As 2002 draws to a close, RFE/RL's Kosovo Unit has asked three leading personalities to give their views on the most pressing issues facing Kosovo, including the return of displaced persons and the future status of the international protectorate.
Prague, 30 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kosovo's final status is a hot potato that no one, except for the province's Albanian majority, seems to have any desire to deal with.
The international community's chief administrator for the province, Michael Steiner, has blocked attempts by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian lawmakers to declare independence. He insists it is still too early to discuss the province's future status. "On the status question, we have done nothing this year because it is not [yet] time to deal with this status because, as you know, I am saying 'standards before status.' That means that before you can solve the formal issue, the most difficult issue, you need to create the preconditions," Steiner said.
Steiner said the preconditions are freedom of movement in Kosovo; a return of more than 100,000 displaced Serbs and other minorities, mainly Roma and Bosniaks; and acceptance by the Albanian majority of their share of responsibility for the fate of the smaller ethnic communities.
In addition, Steiner said, the smaller communities, "especially the Serbian community...must correct their position on the reality of Kosovo."
De facto, Kosovo is no longer a part of Yugoslavia, although, de jure, it is recognized as such by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244.
Other preconditions for resolving the status issue, Steiner said, are "functioning institutions and a reliable legal system" allowing for "substantial self-governance." Once these changes have been made, he said, progress on the status question can begin. "It is also important how the [status] question is solved. It will only be solved first through a dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, not by unilateral steps, be it by Belgrade, as was attempted in the [Serbian-Montenegrin] constitutional preamble, or by Pristina. None of the parties has the right to unilaterally decide this issue. None of the parties has a veto. In the end, it will be decided by the Security Council of the United Nations. But one thing is clear: We are not there yet," Steiner said.
Steiner said addressing the status issue will only be possible once the international community is really satisfied that the "reality on the ground" has changed sufficiently, including the return of displaced persons. "Until last year, we had more people leaving Kosovo than coming back. Now, this year, for the first time, we had a reversal of that trend. We have more people -- minority members -- coming back to Kosovo, and that is quite something. That shows that even if the situation is difficult, you can reverse the trend if you do it right and if you have an approach which is fit to the needs and the aspirations of people," Steiner said.
Kosovo's Albanians generally suspect the international community of foot-dragging on the status issue and of placing undue emphasis on the return of Serbs while failing to adequately respond to Albanian calls for answers about the fate of missing persons, mainly civilians, from the fighting in 1998-99.
Kosovo's elected president, Ibrahim Rugova, has limited powers as the titular head of state of an international protectorate. He said he wants the international community to enable the province to gain independence as quickly as possible. "As you know, I insist that the independence of Kosovo should be accepted right off by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations, which should take the formal step of recognition. There are different opinions about whether to discuss once again the questions of status and the independence of Kosovo. But as you know, we already had this discussion in Paris [in 1999], but the other side [Yugoslavia under former President Slobodan Milosevic] didn't accept it and was punished for that. Afterward, NATO intervened, and in the last 3 1/2 years a new situation has arisen in Kosovo, a new reality and progress. These are the preconditions for immediate recognition of independence," Rugova said.
Rugova objects to the international community's insistence on making independence the final goal. "Now at the present time, the administrator, Steiner, has reduced the [preconditions for discussing the status issue] to five or six points, and de facto all of these are issues that we have been working on for the past 3 1/2 years. I think that as a first step there should be recognition of the independence of Kosovo. Or, if we use the same terms they [at the UN] are using, 'standards before status,' the UN mission in Kosovo should continue in a reduced form. And as far as NATO is concerned, NATO will need to have military bases [in Kosovo] forever, because we will be a member of NATO and the EU, and NATO will look after Kosovo's security and, of course, we should do our part to take responsibility for the security of the country," Rugova said.
Serbia's deputy prime minister for Kosovo and South Serbian affairs, Nebojsa Covic, recently remarked that he expects the status issue to get on the agenda in 2004. But Rugova said this is too late. "I think [independence] should be as soon as possible, today or tomorrow, right away. But there is some speculation that a discussion will begin next year or perhaps later, but I consider this as well-meant speculation. However, the most important thing is that others are talking about this issue, that Kosovo should be accepted as an international subject. This is a positive sign despite all the speculation," Covic said.
In contrast to Rugova, the Albanian world's leading writer, Ismail Kadare, who divides his time between Paris and Tirana, told RFE/RL that what is needed now is tolerance. "The Albanian nation should be ready to build bridges of friendship with our neighbors in the Balkans. It's not a question of courtesy or being polite -- we should not do it because Europe or the West expects us to. We should understand that it is for our own good and for overall peace in the Balkans. Albanians should be prepared to develop a friendship with the other peoples of the Balkans, because that is the future of our life in Europe. We can't have a future in Europe without friendship and harmony [with our Balkan neighbors]. But that doesn't mean that Albanians should forget the unforgettable or denigrate their history," Kadare said.
Kadare said friendship and memories of the past are two separate issues. He said Kosovar Albanians should stress what happened to them under Serbian rule. But he said this is not the time for either revenge or divisions; rather, it is for building both bridges of communication and monuments to the tragedies that occurred in Kosovo in 1998-99.
(Ana Maria Repic conducted the interview with Michael Steiner. Rahman Pacarizi conducted the interview with Ibrahim Rugova. Iliriana Bajo conducted the interview with Ismail Kadare.)