Kosovo protesters demand declaration of independence

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The Independent Online

Demonstrators from all over Kosovo are expected to descend on the capital Pristina today to protest the failure of the Kosovo government to name a date for the Serbian province to become independent.

At a press conference yesterday, elected student leaders said that at midday the protesters will march to the parliament building in Pristina and wait until a member of the government comes out to give them the date for independence. "If nobody comes out we will wait until they do," said Burim Balaj, a final year law student wearing a t-shirt with the slogan, "Everybody for the independence of Kosovo."

Another student leader pointed out that today is a "big day" because 10 December is when negotiations to decide the final state of Kosovo come to an end. "It's important that we have a fixed date for independence because international and local politicians have constantly been playing a game with us, constantly postponing and deferring independence, and we are sick and tired of it. We have waited eight years already."

Independence "is itself a compromise," he added, when what Kosovars really want "is union with Albania."

Mr Balaj said, "As long as independence is delayed, the people, both citizens and students, will get more and more angry and disappointed and frustrated."

Today is Kosovo's D-Day: the deadline for international mediators to get Belgrade and Pristina to reach a negotiated settlement. And with European and American mediators having thrown in the towel after 120 days of fruitless effort, the way is now theoretically open for the leaders of Kosovo's 90 per cent Albanian population to declare an end to 8 years' of limbo.

But a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders today is highly unlikely as they are under enormous pressure to act with prudence and in coordination with the US and Europe.

Tension in Kosovo has been mounting ahead of the big day. When the head of the UN mission in Kosovo and the commander of NATO forces in the province visited Gorazvdevac, a Serbian enclave in western Kosovo, on Friday, Serbs angry at Western support for Kosovo's independence attacked NATO officers escorting them and several people were slightly injured. The UN chief administrator Joachim Ruecker said he would file a complaint about the incident to the UN Security Council. "This is unacceptable," he said. "This is a threat that is influenced very much by Belgrade."

Kosovo's transition to independence has, as the International Crisis Group's latest report puts it, "been greatly complicated by Russia's firm support of Serbia's refusal to accept that it has lost its one-time province." As a result, as the students complain, independence still seems as tantalisingly remote as ever.

The ethnic Albanian majority expected it in June, after the UN's special envoy Martti Ahtissari submitted his plan, but that was scuppered when Russia threatened to veto it in the UN Security Council. The upshot was the new round of fruitless negotiations which officially ends today. Russia said yesterday that the deadline is not binding, but as the European mediator Wolfgang Ischinger said, "If we had been given 1,200 days the outcome would have been the same."

"Independence should be proclaimed very soon, coordinated with the international community, because all ways and means of reaching an agreement with Serbia have been exhausted," said Bujar Bukoshi, prime minister in the Kosovo government in exile during the 1990s and recently re-elected as an MP. "This is the final phase in the approach to independence, and I hope and believe it will finish peacefully. But there is a crazy side in Serbia - the Serbians could be unpredictable. And Russia's new assertiveness has made independence more complicated: the frustrated Siberian bear has woken up, and Kosovo is no longer an isolated small problem." But he predicted, "independence will be declared within the next month."

However long delayed, Kosovo's independence will almost certainly produce screaming fits from Belgrade, a matching declaration of independence from the northern, Serb-dominated part of the province which is run from Belgrade, and probably streams of Serbian refugees on tractors heading north. "The minority Serbians have nothing to fear from the future," said Mr Bukoshi. "But they have been instructed by Belgrade to accept nothing less than a Serbian state."