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

Serbs Suspect UN of Kosovo Sell-Out

Serbs are fearful the international community is preparing to hand independence to the Kosovo Albanians.
By Nehat Islami

Kosovar Albanian calls for the UN to hand over wide-ranging constitutional powers have renewed Serbian concerns that the province is heading down the road to independence.


Their fears were heightened last week when the UN set up tax collection posts in the north of province - a move many Serbs saw as the first steps towards Kosovo's secession from Serbia.


Two members of a committee charged with drawing up a legal framework for Kosovo, Blerim Reka and Blerim Shala, resigned at the end of last week, claiming the international community was dragging its heels over assigning powers to a transitional assembly.


The latest glitch in the process came a few days after Kosovo's UN administrator Hans Haekkerup announced that elections to the assembly were due to go ahead in late October or early November. "It's up to the people of Kosovo and their political leaders to manage their problems by themselves," he said.


But Shala, editor of the daily newspaper Zeri, and Reka, a constitutional expert, believe this is what the international community is unwilling to countenance. They see the draft framework for the assembly's legislative powers as leaving it with little real control over Kosovo's affairs.


One of the fundamental disagreements between internationals and Kosovar political leaders is the latter's desire for the framework to be described as a constitution - something Serbs believe confers statehood on the de facto UN protectorate.


The resignations from the fourteen strong committee, made up of local and Western officials, occurred after an unsigned article - supposedly from a prominent member of the international community - appeared in the daily Koha Ditore, alleging that any agreement would not mention the possibility of a referendum on independence.


The Kosovans want the assembly to have wide-ranging powers over policy decisions, including the right to call a referendum on self-determination and the setting up of a constitutional court.


But while there's clearly a desire for a break from Serbia, Kosovo is still a constituent part of Yugoslavia. And the international community is anxious not to be seen to be edging the province down the path of independence.


Kosovo Serb concerns over Albanian constitutional demands were heightened last week by the UN's decision to set up tax collection checkpoints along the provincial border with Serbia.


Fearing the move was preparing the ground for independence, they set up roadblocks in the north, clogging up traffic. K-for troops eventually dismantled the barricades after troops had been repeatedly prevented from patrolling the area.


The peacekeepers met violent resistance as they tried to smash the blockades. One 62- year- old woman died after tear gas was used to disperse stone-throwing crowds.


UN officials insisted the checkpoints were simply a means of bolstering the ailing Kosovan economy. The province is awash with black-market goods. And the chronically underfunded international administration has recently been trying to increase its revenue by taxing illicit trade. "We've been losing three million German marks a week because of the absence of tax collection points in the north of Kosova, " said a Pristina official.


The Kosovo Serbs and the Serbian leadership in Belgrade are unconvinced by the UN explanation. Yugoslav president wrote to Haekkerup expressing his concern that the checkpoints would lead to "the introduction of Kosovo's statehood". The Serbian parliament feared the move would result in a further exodus of Serbs and other minorities from the province.


Criticism also came from France, whose troops are part of the K-for contingent in the north of Kosovo. "We understand that Kosovo's administration needs tax revenue, but that's not the same thing as establishing customs posts between Kosovo and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia," said a French foreign ministry spokesman.


Nehat Islami is IWPR's Project Manager in Kosovo