Marcus Tanner: UN flounders as Kosovo plunges back into anarchy

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The Independent Online

A blackened mosque in Belgrade, another torched to the ground in the southern city of Nis. In Kosovo, at least 20 dead, dozens of Serb homes and several churches burnt and homeless people again on the move.

Five years since the outside world brought peace to Kosovo, fears are growing of a final settlement of accounts that will establishwho rules the troubled province.

The one force that clearly does not rule at the moment is the United Nations. As the death toll mounted and rioting stretched across the province this week, the 17,000 UN troops manning the province and its small Serbian enclaves were a clearly disoriented force.

A spokesman for the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) claimed the violence was the work of "a few extremists", but the thousands of Serbs and far larger number of Albanians who have taken part in rioting over the past two days has been the work of more than a handful.

By yesterday many were wondering if the UN's prestige - along with the previous four years' attempts to open a dialogue between Serbs and Albanians - was beyond repair. With Serbian authorities and television stations issuing angry denunciations of Albanian "terrorists", and Kosovo's Albanian-led government repeating demands for independence, a workable solution seemed further away than ever.

Omens for even superficial reconciliation are not promising. Serbia is gearing up for presidential elections in a few months, which the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party is expected to win, and no politician wants to risk accusations of treason by giving up a centimetre on Serbia's "holy land".

At the same time, Kosovo's two million Albanians - 90 per cent of the population even before Belgrade's pullout in 1999 - are increasingly frustrated.

The euphoria that followed the Serbian army's withdrawal in 1999 is now a distant memory. Albanians see the longed-for road to independence blocked by an international force keen to balance contradictory demands in Belgrade and Pristina - the Kosovan capital - and unwilling to devolve significant power to the Albanian majority.

Much of the tension of recent days would have dissipated if people had jobs, but with international monitors preoccupied with ensuring ethnic parity in local government bodies, scant thought has been paid to Kosovo's shambolic economy.

"No one in UNMIK is even thinking about the economy," one official in Pristina complained last week. "They don't even have any economic experts here."

Factor in Albania's very youthful population - witness the crowds of young men milling around Pristina at any time of day - and you have some of the ingredients that make up Kosovo's volatile cocktail. Few see much cause for hope. A few nights ago I was sitting in a trendy burger bar in Pristina, eating chicken wings and drinking milk shakes, surrounded by nattily dressed youngsters. Almost certainly none of that crowd would have been among the thugs who led yesterday's violence. But there are few such places in Kosovo and for the 70 per cent who are unemployed, there are pain- fully few diversions from the business of watching for "provocations" from the nearby Serbian enclave, where people are just as bored, edgy and poor.

One ray of hope yesterday came from the isolated Serbian monastery of Decani in western Kosovo, where Father Sava, known as "the cyber-monk of Kosovo" for his ecumenical activities on the internet, said he had personally arranged protection for his medieval church from the local Albanian mayor. But gestures such as these - one side asking, the other side agreeing - are rare in Kosovo. Too many Serbs still put their faith in a Serbian war of reconquest, and too many Albanians thirst for revenge for the "ethnic cleansing" they endured at the hands of the Serbs in 1999.

A few hundred extra Nato peace-keepers may put the lid back on Kosovo's cauldron for the next few weeks or months, but without twin-track progress both on Kosovo's economy and on its final status, what we are seeing now is no more than a holding operation.

Marcus Tanner is Balkans editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting


1389 Ottoman Empire invades and rules Kosovo for more than 500 years.

1912 Ottoman Empire driven out of Europe. Serbia reclaims Kosovo.

1945 German troops leave Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War. Ethnic Albanians fight for independence.

1974 Yugoslav constitution grants Kosovo autonomy, but not independence.

1996 Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) carries out bomb attacks on Serbs.

September 1997 Armed ethnic Albanians stage night attacks on police stations.

March 1998 Serbian police in Kosovo kill dozens of suspected ethnic Albanian separatists. In elections, declared illegal by Belgrade, ethnic Albanians vote for a president and parliament.

September 1998 Nato tells Milosevic to stop the crackdown on Kosovo Albanians, but 36 civilian ethnic Albanians are reported murdered.

January 1999 40 ethnic Albanians are found dead.

March 1999 Nato begins air strikes against Yugoslavia.

June 1999 Air strikes end as Milosevic withdraws troops from Kosovo and a UN peace plan is approved.

April 2001 Milosevic arrested.

June 2001 Milosevic extradited to The Hague to face war crime charges.

July 2003 Two bombs explode in Pristina.

August 2003 UN policeman shot dead by suspected ethnic Albanians.

November 2001 Elections for regional assembly held in Kosovo.

March 2004 Serbs clash with peace-keepers. Two Albanian children drown after allegedly being chased by Serbs into a river.