Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Broad Autonomy Vs Independence

Albanians must accept that no solution is possible without the consent of Serbia - and the most that Belgrade can offer is broad autonomy.

Kosovo is, beyond doubt, the most difficult problem that the Balkans and Europe face today. Ethnic tolerance has vanished, discrimination has become part of daily life and violence goes unpunished and is seen as politically legitimate.

The solution to the Kosovo problem requires an approach that is phased, unbiased and innovative, in congruence with the need to suppress growing anti-European trends in the province.

It is also necessary to introduce and establish what is still missing: political responsibility, the rule of law, functional democratic institutions and in consequence of all of those, the application of human, civil and property rights to all citizens, including Serbs.

For six years now, with minor exceptions, the Kosovo Serbs have been exposed to constant harassment, deprived of basic human rights, isolated inside enclaves and denied freedom of movement and the right to work or use their own property, most of which has been usurped, destroyed or burned down.

With the exception of the north of Mitrovica, where Serbs are the majority, Serb children in Kosovo lack the basic conditions for normal life. They are not free to move around and have to be escorted to school by KFOR soldiers, there to protect them from frequent attacks, insults and harassment not only from Albanian extremists but their very neighbours.

In spite of the significant international military presence, more than 1,300 Serbs have been killed in ethnically motivated crimes over the last six years and another 1,300 are listed as missing. More than 250,000 Serbs and other ethnic communities, mostly Roma, Bosniaks and Jews, live in other parts of Serbia or Montenegro as displaced persons without jobs and a secure future. Less than one per cent of those have returned over the past six years, owing to the quiet but efficient resistance of both the Albanian interim institutions and the Albanian population, which refuses to accept the return of displaced persons to their homes.

More than 150 Serbian churches and monasteries have been burned or torn down. In spite of UNMIK’s efforts, almost none of the offenders who committed the murders, the destruction of property, the burning of churches and monasteries and the attacks on children and civilians, have been arrested, tried or adequately punished.

The generally negative character of these post-war trends, in which the only positive elements were those pertaining to the Albanian majority, was aggravated by the March 17, 2004 riots. In only two days, more than 4,000 Serbs living in enclaves surrounded by Albanians were forced from their homes, while 35 churches were burned down, 14 in Prizren alone. Hundreds of houses, schools and hospitals were destroyed, or heavily damaged.

Quite simply, the extremists did everything they could to make it impossible for Serbs to remain in areas where they were in a minority, at the same time inappropriately justifying the surge of violence that struck like a tsunami as a consequence of Albanian social frustration and the province's unresolved status.

Only under international pressure did the Albanians in Kosovo’s interim institutions unwillingly condemn the violence. It is true that there have been fewer violent acts against Serbs over the past few months, but this is only because the time for assessing the attainment of UN imposed standards is nearing.

The above is confirmed by UNMIK documents and clearly indicates that none of the standards imposed as a prerequisite for the opening of negotiations on status have been attained.

Kosovo remains hopelessly far from basic European standards and the Copenhagen criteria, comprising the rule of law, democratic order, inter-ethnic tolerance and the free movement of people, goods and services.

After the democratic changes in 2000, Serbs tried to protect their rights by taking part in institutions on several occasions, but their attempts were rejected by majority vote or ignored. The Albanians in addition often turned down Serbia's offers of an open dialogue on different issues, from missing persons, the return of the internally displaced persons and property, and a decentralisation programme that would result in the actual establishment of European values in daily life. Instead, they set the unacceptable condition that talks should not take place if Serbia is involved.

It boils down to a threat that if the extremists' request for independence is denied, a new wave of violence will break out, threatening not only the remaining Serbian population of 130,000, but also, indirectly, the UN administration. In the meantime, the whole Serb population in Kosovo lives under conditions that we believed had been defeated 60 years ago.

A solution for the status of Kosovo must originate in an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, mediated by the UN, which will also act as guarantor of any such deal. No viable solution for Kosovo can be sustained without the active participation and consent of Belgrade. And for Belgrade, any form of independence, whether delayed, limited, controlled, or conditional, is unacceptable.

We must not forget that Serbia is considered to be the key geopolitical factor in the Western Balkans and that without stability and prosperity in Serbia, there can be no lasting regional peace and stability. Therefore, the policy of continually punishing Serbia that remained in force until not long ago is becoming meaningless, as Serbia turns into a stronghold of democracy and stability, while Kosovo, with occasional intermissions, becomes a source of regional instability.

The problem of Kosovo, therefore, cannot be separated from Serbia, or from the problem of general regional stability. Furthermore, with the exception of Albania, there is no official support for the independence of Kosovo among its Balkan neighbours.

In those areas where they are the majority, the Albanians should be granted broad autonomy, while the Kosovo Serbs, in addition to closer ties with Serbia, should have a set of clearly defined institutional mechanisms to efficiently protect their threatened rights.

Where Serbs are in the majority (or were until 1999) they should be able to organise their own life and administration in their mother tongue and have a right of veto over matters pertaining to their community - following the model of the EU-brokered Ohrid Agreement, concerning the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. Serbian monasteries and their property lying outside these Serbian entities should obtain autonomy. The recent decision of [the UN chief in Kosovo] Soren Jessen-Petersen to establish a protective zone around the monastery of Decani is a belated, but encouraging, step in this direction.

Kosovo cannot become independent; it has no separate identity and there is no separate Kosovo nation, in the European sense of the term. There are only Albanians and Serbs, that is, two main national communities and several minority ethnic groups. The creation of two entities in Kosovo, as in Bosnia and Hercegovina, may be an efficient solution to the crisis and help redefine relations between Serbs and Albanians. In this way it would be possible to overcome the status issue, which is slowing down Kosovo's development owing to the way it absorbs all political energies.

A solution must be based on compromise and on the willingness of both parties to make concessions to achieve a compromise that will secure the protection of endangered identities and promote European values and standards. With the proposed formula "less than independence, more than autonomy" Serbia has made a significant and constructive step towards a mutually acceptable compromise.

Moderate Albanians should now also come up with concessions and provide a political space for a long-term, mutually agreed compromise.

That will secure a lasting peace and a steady progression towards Euro-Atlantic institutions throughout the western Balkans.

Dusan Batakovic is Serbia and Montenegro’s ambassador in Greece.

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