Kosovo: President Says 'We Won't Be Hostage To Any Country'In Kosovo, the question is no longer if the province will declare independence, but when. In an interview with RFE/RL Pristina bureau chief Arbana Vidishiqi, Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu says no date has been fixed. But, he insists, "the process needs to come to an end as soon as possible."
Sejdiu, attending a ceremonial tree-lighting ceremony this week in the provincial capital, said Kosovo was "only a few days away" from a declaration of independence.
The Kosovo leader has refused to pinpoint a date, and says he will only proceed in coordination with Western supporters.
On other matters, however, he has been crystal clear. No more negotiations -- no matter the consequences. The December 10 deadline set by the United Nations for resolving Kosovo's status has come and gone, and Pristina has firmly rejected any further dialogue on the issue with Serbia.
"Kosovo won't accept additional talks," Sejdiu told RFE/RL. Belgrade and its supporters in Moscow and some EU capitals may balk, he added, but for Kosovo, "the process is over."
"We won't be hostage to any country with a different view on this issue," Sejdiu said. "Let's take Greek Cyprus, for example, which has claimed it won't support Kosovo's independence. I think it will come to a rational resolution; Cyprus will remember that it is acting as just one part of an important group of countries that serves as the motor behind all developments in Europe. But if it [Cyprus] insists on maintaining its current position, we can't be hampered by it."
Cyprus, which has failed to resolve a dispute between its own dominant Greek majority and Turkish minority, is believed to be the last EU member to be openly skeptical of independence for Kosovo. EU diplomats, however, believe Cyprus will limit its dissent.
New Year, New Country?
Kosovo officials have strongly hinted that an independence declaration will come in the first few months of 2008.
The 56-year-old Sejdiu, who has served as Kosovo's president since early 2006, says the declaration will come once the ethnic-Albanian majority province has fully prepared its legislation and governing structures for the change.
He is also waiting for the results of next week's meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which is due to discuss a report on the status issue by negotiators from the EU, Russia, and the United States.
"All the preparations we're making now are connected to the tasks Kosovo has to accomplish related to its constitutional and legal infrastructure," Sejdiu said. "The issue, of course, is also connected to the general will of the international community to quickly and positively recognize Kosovo's independence. We think there will be more dynamic developments, in terms of Security Council recommendations, after it meets on December 19th."
Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999, when NATO bombed Serb forces in order to end a campaign against separatist ethnic Albanians. Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2 million residents are ethnic Albanians; their drive for independence has prompted warnings from minority Serbs -- who live mainly in northern Kosovo -- that they themselves will attempt to secede.
Sejdiu concedes mending ties with Kosovo Serbs "won't be easy." "Time will be needed to encourage them. This will be the responsibility of the Albanian majority, as well as of institutions and international mechanisms," he said.
"Coordinated steps are necessary for [Kosovo Serbs] to be able to live their own lives, to come out from that feeling of self-isolation and nonintegration that is a direct consequence of pressure coming from Belgrade. The north is a part of Kosovo, a part of its complete territorial integrity; and as such, it is untouchable in the sense of legislative and international protection," Sejdiu said.
EU leaders have attempted to soften Belgrade's resistance to an independent Kosovo by indicating they are prepared, for the first time, to formally offer Serbia the prospect of candidate membership.
It's unclear if Belgrade will be mollified by such a sweetener. The EU, eager to maintain stability in the Balkans, is also offering Kosovo a "clear European perspective" -- meaning Pristina, too, will eventually be brought into membership talks.
Authorities in Belgrade have threatened to respond to a Kosovo declaration of independence with everything from economic sanctions and energy cutoffs to armed conflict.
Asked about the possible consequences for Kosovo, Sejdiu said a combination of public determination and NATO backing mean Kosovo is prepared for anything.
"Kosovo can live without the economic links it currently has with Serbia," he said. "Serbia is trying to test our sustainability; whether we'll have the alternative channels and internal forces needed to resist whatever blockade Serbia imposes. We're ready."
Sejdiu continued, "The citizens of Kosovo know that you can't put a price on independence. And if Serbia tries to use violence in Kosovo, through military or intelligence pressure, who will it have to confront? NATO forces in Kosovo have given strong guarantees that they will not allow any use of violence."
Many countries outside the Balkans are looking anxiously to the Kosovo case as a template for how their own separatist conflicts may ultimately be resolved -- or dissolve into chaos. (The EU insists Kosovo is a "sui generis" case that sets no precedent for other breakaway regions.)
Sejdu says he is certain that rumors of violence will not mar Kosovo's final steps toward Western-backed independence -- and says Kosovo citizens play a "special role" in this.
"I think all this is a part of the propaganda used by those who oppose Kosovo's independence," he said. "This is done firstly to frighten Kosovo; and secondly to frighten international players that the worst will happen. For us, it is important to maintain the current calmness, and the maturity of our citizens and institutions as well."
