Kosovo: The forgotten country

Two weeks ago, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan named the Danish civil servant Soren Jessen-Petersen as his new representative in Kosovo, almost five years to the day after Nato proclaimed its victory in its war against the Yugoslav army. A time, then, for celebration and moving forward?

Not a bit. Nobody was celebrating the fifth anniversary. And many diplomats were very unhappy about the mechanism that led to Jessen- Petersen’s selection in which national vanities triumphed over the real needs of Kosovo — a desperate and potentially violent place these days.

What a contrast with June 1999 when Kosovo Albanians threw roses as the West’s tanks rolled in. The Albanians, 85% of the population, were delirious at the prospect of a UN administration backed by Kfor, the Nato-led military force. Even those who clearly had not benefited, the Serbian minority in Kosovo, accepted the new reality without resorting to sabotage or terrorism in response.

But in the past three years Albanian joy has turned into resentment. Serb bitterness has deepened. The UN, with a creditable record in peace-keeping, has proved hopelessly inadequate at governing a complex society like Kosovo.

The priority for the new boss in Pristina will be to defuse a bomb that is ticking loudly and insistently. If he fails, there is little that can stop a bloody social explosion from occurring in Kosovo, which will, in turn, trigger a huge security crisis in the southern Balkans.

This latter prospect has generated an air of controlled panic in much of Europe’s foreign policy establishment. In mid-March, an Albanian mob stormed the villages of Kosovo, leaving 30 dead and a society more divided than ever. “The fact is, if Kosovo goes up, we no longer have the military resources to deal with it — the troops just aren’t there,” said one British diplomat.

But, in addition to the security issue, the political implications of failure in Kosovo are equally grave. If a united international community is unable to improve matters in a relatively benign environment, what chances of a divided international community succeeding in more hostile places, like Iraq?

During a recent visit, which included Kosovo and Serbia, Denis MacShane, the United Kingdom Foreign Office Minister covering the Balkans, was quick to recognise how crucial it has become to head off another crisis. As a consequence, the British government has taken the initiative in trying to rouse the United States, France, Germany and Russia out of the complacent slumber into which their Balkan policies have fallen.

For two years after 1999 Kosovo appeared to develop well. The reconstruction boom conferred an air of swift growth and prosperity. But after that huge cash injection dried up the economy began to contract at a time when refugees were being turned out of their host countries in Europe.

The UN operation stagnated, proving itself especially poor at devolving political power to local instances as a colonialist mentality gripped its staff.

Little progress has been made on the difficult question of final status; that is, a constitutional settlement that would allow everyone to get on with their lives. The Albanians still seek outright independence, while the Serbian government in Belgrade is prepared only to concede limited autonomy for Albanians.

The international community should be acting as mediator between the two sides, but instead it prefers to watch this futile dialogue of the deaf from the sidelines. Meanwhile, the Kosovo economy has been sinking disastrously, in part thanks to the Kosovo Trust Agency, the privatisation body sullied by a stench of incompetence and corruption.

As tens of thousands of school leavers enter the non-existent labour market every year, unemployment has raced up to 65%. And it is these frustrated kids who formed the mob in March, targeting not just Serbs but representatives of the UN and Kfor as well.

Jessen-Petersen has much to do in a short space of time. He must address the economy to prevent unemployment rising further. He needs to start dismantling the UN operation, which is regarded with contempt, and invest all local governing structures with greater authority.

Simultaneously, he has to persuade Albanian politicians to encourage the return of Serbian refugees driven from their homes. For that he needs money and support from the international community. If the Serbs don’t come back, Kosovo will continue its perilous drift towards partition, a process with the gravest implications for the stability of south Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

And if that were not enough, he must devise a strategy that will lead to a final status enabling Serbia and Kosovo to accelerate the process of European integration. If he fails, the Balkans will be making front-page splashes once again for all the wrong reasons. — Â

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