Key U.N. Figure Weighs Kosovo Freedom Bid

Kosovo declared independence this week, and Serbian nationalists reacted violently. Soren Jessen-Petersen, U.N. administrator for Kosovo, offers his thoughts on the tense political climate.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

U.S. embassies are on alert this weekend throughout the former Yugoslavia. The State Department warns Americans in Serbia to exercise extreme caution as angry protests continue over Kosovo's declaration of independence. All but a few essential diplomats have been ordered to leave Serbia after rioters marauded at the U.S. embassy in Belgrade on Thursday. The U.S. is seen as a main supporter of Kosovo's status as an independent state.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO air strikes halted a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanians, who make up about 90 percent of the population.

Soren Jessen-Petersen was the special representative of the Secretary General and U.N. administrator of Kosovo from 2004 until 2006. He joins us in the studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SOREN JESSEN-PETERSEN (Former U.N. Administrator for Kosovo): Pleasure.

SIMON: I have to ask you, there was this huge state-sponsored rally against independence, and Prime Minister Kostunica told the crowd, as long as we live Kosovo is Serbia. Are Serbian leaders in any way trying to stir things up?

Mr. JESSEN-PETERSEN: Well, one should always be careful if you have no strong evidence here to sort of suggest that they're doing that. But what I can say is that they are certainly not very careful with their statements. Many of the statements have been inflammatory. There was one of the ministers the other day when he referred to the burning of some border posts two, three days ago. He is quoted in the media to have said, it may not be nice but it's legitimate.

I don't think it's very legitimate to burn down the border posts. So I think that their statements would suggest that this is, if not organized, it's certainly condoned. And I think they are literally playing with fire. And what worries me most is that they don't know - they don't seem to care about the many Kosovo Serbs who live outside the northern part and who risk to be, sort of, further isolated.

You are basically jeopardizing the safety of the Kosovo Serbs. And I think that is completely irresponsible on behalf of Belgrade.

SIMON: You spent two years administering Kosovo. Is it ready for independence?

Mr. JESSEN-PETERSEN: Well, what I can say is that if we had waited another five years with an interim administration, it would not have been ready for independence. The very problem was that Kosovo had been under interim administration for nine years. And because of the resolution, a Security Council mandate, adopted in '99, there was in that mandate a limit to how much we could transfer of responsibilities or competencies to the local authorities, because we were not allowed to transfer any responsibility which could be seen as an attribute of sovereignty.

So, if you could not really make the local authorities responsible and accountable, they will never be ready. But I think they are as ready as they can be in the circumstances.

SIMON: Over the past 48 hours, there have been a few provocative comments. Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said that Moscow might, quote, "have to use brute military force" if NATO retains a presence there and supports independence. Is this just rhetoric?

Mr. JESSEN-PETERSEN: Well, I hope it's just rhetoric because it's completely irresponsible. I don't think any responsible politicians in Moscow would consider using force. Force has also been ruled out by Belgrade, and I think that's important. I think it is the responsible position to take, and it would also be very silly, because by sort of launching a military response, they would be taking on the 17,000 NATO troops.

SIMON: Soren Jessen-Petersen, who was the special representative and U.N. administrator of Kosovo, thank you very much.

Mr. JESSEN-PETERSEN: It's a pleasure.

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