Kosovo: Countdown to independence?
Notwithstanding the views of local Serbs, the signs are that talks on the future of Kosovo due to begin on Monday will almost certainly lead to some form of independence.Tim Judah Source: BIRN Serbia
Drive ten minutes from Kosovo's capital of Pristina and it feels like you are in a different world, or at least a different country. Suddenly, one language, one culture and even one religion have vanished. The music, car number plates, documents and money are all different. Welcome to Gracanica.
Ever since the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999, Serbs have retreated into small enclaves across the province and an area in the north which abuts Serbia.
Most Serbs do not speak Albanian and they remain fiercely loyal to Serbia. They continue to use Serbian Dinars – the rest of Kosovo uses the euro – and they carry Serbian documents, while Kosovo's 1.8 million or so ethnic Albanians carry ones issued by the United Nations.
Gracanica, little more than a village, is centred around a magnificent medieval Orthodox church. Most Kosovo Albanians are Muslims. Symbolically, however, the gap between these two people is represented by their mobile phone networks.
Serbs talk to each other on a Serbian network. Because Kosovo is not (yet) an independent country, the Kosovo Albanian equivalent borrows the international prefix of Monaco. So, to talk to one another, a Serb and Kosovo Albanian must make an international call, even if they are close enough to see one another.
Over the last few weeks the opportunities to do even that have been diminishing. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian-run government has declared that the Serbian network is illegal and its transmitters are being turned off. This has come as a shock to the 100,000 or so Serbs that remain in Kosovo, but less of a shock than the message that was delivered recently by John Sawers, the political director of the British foreign office.
Meeting Kosovo Serb leaders on February 6 he told them, in unusually undiplomatic language, that the Contact Group, the main foreign powers that deal with the region, including Britain, France, the United States and Russia, had decided that Kosovo would soon be independent.
At the talks on Kosovo's future which begin on Monday in Vienna under the supervision of former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, he said, they and Serbia would have to fight hard for a good deal on autonomy and minority rights.
Such news should not have come as a surprise. After all, the messages had been clear for months. The Contact Group had already said that the solution for Kosovo had to satisfy the will of its people – and well over 90 per cent are ethnic Albanians who want nothing less than independence.
But, ever since 1999, Serbs in Gracanica and elsewhere appear to have lived in a dreamland, fed by stories from Belgrade, in which they expected that one day the Serbian flag would once more fly over Kosovo.
Vojislav Vitkovic is a teacher in Gracanica. "It was an extreme shock," he says, adding that discrimination against Serbs in Kosovo is such that, to his mind, the province "is a hypocrisy and not a democracy".
Asked if he will leave, if and when Kosovo becomes independent, he says that like his friends he has adopted a "wait and see" policy. He added that 70 per cent of Kosovo Serbs still do not believe that independence will happen.
Rada Trajkovic, a local Serb leader who was at the meeting with Sawers, says that it was a stormy event, but that it was not the first time a foreign emissary had told them that independence was coming. Why then had she not told her people this? "Because I am not a servant of the Serbian government."
"If the status of Kosovo has already been decided," she says, "what are we supposed to negotiate? Are we supposed to go, just to see how beautiful Ahtisaari is? "
The mood here is best summed up by Zivojin Rakocevic, the editor of the local radio station, who declares that everyone is "fatally depressed".
But they are clearly not giving up yet. In the restaurant where we meet we overhear a man who has come from Serbia lecturing local Serbian journalists. He is discussing bringing in broadcast transmission equipment to install here to create or bolster networks for Serbian radio or television to cover all the areas where Serbs live.
Down in Pristina the mood, unsurprisingly, is upbeat. Kosovo's president, Ibrahim Rugova died last month and coach loads of mourners are still coming to have their photo taken behind his tomb. But, contrary to expectations, the presidential succession was smooth.
Now says Ylber Hysa, an opposition deputy who is a member of the political group of the status talks team, minds are turning to the post-independence period. He says that local institutions need to be solidified because until now the province has been run on the basis of "permanent crisis management" and, as the UN mission leaves Kosovo, that needs to change.
Kosovo has huge economic problems, a chronic power shortage, high unemployment and weak rule of law. But all surveys have shown that Kosovo's young population is one of the most optimistic in Europe. And, with independence in sight, young people are even more hopeful. What is important now, says one student who asked to remain anonymous is just knowing, "that Serbia is off our backs for good."
But is it? In the wake of Sawers’s declarations, Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of Serbia's nationalist Radical Party, has declared that he and Serbia's premier Vojislav Kostunica, have agreed that if Kosovo gets independence then it should be declared "occupied territory".
If that happens, then Serbia will, in effect, rip up its application forms for NATO and the European Union and return to being an embittered pariah of Europe. In any settlement, NATO troops will stay in Kosovo and the EU will take a role in helping to run it. Under those circumstances, with Serbia publicly committed to reconquering Kosovo, in which NATO and the EU would be part of the occupation forces, it would hardly be realistic to expect to continue the process of joining those organisations at the same time.
Such a policy might however be popular in Serbia and might even lead to the election of the Radicals as the next government. But the attitude of western diplomats is far from sympathetic. What if independence led to a Radical government in Serbia? "So what?" answers a diplomat close to the talks process in Vienna.
Tim Judah is a leading Balkan commentator and the author of "The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia" and "Kosovo: War and Revenge", both published by Yale University Press. Balkan Insight is BIRN’s internet publication.