In the late 1980s, Milosevic consolidated power on a platform of extreme nationalism. His efforts to centralize power in Belgrade put the Balkans on a path to war in which over 200,000 people would eventually be killed. In 1989, he forced amendments to the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution which eliminated the autonomy of Kosovo "inaugurating an era of spiraling human rights abuses against the Kosovar Albanian population," as detailed in war crimes documents at The Hague. All this led to the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1997 and fierce fighting between the KLA and Serb forces operating in Kosovo before NATO intervened in March 1999.
Since 1999, when the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1244 making Kosovo a U.N. protectorate, the goal has been to establish a stable, multi-ethnic democracy. Under 1244, UNMIK--the U.N. Interim Administrative Mission in Kosovo--supervises domestic affairs while KFOR--the 18,000-strong NATO-led Kosovo Protection Force--is tasked with creating a "secure environment" for the transition to full civilian administration of Kosovo.
Soon, the United Nations and members of the Kosovo Contact Group (the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Russia, and Italy) are expected to announce that Kosovo has made enough progress--four elections have been held, a constitutional framework drafted, and provisional government institutions erected--to warrant the start of "final status" talks. The outcome of these talks will determine if Kosovo becomes an independent nation, as the Kosovar Albanians demand and expect, or attains the status of "more than autonomy, less than independence," as Serbian President Boris Tadic frequently advocates in public appearances.
OFFICIALS IN BELGRADE have also been floating the idea of a partitioned Kosovo because, they say, full independence would provoke a nationalist reaction and suffocate Serbia's nascent democracy. Belgrade would absorb the Serb-dominated land north of the Ibar river (the majority of Serbs are also scattered in central and southern Kosovo) while the rest would become an independent state governed by Pristina. According to several Western diplomats, Belgrade has discouraged Kosovar Serb participation in elections and institutions in Pristina to bolster their case for partition.
Even so, partition won't happen. The United States opposes any partition, as does the European Union, on the grounds that a partition would spark even greater regional instability and reward the aggression of Milosevic. Furthermore, the State Department's Nicholas Burns testified to Congress that a partition would undermine the basic principle of a Kosovo "based on multi-ethnicity with full respect for human rights including the right of all refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes in safety."
Odds are that Kosovo will gain a sort of probationary independence. Full sovereignty--say within a few years--would be conditioned on, among other things, the return of Serbs who fled Kosovo since 1999 (the State Department estimates over 100,000 fled mainly due to Kosovar Albanian retribution while the United Nations believes about 13,000 have returned) and a demonstrated ability of local government officials to ensure freedom of movement throughout Kosovo. Any transition would also involve a continued international security presence for some time.
BUT MEETING THESE CONDITIONS WON'T BE EASY. Along with an unemployment rate of over 60 percent, ensuring freedom of movement in Kosovo remains the biggest failure of UNMIK and KFOR for the last six years.
A recent report, written by UNMIK chief Soren Jessen-Peterson of Denmark, cited the lack of freedom of movement as a major obstacle to further progress in Kosovo--a conclusion echoed by other international officials and one that is obvious to anyone traveling around Kosovo. If a Kosovar Albanian and Serb want to socialize, they generally do so out of public view. As many stated privately, talks in public raises the risk of being targeted by extremists who are not interested in multiethnic dialogue.
On a Wednesday in Lipljan, where about 450 Kosovar Albanians and 210 Serbs live, five Serb men sat down in a Serb home to talk about life there. "The economy doesn't exist for us," said one, who blamed the international community for their plight. Another revealed that "he talks with his Albanian neighbor in his backyard" but not on the street "where others can see"--that's too dangerous, he said. Asked if all Lipljan's Albanians were hostile, they collectively gestured no. One added that perhaps 1 in 10 Albanians are "hostile to us." Toward the end of the discussion, a Kosovar Albanian, a geography teacher who lives nearby, joined in. He agreed that ethnic relations are bad and blamed "Albanian politicians for not doing enough" to challenge the extremists who want the remaining Serbs to leave Kosovo.
A short distance from the Macedonian border is Prizren, a town where, at least on that day, you could spot children wearing clothing emblazoned with the letters "USA" (I should note that many Kosovar Albanians expressed pro-American sentiment in discussions with them). Outside a small coffee shop a middle-aged Serb said that the "majority of Albanians don't have ill will toward us. The problem is the radicals--the 10 percent who control politics." Later, speaking in the living room of her small home nearby, a Serb woman in her eighties said ethnic relations "were better" before Milosevic came to power and that "Albanians suffered quite a bit under Milosevic." Muzafri, a Kosovar Albanian who now works at a cafe in the center of Prizren, told the story of Serb forces entering his village in 1999 and giving everyone two hours to flee their homes. They joined the hundreds of thousands of other Kosovar Albanians ejected by Milosevic's forces. Asked if he would like the Serbs who still live in town to stay, he responded, "Sure, we should all live together."
ABOUT 60 KILOMETERS NORTHWEST of Prizren is Orahovac, which witnessed heavy fighting between Milosevic's forces and the KLA in 1998 and 1999. At the top of a narrow, sloping street that leads into the town's center is a crowded enclave of about 500 Serbs. They are protected by barbed wire and a handful of KFOR troops. At the lower end live Kosovo Albanians, who vastly outnumber the Serbs. In between is the so-called "buffer zone," which is lined with crumbling, burnt-out buildings. Just outside Orahovac is another Serb enclave of Velika Hoca, which has a fixed military checkpoint on the only road leading into it and is regularly patrolled by KFOR.
Many gravestones line the main road leading into the town of Decan, northwest of Orahovac, along the Albanian border. A May 2005 International Crisis Group report described Decan as a "tinderbox, full of angry armed groups, and isolated from the rest of Kosovo." According to the Louis Segnini, the local UNMIK head, Decan is the home of many "hardcore [KLA] fighters" from the 1990s who today are the town's "political hardliners." They "intimidate other Albanians" from socializing with Serbs, who live in enclaves on the edge of town. For example, every so often Segnini hosts a "sugar meeting" at the local UNMIK headquarters between local Serbs and Albanians to facilitate better relations. But when he suggests that they all go out to a restaurant down the street the Albanians get "very nervous" and decline.
In Mitrovica, a gritty, bustling town northeast of Pristina, the bridge spanning the Ibar acts as the "buffer zone" with a heavy U.N. and KFOR presence at both ends. In March 2004, Mitrovica was also the town which sparked two days of violence throughout Kosovo which left 19 dead, hundreds injured, hundreds of Serb houses burned, and 30 Orthodox churches destroyed along with 72 U.N. vehicles. KFOR was caught by surprise and did little to stop it. The United Nations believes Kosovar Albanian extremists orchestrated the violence to "destroy any ethnic integration," and officials in Belgrade point to the violence to discredit Kosovo's bid for independence. "The more I looked at what happened [in March 2004], the bigger the impact" the violence really had on our efforts, lamented UNMIK's Soren Jessen-Peterson. The International Crisis Group report concludes that "Both Kosovo Albanian extremists seeking to eject UNMIK, and those in Serbia who would prefer Kosovo to discredit itself . . . share an interest in provocation."
Whatever the outcome of the "final status" talks, the United States, the European Union, and NATO must remain engaged in Kosovo and not let the extremist minority win a victory over simple human decency.
Daniel McKivergan is deputy director of the Project for the New American Century.