In Kosovo, Serbs, Albanians Lead Separate Lives

Six years after the war in Kosovo, much has changed for the better, but Serbs and Albanians continue to live very separate lives. The international community is still struggling to find a long-term political solution for the province that will satisfy both sides.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The Bush administration today is to outline a new strategy for resolving the status of Kosovo, a province of Serbia which has been under UN administration for the past six years. The State Department says the strategy is designed to promote regional stability and to protect the rights of all Kosovo citizens. NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999 to halt violence between Serbs and Albanians. Today, fear and mistrust between the two ethnic communities remain. Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

The answer to what the people of Kosovo want in the future depends on whom you ask. For the province's ethnic Albanians, who make up more than 90 percent of Kosovo's population, the answer is full independence. For a decade, Albanians suffered hardship under the discriminatory policies of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Like thousands of Albanians, Ghani Bairami(ph), a former bank manager, was fired from his job in 1989 when it was handed over to a Serb. Today Bairami has just finished building a dream home for himself, his wife and three children, but he is still bitter.

Mr. GHANI BAIRAMI (Former Bank Manager): A lot of my life is gone now. In the olden times, I was facing this kind of troubles, ethnic problems, wars, conflicts and things like that. And this should end once forever.

BEARDSLEY: While NATO's arrival saved the Albanians, it prompted tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbs to flee the province. Today fewer than 10 percent of those Serbs have returned, and those that stayed are cloistered in rural enclaves protected by UN peacekeepers. Most Serbs would like to see Kosovo returned to Serbia. Oliver Ivanovic is a Serb member of the Kosovo parliament.

Mr. OLIVER IVANOVIC (Kosovo Parliament): Serbia will never agree with any kind of independence. We have a good reason for that: 45,000 troops were here, you know, in 1999, but they couldn't protect the Serbs here. You can just imagine what will happen with the Serbs if this territory will come to be independent country.

BEARDSLEY: Over the last six years, the international community has helped Kosovo lay the groundwork for a functioning, democratic society. Kosovo now has a parliament and has held several rounds of democratic elections. A new code of laws in on the books, and a local police force has been established. Alex Anderson works in the Pristina office of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. He says while the international community did not come to Kosovo to grant independence, over the last six years, attitudes have evolved.

Mr. ALEX ANDERSON (International Crisis Group): Something of a sense of realism and of the atmosphere and mood on the ground has gradually percolated up to the respective foreign ministries in Western Europe and in the USA to a realization that there is really no prospect of being able to hand this place back to Serbian rule and have it not explode into warfare again.

(Soundbite of people talking)

BEARDSLEY: Visiting Kosovo today, one cannot help but notice that Albanians dominate the land, and in towns like Pristina, it is rare to hear anyone speaking Serbian. Albanian music is everywhere.

(Soundbite of music)

BEARDSLEY: Despite the international community's efforts to build a multi-ethnic society here, Kosovo's Serbs and Albanians still live very separate lives steeped in the same old fears.

(Soundbite of demonstrators shouting)

BEARDSLEY: A year ago, Albanian frustrations with Kosovo's unresolved status boiled over. Rumors that a Serb and his dog had chased an Albanian boy into the river where he drowned sparked riots that resulted in more than 20 deaths and the destruction of Serb houses and churches. And for the first time ever, Albanians attacked the UN.

(Soundbite of rioting)

BEARDSLEY: Soren Jessen-Peterson, the UN's top diplomat in Kosovo, says the violence was a real turning point.

Mr. SOREN JESSEN-PETERSON (United Nations Diplomat): The March 2004 violence was a very rude but also a very timely wake-up call for all of us. We all agreed that we cannot keep this operation in limbo for much longer.

Prime Minister BAJRAM KOSUMI (Kosovo): (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: Bajram Kosumi is Kosovo's prime minister. He admits that the riots were a disaster for Kosovo but says they happened because Albanians lost faith in the future. Kosumi says his government is reaching out to work with Serbs in building a new Kosovo.

Prime Min. KOSUMI: (Through Translator) One minister in my government is a Serb. We are going to create municipalities where the Serbs are a majority. We do all this in order to make the Serbs to have a perception of themselves being a part of the government, of governing their lives and being inside of the process, not outside.

BEARDSLEY: Kosovo's destiny will ultimately be decided in negotiations between Kosovo, Serbia, the UN Security Council and the international community. While reaching a solution that satisfies all sides may be difficult, experts say national boundaries will become less important as the whole Balkan region integrates into Europe. A bigger risk, they warn, is leaving Kosovo in its geopolitical no man's land. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.

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