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Comment: Reconciliation Key to Kosovo's Future

Without prior reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians, there is not sense in discussing Kosovo’s final status.
By Nebojsa Covic

The Kosovo-Metohija issue is widely seen as insoluble. I do not agree with this, however, though if I now maintain there are no insoluble issues, as I intend to, I hope no one will accuse me of relying on unfounded optimism. On the contrary, my optimism is well founded, and, I believe, entirely rational.


There may be hard and headache-inducing obstacles, but none are insurmountable.


The Kosovo issue is simply neglected. Complicated by ancient and recent ethnic conflicts, its resolution has been made harder by constant postponement. Now it has become a nightmare for European statesmen and a threat to regional and continental peace. But with political leadership and wisdom we will see an end to it.


For a long time I have maintained that what we see in Kosovo is a clash between two sets of "rights", the Serbs' historical right and the Albanians' ethnic right. Reconciliation of these two rights will bring peace to both Serbs and Albanians as well as to all the other peoples of south-east Europe. The framework for such a solution has already been provided in the methods used to calm conflicts in other parts of former Yugoslavia. The Bosnia-Herzegovina case is a good example.


First, it must be recalled that in the old Yugoslavia, the Serbs lived within the borders of one, single state, and were spread all over it. The largest number outside Serbia lived in Bosnia. Yugoslavia, however, is no more. It was broken up in a combination of known and unknown circumstances. The Serbs are now in the same position as Albanians, living in several states.


The question of why the rights of Croats and Muslims to leave Yugoslavia was held to be stronger than the right of Serbs to retain Yugoslavia as it was, can be left to future historians to discuss. The world was, I believe, fearful of Serbian nationalism, which is why it rejected any solution that seemed to encourage or reward that nationalism. The world did not allow the creation of Greater Serbia.


In short, the civil war within Yugoslavia did not culminate in the union of all Serbs. However, the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina obtained substantial autonomy within Bosnia and the chance to forge special ties with their Serbian homeland. The international community cannot, I believe, give any less - or more - to the Albanians than it has already given to the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina.


So, Kosovo Albanians can have and, in fact, already enjoy, broad autonomy, and they can forge special ties with their homeland in Albania. But the nationalists among them may not realise their grand project, namely the unification of all Albanians in a Greater Albania.


The Serbs cannot unite without harming the interests of their neighbours. They have understood and accepted this. The proof for this is that parties based on anti-democratic ideas and goals have been convincingly defeated in several Serbian elections. Additional proof is that vengeance-driven, aggressive and other retrograde ideas find no place in the Serbian media.


Albanians also cannot unite in one state without war and without damaging the interests of their neighbours. Unfortunately, most Kosovo Albanians have not understood, or accepted, this. I say this openly, in the hope that my words will be recalled, for without such a process of understanding and acceptance on their part there will be no lasting peace in the Balkans.


What needs to be done for them to accept this?


The international community needs to treat Albanian nationalism and extremism in the same way that it once treated Serbian nationalism and extremism. At this time, Serbs who broke international laws and conventions in the Bosnian war are on trial in The Hague. When Albanians who behaved equally inhumanely or criminally in the war in Kosovo are also put on trial in The Hague, their community will begin to understand that no guilty person can be pardoned and no grave transgression forgiven.


Until that happens, Kosovo Albanians will remain convinced that they are Europe's and America's favourites. And the biggest nationalists and extremists among them will remain convinced that the money they have gained from the drugs trade and from arms- and people-trafficking will buy them influential support.


There are voices currently heard that the international community is in a hurry to solve the Kosovo issue so that the region can be made safe in time for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. I hope such naïve talk does not emanate from any European and international decision-making circles. Nothing can be lastingly solved in a short time.


Incomplete, hurried and messy solutions and those that have had insufficient consideration can have worse results than ones brought about by any amount of postponement.


Of course I do not advocate postponement for ever. Most of our fears, uncertainties and questions, will disappear when all the countries in the region join the European Union. Then all Serbs and Albanians will live in the same state, and borders will be less divisive than today. Unfortunately the Balkan countries will not have entered the EU by 2004, or probably within a decade of the Athens Olympics.


What are we then to do? We have to work wisely and carefully on improving circumstances, and on preparing people for life in a future union that will not be based on assumptions carried over from the 19th century.


What I propose is that the administrations in both Belgrade and Pristina, with the help of UNMIK and European institutions, immediately draw up a realistic programme for the reconciliation of the Serbian and Albanian peoples. I propose that experts start talks immediately on the possibilities of reconciliation between the opposing Serb historic and Albanian ethnic rights.


I propose that the EU should not diminish but increase aid to democratic forces in all the Balkan countries. Weakening these forces will dangerously strengthen the political right and significantly diminish the chances of building harmony among and inside these multi-ethnic states.This is how I see the future of the Balkans.


But if the advice of those who propose Kosovo's independence is acted on, the following is likely to happen.


Serbs in Serbia and everywhere else would see that cooperation with the international community has not proved viable.


Serbs from Kosovo would understand that they have been reduced to a minority, and then as a minority turned into refugees with no hope of returning to their homeland.


Bosnia-Herzegovina would break up immediately, and the war would continue where it left off.


Macedonia would be dangerously jeopardised, as Albanian nationalists - rewarded in Kosovo - would then turn to their attention to Macedonia's western flank.


Only a stalemate can preserve peace in the Balkans, a state in which no one gains victory or defeat, and in which there is neither the triumph of nationalism nor the annulment of essential national interests.


Guilt is part of life in the Balkans. In some eyes, Serbs are guilty for creating Yugoslavia. In the eyes of others, Croats are guilty for breaking it up. Albanians are guilty to some for trying to establish a tyranny based on superior numbers.


Can we rid ourselves from these feelings of burden, and help each other build a future life in the Balkans without this guilt?


Without doubt, yes. Recently in Lucerne, at a conference called “Albanians and their neighbours”, I made my own gesture of reconciliation with feelings of joy. But I said that before reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians takes place there is no sense in discussing the final status of Kosovo, and the representatives of the international community supported this.


The leadership of the Kosovo Albanians, for its part, has publicly stated that it is renouncing the idea of Greater Albania. One isolated public statement cannot annul years of inter-ethnic, religious and cultural intolerance, but it can mark the start of a dialogue that will take place without prior prejudice and enveloped in dangerous and humiliating feelings of hatred.


One should not quote oneself too often. But as I said in Lucerne, “To those who say there can be no trust between people who until recently saw each other over the barrel of a gun, I recommend that they remember the difficult and risky road we travelled in southern Serbia in a short time, from open hostility and distrust between Serbs and Albanians to civil dialogue and work on both sides, towards the benefit of people of all nationalities.”


The author is Serbian deputy prime minister and head of Coordination Centre for Kosovo and Metohija. This article was originally published in Belgrade daily Politika on November 22


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