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Serbs in Kosovo Fear Looming Decision

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Serbs in Kosovo Fear Looming Decision

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Serbs in Kosovo Fear Looming Decision

Serbs in Kosovo Fear Looming Decision

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Sasha Radosavljevic owns the a café in North Mitrovica, a Serb controlled part of Kosovo that is threatening to not recognize independence for Kosovo, should a decision be made to give the province sovereignty. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

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Emily Harris, NPR

Milorad Radivojevic places flowers near the vandalized gravestone of a relative buried in the town of Svinjare. He has been unable to return to his village since an ethnic Albanian mob burned and looted Serb property there in 2004. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

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Emily Harris, NPR

This is the second piece in a two-part series.

As the United Nations Security Council ponders a proposal to launch Kosovo as a sovereign nation, dividing it from Serbia, ethnic Serbs express concerns about their futures.

Many Serbs who still live in Kosovo fear that a decision either way about the country's sovereignty — independence or no independence — will force them to leave because of violence or discrimination.

Some in this ethnic community have discussed seceding from Kosovo and aligning with Serbia.

The small town of Svinjare, in Kosovo, acts as an example of how life has changed.

Eight years ago, both ethnic Serbs and Albanians lived in the town. Now stray dogs guard a knot of empty Serbian homes.

Milorad Radivoiovich lives in a four room, one story house. It was built by the Kosovo government to replace his home that was burned three years ago by a rampaging crowd of ethnic Albanians during a flare up of violence.

"They put almost in the same place, connection for a sink and for a stove," Radivoiovich says. "This is a bathroom before, and now is a bathroom. But there's no bath. It was stolen."

The proposal for Kosovo's supervised self rule the United Nations is now considering includes detailed guarantees of security and rights for ethnic Serbs. Radivoiovich says it is like wolves caring for sheep.

"Don't you know how many guarantees we have had by now? A lot of a lot of. And our pockets are full of promises," Radivoiovich says.

The place most Serbs feel most secure in Kosovo is not far from here, in the north part of the town of Mitrovica.

The main bridge separating the north from the rest of Kosovo is still watched by United Nations and Kosovo police. Cars in the north use Serbian, not Kosovo, license plates. Cell phones use different country codes north and south of the bridge.

Money to support Serbs and this double system comes from Belgrade – much through one local Serb politician, Marko Yakshich. He is confident Russia will block the proposal for graduated independence for Kosovo. And if Kosovo simply declares itself independent, Yakshich says Serbs here won't go along.

"If that happens then Serbs in Kosovo, not only in the north, but Kosovo-wide, are going to declare that this is illegal and not obligatory for us," Yakshich says.

He says, if necessary, Serbs in Kosovo would ask Belgrade for political support, and the ask the Serbian military for protection. But there are different voices within the Serb community here.

"I am not for independence," says Petar Miltic, a politician and former journalist. It's very unpleasant. But I know that will happen. And it's better to prepare people."

Miltic is clearly a maverick here – so radical he's banned smoking in his office. He goes out on a limb to say publicly that Serbs should work with Albanians to secure their rights in Kosovo. But he finds that Serbs here are so obsessed and uncertain about independence they can't focus on problems Miltic believes they could affect, like unemployment, or unreliable electricity and water.

"They're afraid Albanians will try ... ethnical cleaning in Kosovo, and they are afraid about that," Miltic says. "So if you speak about water, they will say, oh, give me a break, don't speak about water, we don't know what will happen tomorrow."

At the Dolche Vita café in North Mitrovica, Lubisha Radosavlevich predicts a mass exodus of Serbs from an independent Kosovo. He says he'd let his kids decide whether the family would leave.

"Personally, I will never leave this place," says one of his sons, Sasha Radosavlevich, who owns the café. Most Kosovo Serbs have no where to go in Serbia, he says. His café is right next to the river that separates the north from the rest of Kosovo. That will stay a dividing line, he says, and that's not a bad thing.

"I'm not a nationalist but I see the reality," Sasha Radosavlevich says. "There is no possibility for us to live together. Probably, yes, to live one next to the other, but not together at the moment."

