Kosovo Prepares to Declare Independence

Ethnic Kosovo Albanians pass by a billboard reading "Independence" in Pristina, Kosovo. i i

hide captionEthnic Kosovo Albanians pass by a billboard reading "Independence" in Pristina, Kosovo.

Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images
Ethnic Kosovo Albanians pass by a billboard reading "Independence" in Pristina, Kosovo.

Ethnic Kosovo Albanians pass by a billboard reading "Independence" in Pristina, Kosovo.

Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

Q&A: Kosovo

After years of dispute over Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian province is expected to declare its independence this weekend. Serbia has rejected the idea of an independent Kosovo, but has said it would not use force against the province.

Read more about the situation, including why it's important to the United States.

A Kosovo Serb waits for customers at a stand selling vegetables in Gracanica. i i

hide captionA Kosovo Serb waits for customers at a stand selling vegetables in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica on Tuesday.

Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images
A Kosovo Serb waits for customers at a stand selling vegetables in Gracanica.

A Kosovo Serb waits for customers at a stand selling vegetables in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica on Tuesday.

Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images

The breakaway province of Kosovo is expected to declare its independence from Serbia this weekend. But the official separation can't take place until a new constitution, flag and national anthem have been approved by parliament.

One of the biggest constitutional issues still being discussed is about guaranteeing the rights of ethnic minorities in a new country expected to be called "Kosova."

In Gracanica, an enclave in central Kosovo of several thousand of the remaining Serbs, no one wants to talk to foreign reporters. Most young people have gone to Serbia to seek work. Those left look glum.

A middle-aged woman says, "Don't ask me anything. I'm very tired, and too much has happened here."

Nearby is the 13th-century Serbian Orthodox church of the Gracanica Monastery. In this cradle of Serb medieval statehood, the few remaining Orthodox nuns and priests feel besieged by Kosovo Albanians.

Father Damian complains that Albanian tourism officials are appropriating the Serbs' art history by describing this jewel of Serbian Byzantine architecture with the newly coined expression "Gothic Albanian."

"They took everything. In new prospect of Kosovo tourism organization, we have something old and Albanian-style," he says, laughing.

When asked if he will stay in Kosovo, he responds, "Yes. This is our land. Why should we leave?"

Father Damian says Serbs are harassed and pressured to leave — a claim confirmed by international human rights monitors.

"I'm afraid for them. It is very serious," says Julie Chadbourne, who works for the Norwegian chapter of the Helsinki Committee. "People are afraid to move. People do still experience low-level harassment and threats, you know, stone-throwing, spitting, cursing, subtle threats about 'when we get independence you'll pay, you'll be gone then, don't worry. You think you stayed all these years and you have a place in Kosovo, but you don't, just wait.'"

The Western powers insist that Kosovo be a multi-ethnic state, whose trappings must exclude Albanian nationalist symbols and language offensive to any minority group. But the task is proving difficult. The anthem, flag and constitution have yet to be produced.

An international flag design contest ruled out the two-headed eagle dear to Albanians and no alternative design has been chosen yet.

As for the constitution, definition of minority rights has been slow and has delayed the final draft's release. Human rights activist Sarah Maliqi says no one wants to be labeled a "minority," so the word has been eliminated from official language.

"It's complicated," she says, "because you don't have minorities as such in Kosovo, you have communities. There's no word 'minorities,' it's all communities. There is no majority/minority legally."

The speaker of the Kosovo parliament, Jakup Krasnici — the official who will make the independence announcement this weekend — acknowledges that Kosovo's sovereignty will be limited.

"We can freely say that Kosovo is ready to govern itself, but the international community still haven't gained the trust that Kosovo institutions are ready to deal with issues related to the rights of other communities or the human rights in general," he says.

NATO will remain in place with its peacekeeping force. The European Union will take over from the United Nations in overseeing the judicial system and ensuring rule of law.

Human rights activists like Chadbourne say international bodies have established the legal framework for a Western democracy, but have been unable to change the culture of fear and oppression among the peoples of Kosovo.

"Even if the justice system were functioning very, very well, if the impression on the ground is that it's crap, it is crap at the end of the day because nobody uses it — nobody goes to it and believes in it," she says. "One of the most critical aspects of creating a rule-of-law culture is creating faith or belief that the system can answer to you as a citizen."

Kosovo's independence appears to be a work in progress. It's still not known how many of the 27 EU members will recognize the new state, nor how long the EU supervisory mission's mandate will last.

Q&A: The State of Kosovo

Map of Kosovo i i

hide captionKosovo, in yellow, surrounded by its Balkan neighbors. Click to view a larger map of the region.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Kosovo

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.

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