Russia: The Milosevic Mold
Such crass propaganda is just one of many similarities between the authoritarian regimes of Milosevic and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Both leaders began their rule by establishing iron control over the media, while carefully leaving the small B92 radio station in Belgrade and Russia's Ekho Moskvy in order to create an illusion of media freedom. But for the majority, freedom of the press was reduced to freedom to praise the leader.
Milosevic secured his position by sidelining his predecessor, Ivan Stambolic, who was later killed by a professional assassin, possibly at Milosevic's behest. Likewise, Putin has turned his sights on many of those who contributed to his rise to power, particularly former oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whom he hounded out of the country and stripped of his lucrative business interests in Russia.
Both Milosevic and Putin used the crushing of separatist movements -- in Kosovo and Chechnya -- to boost their popularity. But while Kosovo now seems on the verge of gaining independence thanks to strong international support, a brutal strongman and a mafia-type regime have been installed in Chechnya to keep a lid on the simmering conflict there.
The two leaders also displayed a profound understanding of the techniques of staying in power by manipulating both their supporters and their opponents. In Milosevic's Serbia, the Yugoslav Union of Leftists (headed by Milosevic's wife) was created to siphon off support from the left, while the Serbian Radical Party was set up to take votes from the right.
Putin has followed the same pattern -- stamping out real opposition parties and creating controlled front organizations to weaken the Communist Party and the liberal-democratic opposition. A Just Russia, Civic Force, and Great Russia were all created by the Kremlin to confuse voters from, respectively, the left, center, and right of the political spectrum. All these parties in both countries benefited from the state's control of the media, especially television.
At the recent parliamentary elections in Russia, Putin's supporters managed to achieve a 104 percent turnout in Mordovia. By coincidence or not, Milosevic's supporters were equally enthusiastic -- they managed to reach exactly the same figure in one Serbian municipality.
Strong Nationalism, Weak Institutions
Neither Milosevic nor Putin espoused a particular ideology beyond a vague sort of statist nationalism. Milosevic was the leader of the Serbs, not of Serbia. By the same token, Putin acts as the leader of the Russians, rather than as the head of the multiethnic Russian Federation. Under both leaders, nationalism grew steadily, often with ugly manifestations.
Nor did either leader do much to build the complex institutions needed for a modern state. In both states, to take just the most glaring example, the legislature was completely marginalized and subordinated to the executive branch -- that is, to Milosevic and Putin personally.
As a result of years of stage-managed elections and rubber stamping, Russians have come to rate parliament as the least-powerful political institution in the country, according to a recent Levada Center poll. Another poll by the same research agency found that more than one-third of Russians believe Russia does not need a legislature at all.
Power has been personalized under Putin just as it was under Milosevic, and the structure described in both countries' constitutions was de facto replaced by a hidden power structure centered on the two leaders. When Milosevic switched positions, power stayed with him; Putin too is set to retain real power even after his second presidential term ends next year. He has just been asked to take the prime minister's position.
Other domestic similarities between Milosevic and Putin include the manipulation of youth groups, the promotion of Orthodox Christianity as part of their nationalist vision, co-opting a loyal group of rich businesspeople to press the state's political goals by "commercial" means, and even, in some cases, resorting to criminal means, including murder, to achieve political ends.
They are also both belligerent and divisive figures on the international stage. Milosevic was skilled at exploiting divisions within the European Union and manipulating unpopular aspects of U.S. foreign policy for his own ends. Putin has followed this example perfectly.
The prime-time "special report" aired in September asserted that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was nothing but a bid to steal that country's oil, adding that now Washington has set itself the goal of dismembering Russia and taking control of its natural resources. Russian Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev similarly told a mass-market weekly two months ago that the United States and Great Britain are waging a concerted campaign to weaken Russia, using the security services of Poland, Georgia, and the Baltic states.
History offers few examples of authoritarian rulers who have voluntarily transformed their countries into democracies, although many have claimed to be doing so. A regime that bases its support on the fear of external enemies and their purported domestic agents inevitably comes to rely on the security services, the army, and the police. Democratic institutions and all manifestations of pluralism wither and disappear.
And history further shows that releasing the genie of nationalism is far easier than putting it back in the bottle. The legacies of Milosevic's nationalistic campaigns are still being felt in the Balkans. Last week, more than a million people in Serbia signed a request to have live television coverage of the trial of Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian radical nationalist, at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. It is daunting to think what the ultimate consequences of Putin's Great Russianism might be. Russian commentator Aleksei Pankin predicted recently that Putin's legacy of stability and authoritarianism will last for five or 10 years. "After that, the Russian people will probably grow tired of stability once again and will try -- as they did in 1917 and 1992 -- to build paradise on Earth."