Kosovo takes a big leap of faith

Times Staff Writer

In a move that inflamed tensions in this volatile region, the ethnic Albanian government of Kosovo on Sunday proclaimed the province independent from Serbia, forming a new and troubled country in Europe.

The United States, biggest sponsor of independence for Kosovo, is expected to quickly recognize the new state, as will some European nations. But Russia is adamantly opposed, along with Serbia, and the United Nations is unlikely to voice support for Kosovo’s unilateral action, setting up a thorny dispute reminiscent of the Cold War.

The declaration of independence was met by wild celebrations in Kosovo, violent protests in Serbia and a hastily called meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which failed to take any action.


The secession of Kosovo marks the latest and presumably final chapter in the blood-soaked dissolution of what was once Yugoslavia. Kosovo joins five former republics that, beginning in 1991 with Slovenia, have withdrawn from Belgrade’s reign and become sovereign states, often through devastating warfare.

Here in the frigid, snow-dusted streets of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, jubilant ethnic Albanians celebrated what for them was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. All day long and into the night, they marched shoulder to shoulder down Mother Teresa Boulevard, many wrapped in the red-and-black flag of neighboring Albania as fireworks exploded across the sky.

“This is a great day, the best day in our lives,” gushed Elmi Berisha, 37, a real estate broker.

“Happy independence!” friends and acquaintances called out to one another amid hugs and kisses. Cars, their horns blaring, choked downtown Pristina; families danced; nationalist songs filled the air; and people partied endlessly in bars and restaurants offering free Independence Day food and drink. U.S. flags were a common sight, and a few revelers fired guns in celebration. Others chanted the name of the guerrilla army that fought Serbs in the last decade to gain independence for the province, which is 90% ethnic Albanian.

U.S. Embassy attacked

In the Serbian capital, Belgrade, small but determined gangs attacked the U.S. Embassy with chunks of concrete, torched garbage dumpsters, trashed cars and fought with police in frustrated anger over Kosovo’s declaration.

Serbian riot police beat back attempts by demonstrators to invade Belgrade’s only mosque, but two McDonald’s restaurants, the Slovenian Embassy -- Slovenia holds the rotating presidency of the European Union -- and offices of the only Serbian political party advocating recognition of a free Kosovo were ransacked.

The protesters chanted demands for war and attacked TV crews. Authorities said 12 people were arrested, and B92 television reported that 65 people, including at least 30 police, were injured.

The rioters may have been inspired by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who used a televised address to reiterate Serbia’s fierce refusal to recognize Kosovo.

“Today . . . a false state of Kosovo was illegally declared on the part of Serbia that is under the military control of NATO,” Kostunica said. “A destructive, cruel and immoral policy carried out by the U.S. led to this unprecedented act of lawlessness.”

Earlier in the day, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci made official the proclamation that had long been anticipated: “We, the democratically elected leaders of our people,” he said in a special session of parliament, “hereby declare Kosovo to be an independent and sovereign state.”

Thaci made a point of reading a portion of his speech in the Serbian language and emphasized that the new Kosovo would respect the rights of its Serbian minority, many of whom have been harassed and fear for their well-being. The parliament also approved a new flag, a blue background with a yellow map of the Connecticut-sized province.

“We never lost faith in the dream that one day we would stand among the free nations of the world, and today we do,” said Thaci, a former guerrilla leader.

Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations for nearly a decade, after NATO bombers in 1999 drove out Serbian forces that were attacking ethnic Albanian separatists. An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed in that war, and many more displaced.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who commanded NATO at the time, said in a television interview Sunday that the brutality of then-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic’s “ethnic cleansing” made it “inevitable” that Kosovo would never again be ruled by Belgrade.

Most of Kosovo’s nearly 2 million people are Muslim but are largely secular and pro-Western. Serbia is an Orthodox Christian nation with historical cultural ties to the Kosovo region, part of the reason it is so valued by Belgrade.

‘Real challenges’

Beyond Sunday’s jubilation among Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, and Serb consternation, lies a problematic road ahead for the new state. Despite nine years of tutelage and billions of donated dollars, Kosovo is a long way from operating as a real country.

“We know Kosovo faces real challenges in creating a functioning state,” said Kosovo’s president, Fatmir Sejdiu.

Kosovo has a very young and mostly unemployed population. Its treatment of women is deplorable, according to human rights activists -- Kosovo is a major transit point and sometimes origin for the trafficking of women forced into prostitution. Poverty and official corruption are rampant, and basic infrastructure is so poor that there are daily power outages. Minorities, including an estimated 100,000 Serbs, have been subjected to abuse and discrimination, and fewer than 10% of those forced from their homes in a wave of postwar revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians have returned.

Kosovo relies on a 16,000-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization force for basic security, has virtually no productive economy and instead lives by donations, and will continue, even in independence, to be supervised by a large EU contingent of police and judicial officers.

Moreover, the expectations of average Kosovo citizens that statehood will solve all their problems are widely seen as unrealistically high.

“It’s going to be the shortest honeymoon you’ve ever seen,” said analyst Shpend Ahmeti of Pristina’s Institute for Advanced Studies. “They’ve linked every problem with status. And now, status will not be an excuse anymore.”

Kosovo officials argue that because the status of their aspirant nation was in limbo, it was impossible to make long-term government plans.

“I don’t believe we are ready,” said Berisha, the real estate broker. “We will continue to need support. But they have to teach us to walk. They can’t walk for us anymore.”

Also among the revelers Sunday were cousins Hasam and Gazmend Mehani, who were waving huge Albanian flags, plus one Italian flag for good measure.

“We’re just hoping for things to be better,” said Gazmend, 25 and unemployed for the last nine years. Hasam, 42, said he was confident that independence would bring peace and happiness to Kosovo. But he has no plans to return to live in Kosovo, preferring to stay abroad in Switzerland.

“I’ll wait for things to settle out,” he said.

International diplomacy will also have to settle out in the coming days. European Union foreign ministers will meet today to decide what position to take on Kosovo.

Although Washington is expected to recognize the new country of Kosovo, President Bush did not offer such acknowledgment Sunday. Traveling in Africa, he said resolving Kosovo’s status was key to stability in the Balkans and urged all parties to avoid violence.

Russia calls meeting

Russia, a key ally of Serbia, called an emergency Security Council meeting Sunday, hours after the declaration of independence, and asked U.N. officials in Kosovo to declare the proclamation of independence “null and void.” Russia and Serbia maintain that Kosovo’s action violates international law. The U.N., however, is not expected to intervene.

“We will also strongly warn against any attempts at repressive measures should Serbs in Kosovo decide not to comply with this unilateral proclamation of independence,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said before entering the closed council meeting.

He was alluding to Serbs in the divided Kosovo city of Kosovska Mitrovica who are threatening to secede from Kosovo. In the city on Sunday, assailants tossed hand grenades at EU and U.N. buildings, causing damage but no injuries.

Russia and several European countries that oppose independence argue that it sets a dangerous precedent for separation-minded ethnic minorities in other nations. The presidents of the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are scheduled to address a joint news conference in Moscow today, and analysts believe they may declare independence for their regions and seek Moscow’s recognition.

Times staff writers Maggie Farley at the United Nations, James Gerstenzang in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.