Kosovo looms over vote in Serbia

Times Staff Writer

Once the most powerful of the former Yugoslav republics and a kingdom that reached from the Adriatic to the Aegean, Serbia is about to lose the only vestige of its days of glory: Kosovo.

United Nations mediators say they will unveil their plan for the province, which is predominantly ethnic Albanian and Muslim, and has been governed as a U.N. protectorate since 1999, sometime after today’s Serbian general elections.

Although the result of their deliberations appears to be a foregone conclusion and most outsiders have viewed Kosovo as a separate entity since a U.S.-led NATO air campaign forced the withdrawal of Serbian security forces, Serbs hardly see the same reality.

The imminent loss of the province has been a central issue in the parliamentary campaign. Serbian politicians, intent on proving their loyalty to the country’s traditional identity, have pulled out the stops to convince the world that the province should remain within their nation’s borders.


They have hired the high-powered Republican-affiliated lobbying firm of Barbour Griffith & Rogers in Washington. The Serbian Orthodox Church has allied itself with televangelist Pat Robertson, who shares its concern about the rise of Muslim influence in the West.

Serbian political leaders have been on the phone to the Russians, fellow Slavs who have veto power in the U.N. Security Council, which would have to approve any broad independence deal.

Symbol of righteousness

Why does the province exert such a hold on the Serbian imagination? Landlocked, poor and now populated mostly by ethnic Albanians hostile to Serbs, it nonetheless has become a symbol of Serbia’s image of itself as a righteous nation, a beacon of the Orthodox Christian world.

“We were all raised on the Kosovo myth ... and Serbs, even if they don’t go there, see it as part of their country, part of our history,” said Rade Stanic, editor of the newsweekly Evropa.

Every Serbian schoolchild studies the epic poetry that describes the 14th century battle of medieval Serbian princes against the Turks. Although the Turks won, Serbs believe they won in the eyes of heaven by martyring themselves on Kosovo Polje, the battlefield that gives the province its name.

Prince Lazar, the hero, is given a choice by a gray falcon on the eve of the battle: “Which kingdom is it that you long for most? / Will you choose a heavenly crown today? / Or will you choose an earthly crown?”

Lazar chooses heaven. “Earthly kingdoms are such passing things / A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally,” he says.


To this day, Kosovo is thought of as Serbia’s Jerusalem. The seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the titular home of the patriarch, its spiritual leader, as well as some of its most beautiful and historic monasteries, are at Pec, deep in Kosovo.

However, Kosovo’s population now is 90% ethnic Albanian. A majority of them are Muslims; most of the rest are Catholics.

Serb politicians’ mantra

The election campaign in Serbia has focused on many immediate issues such as unemployment and inflation, but talk of Kosovo’s status has also been a mantra. On this issue, there is little difference in the positions of the leading parties, all of which support Kosovo remaining part of Serbia.


The likely outcome of the elections will be a split among the three leading parties: The Radical Party, led by Vojislav Seselj, who is being held in The Hague on war crimes charges, takes a nationalist stand and believes that Serbia must confront the West; the party of Vojislav Kostunica, the current prime minister, advocates a slow rapprochement with Europe and the West; and the party of President Boris Tadic is more Western-leaning.

Kostunica, a lawyer by training, has endeavored to make a strong case that under international law, no sovereign country has ever been forced to grant independence to part of its territory. Serbs argue that it is as if Florida wanted to be a separate country, and the world decided that the U.S. should be compelled to give it independence.

U.S. diplomats queried on the point said that lawyers had not looked at the precedents but that Kosovo’s case was different because it had been a U.N. protectorate, and that the Serbian “ethnic cleansing” there in 1999 in effect ended Serbia’s right to control the province.

But Kostunica’s argument has resonated with Russian leaders, who fear that if Kosovo can be taken away from Serbia, they could lose areas of Russia that aspire to independence, such as Chechnya.


If Russia opposes independence at the Security Council, ethnic Albanian officials would have to declare independence and wait for countries to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, a far more unwieldy process.

Serbian political analysts believe that the West has failed to take into account the potential for a nationalist backlash if Kosovo separates. In that case, the Radical Party, with its more isolationist ideology, would gain significant support, they argue.

“It would be best if things stay as they are; Kosovo already has a sort of de facto independence. But political symbolism is very important, and the United States and the international community is wrong to push for a formal resolution of Kosovo’s status,” said Djordje Vukadinovic, a professor of political science at Belgrade University.

“The status quo leaves the illusion of sovereignty and allows Serbia not to lose face by having its territory shrink again,” he said. “It’s a mirage, but mirages are useful in politics and it would mean a reduction in radicalism, which Washington does not want and which would otherwise grow.”


Waiting game

Diplomats said it was possible that the U.N. would delay an announcement of Kosovo’s status until after Serbia forms a government, which could take a month or more.

In the meantime, Kosovo’s Albanians have become increasingly frustrated with the slow movement on their province’s status, and some experts warn that spring could bring a renewal of violence.

Vukadinovic and others point out that Serbs never refer to Kosovo’s “final status,” the terminology used by Kosovo’s Albanians and by the West, but speak of its “future” status.


“Saying ‘future’ status suggests that there could be other futures after the next one, and it leaves open the possibility that the Serbs will control Kosovo again,” said a political consultant in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, who asked not to be named because of the subject’s political sensitivity. He noted that it took more than four centuries after the Serbs’ defeat by the Turks for them to regain control of Kosovo, but that eventually they succeeded.

“Serbs don’t think in years,” he said, “they think in centuries.”

Special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic contributed to this report.