For now Sasha Radosavlevich does business with Albanians. Most goods are cheaper coming through Kosovo than Serbia. In fact, he says, every morning he meets an Albanian friend from grade school to buy oranges for fresh squeezed juice sold at his café.

Q&A: The State of Kosovo

Kosovo, in yellow, surrounded by its Balkan neighbors. Click to view a larger map of the region. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

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Lindsay Mangum, NPR

A map of Kosovo and its Balkan neighbors.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR

After years of dispute over Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian province is expected to declare its independence this weekend.

The plan includes keeping NATO's peacekeeping force in place — and having the European Union take over from the United Nations in overseeing the judicial system and ensuring rule of law.

Serbia has rejected the idea of an independent Kosovo, but has said it would not use force against the province.

Here's some background on the situation:

Where is Kosovo?

Kosovo is in southern Europe. It is a landlocked area a bit smaller than Connecticut — north of Macedonia, east of Albania, south of Serbia, and west of Bulgaria. It's at nearly the same latitude as the "ankle" of Italy.

What is Kosovo's legal status?

Kosovo is technically still a part of Serbia, which was the dominant republic in the former Yugoslavia. But since 1999, Kosovo has been run by a U.N. mission and protected by NATO troops. When Yugoslavia existed as a country, Kosovo was — for part of that time — an autonomous area within Serbia.

What led to the current situation?

In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia in order to stop what the organization called a "campaign of terror" against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, carried out by the then Yugoslav military and irregular Serb paramilitary groups. At the end of the bombing, the Security Council approved Resolution 1244, which gave a U.N. mission the responsibility to administer Kosovo, while developing elements of a local provisional government, until a final political solution could be arranged for Kosovo.

The antagonism between Serbs and Albanians has roots that date back to the Middle Ages. These tensions have flared into violence in varying degrees since then, including in the years just prior to the 1999 bombing.

What has Russia's stance been?

Russia's major public objection is that the United Nations doesn't have the right to carve up sovereign states and warns this will set a bad precedent. Moscow refers frequently to U.N .Security Council resolution 1244, which mentions the U.N. "commitment" to the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia. In addition, Moscow backs Serbia in saying that Serbs in Kosovo have not, and cannot be, adequately protected, and says further talks should be held between Serbia and Kosovo.

The United States and the Kosovo government have rejected the idea of more talks, and the U.N. envoy has said the possibilities for discussion are exhausted. The United States also argues that Kosovo is a unique case and should not be seen as setting a precedent for other independent-minded or "breakaway" regions around the world. The situation in Kosovo is being watched closely by people elsewhere around the world who have been seeking their own states, including the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Basques in Spain. A number of such conflicts directly involve Russia, including in Chechnya, Transdniestr, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Why is this important to the United States?

The United States got involved militarily against the Serbs in Kosovo in 1999 after sitting out similarly horrible wars in Bosnia and Croatia. The U.S.-led NATO bombardment set the stage for U.N. governance of Kosovo — and for the current question of its future status. In the U.S. view, the only possible path to stability in the Balkans region is for Kosovo to become independent.

What are the chances of more violence in this area?

Officials from both sides have assured the international community that they would not resort to violence. After the December 10 deadline for an agreement passed without any resolution, Kosovo's prime minister-designate, Hasim Thaci, began talks with his ethnic Albanian political rivals. Thaci leads one of the biggest ethnic Albanian parties.

At the same time, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said his country would not accept European Union supervision in Kosovo, and would abandon efforts to join the European Union, if the group recognizes Kosovo as an independent state. The Serbs have insisted that the Kosovo question must be resolved in the United Nations Security Council. That's because Russia, a traditional ally of the Serbs, has a veto on the council. Russia has already said it will ask the U.N. Security Council to nullify any unilateral declaration of independence by the Kosovo Albanians.

Serbia has said it would not use force against the breakaway province, though it's possible that fringe elements on both sides could take advantage of the uncertainly to re-ignite violence.