In Kosovo, Two Peoples Look Across Bitter Divide

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro -- Six years after the end of warfare here, fear and suspicion still enforce a strict separation of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, but for the first time both sides are beginning to picture a future in which they might -- just might -- live together.

Talks began Monday in Pristina on the future legal status of an area that has been under the administration of the United Nations since U.S.-led bombing forced out Serbian forces in 1999. Anti-Serb riots in March 2004 stoked fear here and in foreign capitals of new violence between the two populations, and possibly even between Serbia and Kosovo, prompting the U.S. and European governments to endorse the talks.

"This is about ending a dispute of more than a century," said Avni Arifi, an adviser to Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi. "The only way to move forward is to talk. Otherwise anything can happen, mostly bad."

"It's time to show some political maturity and do something about this conflict," said Sanda Raskovic, an official in Belgrade who will be part of the Serbian negotiating team.

Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president who was appointed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to mediate the talks, arrived by air Monday in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, to open a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at finding common ground. Officials in Pristina and Belgrade, the Serbian capital, say they will eventually sit down and speak directly.

NATO began its bombing campaign in 1999 in response to the killing of Albanian civilians during a Serb crackdown on Albanian separatist guerrillas. Despite six years of U.N. administration, Kosovo remains officially a province of Serbia.

The Albanian majority demands full independence. Serbia wants to keep Kosovo within its territorial bounds, albeit with substantial autonomy. "Kosovo is part of Serbia, and not only part of its history but also part of its present and future," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told parliament in Belgrade on Monday.

The United States and European governments will wield strong influence in the negotiations. Many analysts predict they will eventually pressure and cajole the two sides into accepting a status being called "conditional independence."

Under such a framework, Kosovo would formally separate from Serbia, but would remain for an extended period under some type of international supervision, with foreign peacekeeping troops continuing their patrols, as in nearby Bosnia, where a U.S.-brokered peace deal initialed 10 years ago ended another of the Balkans' ethnic wars.

The talks represent a dramatic shift in course for the outside powers. After 1999, they told the Albanians that talks on final status would begin only if they improved the rule of law and the protection of Serbs in Kosovo. But after the riots of 2004, in which Albanian mobs torched close to a thousand Serb houses, foreign officials concluded that the current framework was untenable. They authorized talks while continuing to pressure the Albanians to rein in lawlessness.

A visit to Kosovo shows how stagnant and yet volatile the situation is. The majority population of 2 million Albanians and the minority Serbs, now numbering about 100,000, live in separate, mutually hostile worlds. A bridge over a river that separates Serb and Albanian parts of the northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica carries little traffic. Sharp-eyed men on both sides warily look over anyone who crosses.

The Serb population of Pristina is down to 120 from about 40,000 in 1999. Serbs' homes have been occupied by Albanians. The few Serbs who dare come into town complain of harassment.

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