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Yugoslavia: Analysis -- Possible Split Looms Between UN, Kosovar Albanians

The international community and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority are on a potential collision course. The main issue that divides them is the same one as in the past -- namely, whether Kosovo's future is as an autonomous part of Serbia or as an entity fully independent of Belgrade.

Pristina, 4 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Since early this year when they signed a peace plan, Kosovar Albanians and Western governments have largely been in accord. Above all, they were united in working to reverse Belgrade's campaign to force Kosovar Albanians to flee. They were also united in demanding the withdrawal of all Serb forces from Kosovo.

But now, after NATO's 11-week bombing campaign, their common aims have largely been achieved and strains are beginning to appear. The UN administration in Kosovo (UNMIK), backed by a NATO-led peacekeeping force, is attempting to consolidate its authority. That, at times, puts it at odds with the ascendant political force in the province: the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) under Hashim Thaci. Thaci has, at least for now, usurped the leading position of moderate leader Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).

The UN is insisting that it is the highest authority in the province. But Thaci, in an interview with RFE/RL, refused to acknowledge UNMIK has that role. He would say only his interim government is cooperating with the UN.

Cooperation, at present, suits the needs of both sides. From the perspective of Kosovar Albanians, there remains a pressing need for foreign assistance to help in rebuilding. What is more, it is the 40,000-strong NATO-led force that is the guarantor of Kosovo's newfound freedom from Belgrade.

From the perspective of international officials, there is also a desire to maintain a positive relationship with the UCK. It still has arms and many followers and thus retains the capacity to be a force either for good or ill.

International officials want very much to see the UCK evolve into a demilitarized player that will assist in ending ethnic strife and in building stable democratic institutions.

That brings up the issue of elections. Kosovar Albanians who have long sought independence are not likely to sit endlessly under international administration. But international officials are refusing to give even an approximate date for elections to political bodies in Kosovo. Bernard Kouchner was asked at a recent press conference about the timing:

"According to my humble opinion, we must be quick. That is not to say three months, six months, nine months, one year, I do not know. But it must be quick."

In fact, officials with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been given the task of organizing elections, tell RFE/RL that 18 months is probably the earliest possible date for a vote. They say that two years may be more realistic. Like Kouchner, they cite the difficult task of compiling voter lists. Many thousands of Kosovar Albanians were stripped of their identification papers as they fled Serb forces earlier this year.

Some Kosovar Albanian observers have told our correspondent that a long delay before elections would be a good thing. They say it is vital to first create basic security in the province and to allow for the establishment of a free and active press. Some suggest it might also allow for the emergence of a political force that could compete with the UCK -- if not a revitalized LDK then another party or bloc. But the longer the UN administration remains, the more likely it is that at least some Kosovar Albanians will openly protest its presence. Some are already referring to it, only somewhat jokingly, as an "occupation."

There is a possible development outside Kosovo that would present the international community with its biggest potential dilemma in the province. Ironically, it is the possibility that Serbia may democratize.

Sounds from an opposition demonstration in the Serbian town of Leskovac late last week.

When NATO undertook to force a Serbian military withdrawal from Kosovo, it was intervening on what it recognized to be the territory of Serbia because it judged the actions of its authoritarian regime to be reprehensible.

If Serbia democratizes while the international community still maintains its position that Kosovo is part of Serbia, the world will face two bad options. It could refuse to return the province to Serbia, and thus disregard the sovereignty of a democratic state. Or it could support returning Kosovo to Belgrade, in which case Kosovar Albanians might well rebel, even if promised considerable autonomy.

Broad autonomy might have won acceptance before March 1998, when the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic began open warfare against Kosovar Albanian civilians. But the blood that has been spilled since then makes anything less than full separation from Serbia unacceptable to Kosovar Albanians.

What is more, when Kosovar Albanians are asked whether they feel any affinity for the struggle of the democratic opposition in Serbia, they express little. Some point out that two of the most prominent opposition leaders -- Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic -- have in the past been outspoken Serbian nationalists when it came to Kosovo.

So long as Serbia remains undemocratic, it will spare the international community this particular dilemma. If it remains undemocratic long enough, the international community may even reverse its stance on sovereignty. That would then leave Kosovar Albanians with a choice of either independence or union with Albania.

The choice prompts ambiguous feelings among at least some Kosovar Albanians. One influential journalist recently told our correspondent that his heart favors union with Albania, but his head does not.

People in the province are well aware of the troubles that have befallen Albania since 1997. That is when several dubious investment schemes collapsed, leading to the fall of the government, the disintegration of the military, and widespread violence. It took international intervention to restore order. And crime in Albania remains rampant.

Kosovo has its own problems but Kosovars can blame their problems on Belgrade. It is difficult for the people of Albania to blame anyone but themselves.

Kosovars are thus likely to view union with Albania skeptically until the latter makes significant and sustained progress on political stability and economic growth.