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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
Analysis: Squaring the Kosovo circle
By Tim Judah
Balkans analyst

Two weeks after the upsurge of violence in Kosovo, which left 19 people dead and prompted the flight of around 4,000 Serbs and Roma (gypsies), the issue has disappeared from the international headlines.

But it remains high on the international diplomatic agenda. The EU has appointed a special representative for Kosovo and top European, US and Nato diplomats and soldiers have been pouring into Kosovo and Serbia to discuss the way ahead.

One of them is US Under-Secretary for State Marc Grossman.

Last year he announced that if Kosovo made progress in adhering to a set of standards elaborated by the UN - which has the last word in administering the province - then it might be possible to begin to examine its final status in mid-2005.

Kosovo Serbs
Thousands of Kosovo Serbs were forced to flee their homes
This week in Belgrade, following his visit, diplomats said that this date still remained the target.

Kosovo is home to some 1.8 million ethnic Albanians and now, some 100,000 Serbs. The Serbian authorities claim that 230,000 Kosovo Serbs and Roma fled the province in 1999.

Albanians want independence but officially Kosovo remains part of Serbia and Montenegro.

Studded with Serbian churches and monasteries, Kosovo was once the heartland of medieval Serbia. For many Serbs the issue of Kosovo is bound up with emotion and their sense of national identity.

The problem, then, is how this province will ever be reabsorbed into Serbia - and the likelihood is that it will not. In that case, the problem is how to separate it.


Until now, the policy of the EU, the US and the UN has been to create local institutions within Kosovo to run it, but to hope to delay the question of final status for as long as possible.

Since the violence however, and with the flurry of diplomatic activity, the Serbian authorities have been working on proposals which are now being taken far more seriously than they would have been before.

Is there any room for compromise on Kosovo? The answer, is not yet
They are working on a plan, which premier Vojislav Kostunica initially called cantonisation. He now says that he is happy with the word decentralisation because that is a word which meets with approval by the UN and the EU.

Officially, the policy of the UN in Kosovo is to create a multi-ethnic province. For that reason, policymakers say they are against ethnically-based cantons. That rejection seems to be shifting though.

Whatever you call the policy, Serbs already live in ethnic enclaves, albeit with no proper legal form. Serbs live in a territorially compact area of the north of Kosovo and in other enclaves scattered across the rest of the province.

Last year, the Council of Europe devised plans for decentralisation of Kosovo and, just before the violence, the EU and the UN endorsed a plan for decentralisation and the redrawing of municipal boundaries in the ethnically-divided city of Mitrovica.


In other words, the plans now being circulated all aim, in one way or another, to give some institutional protection to Serbs and other minorities within Kosovo, although there is no agreement on what level of autonomy these areas should have.

Questions include who runs security, schools, health services and whether all areas should control their own affairs, including Serbian ones, or whether minority areas should have a different status from everywhere else.

Serbian church being burned in Mitrovica
Some churches and monastaries date back to medieval Serbia
Albanians are deeply suspicious of these plans because they believe that they are in fact a prelude to the physical partitioning of Kosovo.

Indeed, the current Serbian plan forsees far greater autonomy for the north of the province than for the rest of the enclaves - which feeds the Albanian suspicion that Serbia is preparing the way for the division of the province.

Today, the official Serbian policy is that Serbs should have autonomy within an Albanian-dominated Kosovo, which is itself an autonomous part of Serbia.

In fact, even if they believe it themselves, it may well be that the policy of the Serbian authorities is not so different from that of the UN. That is to say, to devise a policy which simply buys time while protecting Serbs for the forseeable future.

Some clearly don't believe much in this policy. Meeting in Belgrade, Mr Grossman was reportedly stunned when a top Serbian officially proposed that everyone simply dispense with the niceties and Kosovo be partitioned sooner rather than later.

Wider implications

This may well be the real long-term plan of Serbia, but it horrifies international policymakers. They fear that such a plan could have violent ramifications elsewhere.

They argue that if Kosovo is divided then ethnic Albanians who live in southern Serbia will demand that their region be attached to an independent Kosovo. Likewise, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia will demand the physical separation of their regions from the rest of that country and so will Serbs in Bosnia.

Is there any room for compromise on Kosovo? The answer, is not yet. In the future, however, Serbs and Albanians may well have to swallow some bitter bills.

This might include the independence of Kosovo, within its present borders, but with a high level of autonomy for Serbian areas, which would include the right for Serbs to double citizenship and other privileges.

Today though, such ideas would be loudly rejected by both Albanians and Serbs, and so it seems, says Belgrade political analyst Braca Grubacic, we may soon see some "new initiatives to freeze the situation, full of fantastic wording... to change nothing".

The problem is that this is more than likely to encourage Albanian extremists to go back to violence.

Tim Judah is the author of Kosovo: War and Revenge published by Yale University Press.

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