What is independence worth if nobody wants to live in your state?
Peace movements generally tend to be critical of nationalism, and less than enthusiastic about demands for self-determination unless it is for liberation from colonialism. Working for multicultural coexistence in other contexts, the dismal logic of the nationalisms of former-Yugoslavia -- that each ethnic group needs its own territory -- doesn't resonate with us. What is dangerous, however, is to deny the right to self-determination, to condemn a people to live in subjection, and this is what happened in Kosovo in the 20th century. It is dangerous both in the frustration and bitterness it sows among the subjected people, and in what it concedes to the dominant power.
The Kosovo Albanian nonviolent struggle in the early 1990s created an opportunity for international organizations to address this conflict and prevent a war that was widely predicted. At that time, the "independence" envisaged by Kosovo Albanian leaders was of a state that would be neutral and demilitarized, with open borders. However, to avert war, they were prepared to negotiate for lesser goals -- as long as these did not involved subordination to Serbia. In 1993 "president" Ibrahim Rugova proposed that Kosovo should become a UN protectorate. Adem Demaçi, Kosovo's most famous long-term political prisoner, proposed that Kosovo should become an equal partner in a new three-republic federation of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.
At this same time, Serb nationalists -- including some linked with the Orthodox Church and some who had initiated the anti-Albanian campaign (before Milosevic took up the issue) -- were beginning to see that their plan to "re-Serbianize" Kosovo was unrealistic and doomed. Therefore they too began to think of proposals for negotiation. What today is called "decentralization" of Kosovo began in the 1990s as a proposal for "cantonization."
International diplomats, however, were determined that Kosovo Albanians resign themselves to the Serbian-imposed "reality." Before there could be negotiations, diplomats repeatedly told Rugova, "you have to give up your demand for independence," to which Rugova and his colleagues replied "not before talks even begin." Even as late as 1997, they convinced Rugova to get students to postpone their demonstrations. When the students replied that they had the right to protest for education, something happened that Kosovo had not seen before: a delegation of 12 senior diplomats -- including the US, British, and Dutch ambassadors (the Dutch held the EU presidency at that time) -- arrived in Prishtina in a vain attempt to restrain the students' union.
There is no stronger illustration that international diplomacy was relying on Kosovo Albanian endurance and passivity to prevent the outbreak of war in Kosovo, instead of developing a strategy for peace based on ending Serbian domination. When Kosovo nonviolence was taken for granted, the ethnic polarization in the territory deepened, until finally some Kosovo Albanians turned to arms and Serbian security forces took reprisals against them by committing atrocities against the civilian population. At last, it seemed to Kosovo Albanians as if the rest of the world had woken up.
Whatever possibilities for negotiation and alternative arrangements that might have existed in the mid-1990s ended with the war. The years since have done nothing to re-establish common ground. The February 17, 2008 declaration of independence may have been a watershed moment, but the momentum was already moving towards a unilateral solution.
Since the 1999 war, Kosovo Albanians have focused on creating an independent, unitary state. Meanwhile, successive governments in Serbia have contrived to manipulate the situation to maintain ethnic tensions, to prevent independence, and perhaps to achieve some kind of partition. The largely contiguous Serbian-majority area to the north of Mitrovica has been outside Prishtina's control for at least the past year, a situation seen by many Kosovo Albanians as a prelude to partition.
It cannot be denied that there are reasons for Serbs in Kosovo to fear for their safety and their freedom of movement, as shown by the attacks on Serbs immediately after the war and again in March 2004. However, one has to question the strategies of Kosovo Serbs in this situation. Mostly, they continue to do the bidding of Belgrade.
In the centre and south of Kosovo, where Serbs are still fearful but more willing to look at cohabitation with Albanians, an alternative political leadership has yet to emerge. During most of the period of UN control, Serb teachers and medics in Kosovo received their first wage from Prishtina and a matching second or even third wage from Belgrade in order to keep them in Kosovo. This strategy was seemingly endorsed by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, who proposed that Kosovo Serb municipalities have direct links to Serbia itself, in a similar fashion to the status of the Serbian areas of Bosnia.
The Belgrade government's treatment of the Serbs who fled from Kosovo is clear evidence that it is not motivated by sincere concern for the welfare of Kosovo Serbs. Humanitarian principles are that refugees and displaced people should have a choice about returning to their homes or settling in their new situation. Belgrade has maintained them as visible victims -- therefore withholding cooperation when international agencies have offered job retraining, keeping them as far as possible in grim collective centres, and of course taking busloads of them to demonstrations when there are international visitors.
Some Serbs protest that they are all being punished for the crimes of Milosevic. The policies implemented by Milosevic in Kosovo were not originated by him and, unfortunately, were not widely opposed. Subsequently, although the Kostunica government was willing to exhume the mass graves of Kosovo Albanians killed in Kosovo and then transported to Serbia, there has been no public investigation of very precise reports on the incineration of cadavers from Kosovo in industrial furnaces in Serbia. In general, there has been less acknowledgement of what Serbia did in Kosovo than of what it did in Bosnia.
Since the war, Kosovo's history of being let down by the international community continued under the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). a colonial imposition, answerable neither to local people nor to international standards. UNMIK's role in Kosovo has continued after the February declaration of independence, and even after the proclamation of a new constitution in June 2008; in line with Security Council Resolution 1244, the UN is still the supreme authority in Kosovo though in practice this authority is limited to some (but not all)of the Serbian-majority areas.
The European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX),was deployed in March this year. Intended to replace UNMIK's policing and civil responsiblitiesunder the Ahtisaari plan, EULEX has failed so far to show greater accountability than UNMIK -- which is itself still present in Kosovo.
At the time of their first, and largely symbolic, declaration of independence in 1991, Kosovo Albanians were ready to work for a new society. They were engaged in eliminating the blood feud and in improving the status of women.
Since the war, the blood feud has returned -- not based on the traditional code and rituals, but employing contract killers. As for the situation of women -- the Kosovo Albanian negotiating team has been all male. Moreover, the UNMIK period has left a legacy of widespread corruption.
What is independence worth if nobody wants to live in your state? (47% of Albanians and 53% of Serbs between 18-24 have plans to leave) Can there be real self-determination when organized crime flourishes and unemployment is at least 40%? What price democracy when politicians are self-seeking, corrupt, looking to the past and lacking a vision beyond independence? The question of independence has obsessed Kosovo Albanians. Now is the time to restore values and hope.
Howard Clark is the author of Civil Resistance in Kosovo (Pluto Press, 2000), and is chair of War Resisters' International.