Independence cry

INDEPENDENCE CRY: Kosovo Albanians rally in Pristina, the provincial capital, to press their leaders to follow through with promises of independence from Serbia. (AFP/Getty Images)

To Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, independence means control of lucrative coal mines and multimillion-dollar investment funds. It also means freedom from what they see as repressive Serbian governments.

For many Serbs, independence for Kosovo is the ultimate indignity, the amputation of 15% of their country's territory, a land of historical and cultural significance.

As officials from Pristina and Belgrade on Monday failed to find a compromise solution for the province populated by about 2 million ethnic Albanians and 100,000 Serbs, the search for a final resolution moved to a divided, reluctant United Nations and European Union.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian government on Monday reiterated its intention to declare independence sometime next year, after coordinating with Washington and several European countries that are sure to approve.

"Kosovo and the people of Kosovo urgently need clarity on their future," a government spokesman, Skender Hyseni, said Monday in Pristina, the provincial capital.

However the next steps play out, officials, experts and ordinary people on both sides warn of violent repercussions that could destabilize a volatile part of the world. Another all-out war here seems unlikely, but even minor incidents have a tendency to snowball in the Balkans.

"An incident, a provocation, and the security situation could unravel very quickly," said a senior official with the U.N. mission that has governed Kosovo since U.S.-led NATO forces forcibly expelled Serbian troops who were waging a brutal crackdown on Albanian separatists in 1999.

Today, 16,000 NATO troops patrol Kosovo, primarily to protect the minority Serbs who still live in enclaves scattered throughout the province. Germany sent a 550-member rapid deployment force and Britain has offered another battalion in anticipation of possible bloodshed.

The worst spasm of postwar violence occurred in 2004, when riots by Albanians left 28 people dead, most of them Serbs. Albanian gangs drove thousands of Serbs from their homes and burned Serbian Orthodox churches.

In Pristina, a large segment of the ethnic Albanian population, as well as the government itself, is in a kind of limbo, waiting for independence.

Among them are people such as Kushtrim Mahmutaj, 26, who as a teen took up a gun with the guerrilla army that fought Serbian forces nearly a decade ago. Mahmutaj has been biding his time, putting off marriage and education, until his new state has a military, which he hopes to join. "We have been very patient until now," Mahmutaj said. "But we fought and died just to establish a country. We could lose control in a second."

Although the Kosovo Liberation Army, as the guerrillas were known, formally disbanded, many of its fighters remain connected to their commanders and could be mobilized quickly. Several thousand were incorporated into a quasi-police force.

Shadowy groups have sprung up recently, threatening subversive attacks. Masked men calling themselves the Albanian National Army appeared before television cameras to issue dark threats against Serbs on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians. And a group called Czar Lazar's Guard (named for a medieval Serbian hero) has staged several rallies and claimed it will do battle for the Serbs.

It is difficult to say how seriously any of these groups should be taken, but the potential for extremist violence is real.

Frustration has spread throughout the impoverished villages and battered, nouveau-riche cities of Kosovo's Albanians. In elections last month to choose the next parliament and prime minister, the turnout was startlingly low, a reflection of apathy and disgust with politicians who have failed to deliver independence and to build a functioning government.

"Our people have realized their leaders are not leaders; the people don't believe anymore," said Teuta Sahatqija, deputy head of a major political party, Ora, and a leading businesswoman who opened Kosovo's first Motorola dealership after the war.

Her fear, she said, is that if Kosovo's status is not soon resolved, the void will be filled by more radical leaders for whom violence is an immediate option.

Kosovo's officials have used the pending independence as a pretext to postpone development, analysts in Pristina say. Kosovo's government remains riddled with corruption, and there is scant progress in efforts to rein in criminal gangs notorious for trafficking women, weapons and drugs.

Officials in Belgrade, backed steadfastly by Russia, argue that secession by Kosovo violates international law. A U.N. resolution at the end of the 1999 war recognized Serbia's current borders; Belgrade interprets the resolution as international endorsement of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo.