Nineteen ninety nine was the year the growing crisis in the Serbian province of Kosovo finally exploded in violence, destruction and a mass movement of populations. In this last of four reviews of the year in Kosovo, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks back on the shaky peace that has been established since the arrival of NATO-led forces more than six months ago.
Prague, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The arrival of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo in mid-June meant that for the first time in living memory, Kosovar Albanians became masters in their own home, free to speak their minds, free to live their lives as they saw fit, free to start-up businesses.
NATO divided Kosovo into a series of occupation zones. The British occupied the center of the province including Pristina, the U.S. occupied the southeast -- the main logistical approach from Macedonia, the Germans took the southwest around Prizren, the Italians took the northwest around Peja and the French took the north around Mitrovica where a relatively large number of Serb residents remained. The Russians were spread out in several zones.
Serbs in Mitrovica rapidly took advantage of French KFOR unpreparedness and divided the city into Serb and Albanian halves. French KFOR troops merely reinforced the division of the city by erecting concrete barricades and barbed wire fences. In stark contrast to U.S., British or German KFOR patrols, the French remained passive, standing by as Serbs threatened Albanians trying to return to their homes across the Ibri river which divides the city.
By late June, French Colonel Claude Vicaire had some explaining to do to skeptical reporters.
"We should not panic people. We are trying to reduce the tension here. I don't want any provocation."
Local Albanian residents, such as Gani Hajrizi, were not impressed.
"There is an absence of work among the French soldiers. The Serbs in the northern part of town are armed and they are dominating that part. They are threatening the Albanians. I think the KFOR peacekeepers have not reached the goal of their mission here, which is to bring security to all people no matter what part of town they live in."
Meanwhile, Milosevic faced a growing wave of demonstrations across Serbia by displaced Kosovar Serbs, frustrated army reservists and their families. But the protests failed to grow sufficiently to threaten Milosevic's position. The opposition mayor of Serbia's third largest city, Nis, Zoran Zivkovic of the Alliance for Change, visited Pristina in early July. There, he met with UN officials and attempted a rally Kosovo's remaining Serbs against Milosevic, but had little success. Zivkovic predicted that Milosevic's regime would fall by early autumn.
"No person in his right mind in Serbia can justify any of the crimes that happen anywhere in the world, and Kosovo is no exception to the rule."
Although Zivkovic's condemnation of Serb atrocities failed to attract support from Kosovo's Serbs, the international community, particularly the EU, did listen to him and in a gesture of support eventually supplied Nis and nearby Pirot with home heating oil.
Zivkovic's charismatic opposition colleague, Zoran Djindjic, resorted to populist appeals but with little success. He was heckled when he visited embattled Kosovo Serbs at Gracanica and had only marginally more success in Serbia as at this rally in Prokuplje.
"Nothing can justify to us what the NATO pact did. But what can we do or change? We cannot remove NATO. But today we can organize meetings and we can remove our president usurper."
Djindjic pledged to leave politics by the end of the year if he failed to unseat Milosevic and it would now appear that Zivkovic is in line to succeed Djindjic as the head of the Alliance for Change.
Meanwhile, not only did most of Kosovo's Serbs and Montenegrins flee, some loaded down not only with their own belongings but also with the valuables they took during the war from their Albanian neighbors. Roma (Gypsies), Bosniaks, Gorans and Croats also fled the province in what proved to be a justified fear of retribution by members of the province's Albanian majority. One Kosovo Serb leader who remained was Momcilo Trajkovic.
"After more than 20 days of KFOR's presence in Kosovo, we have an exodus of Serbs, crimes, an expulsion of Serbs, looting, torching of houses, kidnappings, burning of churches. These days we can see a systematic ethnic cleansing of Serbs, for example in Pristina. We think that the in international community must take responsibility for that, especially KFOR, whose forces despite their efforts, they have been unsuccessful in halting this tragedy".
To the frustration of the international community, the torchings, kidnappings and murders of Kosovo Serbs have continued during the last six month.
Moderate Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova briefly returned to Kosovo from temporary exile in France on July 15. But the reaction was muted for two reasons. Rugova had been comprised during the war by shaking hands with Milosevic and signing a document with him. Rugova later renounced his wartime visits to Belgrade on the grounds that he had been under house arrest. Rugova was surpassed in popularity by the young UCK leader Hashim Thaci, who took credit for participating in the defeat of the Serbs and pledged to block a future Serb presence in the province. Back in Kosovo, after spending most of the war in exile in Albania, Thaci oversaw the demilitarization of the UCK and established his own political party, the Peoples Democratic Party of Kosovo (PPDK).
"Of course, Kosovo belongs to the Kosovars. But we respect the decisions of the international community and we are helping each other. The interim government of Kosovo will function until the next free elections."
But Thaci insisted to RFE/RL that his interim government established in exile in Albania rather than the UN civil administration, UNMIK, would be the leading authority in Kosovo.
The NATO-led occupation of Kosovo by 42,500 peace keepers and the gradual establishment of UNMIK did little initially to dampen the Albanians' spirits. But a severe shortage of UN civilian police, at present only 1,900 have arrived out of a total requested force of 6,000, has enabled anarchy and organized crime to blossom. The murder rate has been up and down in recent months but this month it is still over 20 murders a week.
Nevertheless, NATO and the UN firmly believe Kosovar Albanians should count their blessings and reign in their urge for revenge.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, speaking at the NATO foreign minister's meeting in Brussels a few days ago, summed up the international community's success in Kosovo.
"And let those who criticize the international community's accomplishments in Kosovo today just remember the situation we inherited only six months ago. For the overwhelming majority of the people of Kosovo, life is now better and there is real hope for the future. But we'll also be looking at the challenges we still face, including creating a secure environment for all citizens of Kosovo, establishing the Kosovo Protection Corps, funding the reconstruction efforts, and KFORs support for other international organizations."
The same day, Dec. 15, Thaci, Rugova, and Rexhep Qosja of the United Democratic Movement (LBD) signed a landmark agreement to share the provisional management of Kosovo with the UNMIK until elections next year. Kosovo's Serb community, viewing the deal as a UN sell-out to the Kosovo Albanians, declined to appoint a delegate.
Under the agreement, the head of UNMIK, Bernard Kouchner, retains executive and legislative authority over the council and Thaci's interim government and Rugova's presidency cease to exist. But Rugova tried to reinterpret the agreement, declaring he would remain president of Kosovo until new elections.
Thaci immediately accused Rugova of undermining the basic principles of the deal, which stipulate that local leaders must abandon previous government structures and titles.
"According to what Rugova said, this agreement was valid for only three minutes. But the moment we signed the agreement, Kosovo ceased to have a president or a prime minister."
Thaci was ebullient and Rugova appeared frustrated and looked away as he limply shook Thaci's hand.
As the year comes to a close, some 300,000 Kosovar Albanians are homeless, 50,000 houses have been destroyed and 60,000 damaged, and well over 100,000 Serbs have fled the province. Over 400 murders have been committed in the six months since NATO's arrival -- one third of the victims Serb, a third Albanian and the rest mainly Roma -- still a tiny fraction of the killings committed by the Serbs during the previous 11 weeks.
Lawlessness remains the biggest threat for the province's stability. And independence -- a common goal of Rugova and Thaci -- is looking an increasingly likely prospect for the long term -- much to the chagrin of most Serbs.