Belgrade and thereby miss out on the opportunity to put their mark on the new state from the beginning.

Belgrade politicians, who have expected to face early elections for well over a year, are reluctant to say or do anything that voters might interpret as showing "weakness" regarding Kosovo. They thus waste time and energy over Kosovo, which some of them privately admit is "lost" anyway, that could be put to use in dealing with Serbia's real problems -- crime, poverty, corruption, and a democracy deficit. Some observers go one step further and suggest that the politicians deliberately draw voters' attention to the Kosovo issue in order to divert their gaze away from those same politicians' poor track record in improving the daily lot of ordinary Serbs.

Guaranteed Rights For Minorities

On June 20, Jessen-Petersen submitted his final report to the UN Security Council. He made it clear that the elected Kosovar institutions have made good progress toward implementing the international community's standards, particularly since Prime Minister Agim Ceku was nominated in March.

Jessen-Petersen noted that many members of the Serbian minority have cause for complaint but added that he hopes that their problems will be dealt with quickly. He also stressed that the Serbs should not consider themselves victims of deliberate oppression and repeated his call for them to take part in public life. He warned of the dangers inherent in the prolongation of the unclear political status, which, he argued, must be settled in keeping with the wishes of the majority while respecting the rights of the minority.

It will be incumbent on the ethnic Albanians to offer the Serbs fair treatment under the rule of law. If the Albanians fail to do so, they can expect difficulties with the international community. But the violent incidents that take place from time to time seem sporadic rather than planned, may be rooted in personal or criminal rather than in ethnic disputes, and could be, at least in some cases, engineered by Serbian extremists in order to maintain tensions and discredit the Kosovar government.

There are, however, few observers who expect many of the Serbian refugees and displaced persons to return to their old homes. While their numbers are uncertain, figures of around 235,000 often surface in the media, but Kosovar officials claim that the real number is lower.

Fifth Column?

The root of the problem is that the Albanians tend to distrust local Serbs in general because of the active role that many of them played in bringing Milosevic to power in the second half of the 1980s and in keeping him there. Perhaps more important, most Albanians believe that Milosevic's repressive campaign of 1998-99, which culminated in the "ethnic cleansing" of the Albanians in the spring of 1999, could not have been carried out without the active participation of local Serbs, both as combatants and as providers of "human intelligence" about their neighbors. Some German Balkan experts have drawn parallels with the Czech attitude at the end of World War II toward the Sudeten Germans, whom the Czechs regarded as an incorrigible Fifth Column, even though Kosovar officials are at pains to stress that local Serbs will enjoy full protection of the law.

A memorial to ethnic Albanian guerrillas killed during the 1998-99 fighting in Kosovo (epa file photo)

The local Serbs, for their part, remain fearful. Violent incidents against Serbs have contributed to this tense climate, particularly when those killed or injured are the very young or very old. It should be recalled that in launching his wars in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s, Milosevic was able to exploit the fears of local Serbs there who refused to accept that they might possibly live safely and peacefully as a minority in a state in which others constituted the majority. The Serbs of Kosovo today are no less worried than were the Serbs of Krajina in 1990, even if they are not seriously planning to arm themselves or expecting military help from Belgrade. Meanwhile, most local Serbian politicians have displayed more skill in criticizing and complaining that in providing leadership or offering constructive programs.

As Jessen-Petersen's mandate comes to its end, Kosovo moves toward a clarification of its final status. Most international commentators point out that anything short of independence, however qualified, is simply unrealistic.

As Montenegro celebrates its newly won statehood, and Serbia finds itself in growing international disrepute over its failure to arrest and extradite former Bosnian Serb commander General Ratko Mladic, Kosovo's independence probably seems even more realistic that it did at the start of 2006.

Spotlight On Kosovo

Spotlight On Kosovo

THE WORLD'S NEWEST NATION? The region of Kosovo has a population of more than 2 million, some 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians. It was one of the poorest regions in the former Yugoslavia, but has considerable mineral wealth and an enterprising population, many of whom work abroad but keep close contact with Kosovo. All ethnic Albanian political parties seek independence on the principles of self-determination and majority rule. They feel that Serbia lost its historically based claim to what was its autonomous province under the 1974 constitution by revoking that autonomy in the late 1980s and then conducting a crackdown in 1999 that forced some 850,000 people to flee their homes.

Since NATO's intervention that year to stop the expulsions, Kosovo has been under a UN administration (UNMIK). The UN has begun to gradually transfer functions to elected Kosovar institutions. The primary Serbian concerns are physical safety for the local Serbian minority, a secure return for the tens of thousands of Serbian displaced persons, and protection for historic Serbian religious buildings. The main problems affecting all Kosovars, however, are economic. Until Kosovo's final status is clarified and new legislation passed and enforced, it will not be able to attract the investment it needs to provide jobs for its population, which is one of the youngest and fastest growing in Europe. Prosperity is widely seen as the key to political stability and interethnic coexistence in Kosovo, as is the case in much of Southeastern Europe.

For an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of developments in the disputed region of KOSOVO, click here.