Saturday, February 3, 2007

A flag and an anthem for Kosovo... and new fears of conflict in Europe

Ethnic and religious tensions in the most unstable corner of Europe threatened to flare last night after Kosovo took a giant step towards independence.

A long-awaited blueprint proposed that the breakaway Serb province establish its own constitution, national flag and anthem. It should also be allowed to negotiate membership of the UN and other international organisations.

The plan stopped short of recommending fully-fledged independence. It nevertheless immediately sharpened the divide between the majority Muslims in Kosovo and Orthodox Christians in Serbia that drove Europe to war seven years ago.

“Serbia will never accept an independent Kosovo,” said Boris Tadic, the Serbian President. Vojislav Kostunica, the Prime Minister, called the proposals illegitimate and meddling.

Kosovo Albanians welcomed the plans as the beginning of a process that would end with independence.

Since 1999, when Nato bombs drove out Serb forces accused of slaughtering 10,000 ethnic Albanians, the province has been administered as an international protectorate. The draft proposals by Martti Ahtisaari, charged by the UN with resolving Kosovo’s status, threatened to bring the enmities of the Balkans back to centre stage.

Mr Ahtisaari said his plans amounted to a compromise between Albanian aspirations for independence and Serbia’s desire to keep what it regards as its ancient spiritual heartland, with its most ancient churches and monasteries.

Although Kosovo could take the first steps towards statehood, an international civilian representative with wide-ranging powers would be appointed to oversee the province and Nato troops would remain “as long as necessary”.

The Ahtisaari plan deliberately avoids mention of the word “independence” and spells out new protections for the 114,000 ethnic Serbs who live in Kosovo — 6 per cent of the province’s population.

Special zones would be created to safeguard 40 cultural and religious sites in Kosovo that are crucial to Serb identity.

Municipalities with Serb majorities would be set up to run their own schools and health systems at arm’s length from Pristina, the Kosovan capital.

Serbs maintained that the plan would mean independence in all but name. Mr Kostunica refused to meet Mr Ahtisaari when the Finnish diplomat flew to Belgrade to unveil his plans. European and US officials warned that the stability of the Balkans was at stake and urged Serbia to remain flexible in its response. Washington said the plan was “fair and balanced”. Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, urged Belgrade to be positive and constructive.

Mr Ahtisaari wants Serb and Kosovan negotiators to meet in ten days to discuss the details. The plan would go for final approval to the UN Security Council in the spring.

Russia has threatened to use its Security Council veto to block any plan that does not meet with Belgrade’s approval.

The plan thrusts into the spotlight Kosovo’s Serbs, who fear for the their future. Some estimates suggest that 70,000 — more than half — could flee, possibly destabilising the region.

“If Kosovo becomes independent, I’ll not stay. None of us will,” says Milanka Tonic, 53. She has lived in a cabin for the past three years since Albanian mobs forced her and thousands of other Serbs out of their homes in the riots of March 2004.

“They bombed our house; my son and I only just escaped with our lives. They beat my husband so badly they thought he was dead. We’re scared. Imagine what it will be like if the Albanians are in total control.” She lives in the Serb enclave of Gracanica, with its 14th-century Serbian Orthodox Church, where a solitary Swedish soldier stands guard.

In Mitrovica, where violence in March 2004 prompted province-wide unrest as Albanian gangs attacked and burnt down Serb houses and churches, Zdravko Djuric, 25, is weighing his options. “For seven years since the Nato bombing we’ve been living a simple life in abnormal circumstances. If there is independence I will wait and see what happens. But I won’t necessarily leave. All I want is a job,” he said.

In one of the rundown cabins masquerading as a shop, Njuki, 51 a Muslim, said: “I wish everyone could live together again like in the old Yugoslavia. But if there’s to be independence, I’d sit down with my family and we’d discuss the future.Ideally, I’d want to stay. It might depend if there’s any violence.”

Conflict in Land of the Churches

Ethnic Albanians make up 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population, but Serbs consider the territory to be an important religious, political and historical centre, calling it Kosovo-Metohija (“land of the churches”)

In the 13th Century the Serbian Orthodox Church moved to Pec, in western Kosovo, and Serbia’s political centre of gravity shifted to Kosovo, which was then majority Serb

A century later the Muslim Ottoman Empire annexed the territory. Turkish and Albanian immigration followed, and with it the destruction of many churches. A steady outflow of Serbs began, culminating in the Patriarch of Pec fleeing to Serbia in the 17th century

The region changed hands several times in the early 20th century, before being subsumed into Yugoslavia

In 1993, after the breakdown of communism, the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army began operating, and Belgrade started vicious reprisals which would precipitate the 1999 Nato bombing campaign

After Nato’s defeat of Serbia the UN assumed authority over Kosovo, organising multi-ethnic elections and policing the region with 16,000 troops.