- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

BREZOVICA, Serbia-Montenegro. — Iraq is not the only trouble spot where the West has tried to import democracy only to realize it’s much more complex and painstaking than initially perceived. Nor is the United States alone in this venture.

Western powers have been working five years, since June 1999, to democratize Kosovo, a disputed region in what remains of the former Yugoslavia, now comprised of only Serbia and Montenegro. The other republics of the former federation — Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia Herzegovina — have broken away, claiming their independence. The separation from Belgrade was often achieved violently.

Kosovo is comprised largely of ethnic Albanians and a number of other minorities, of which Kosovar Serbs, the largest minority, make up about 7 percent of the population of 2 million. Serbs are Christian-Orthodox, while Albanians for the most part are Muslim. Kosovar Muslims, who are relaxed in their religion, say the conflict in Kosovo is not faith-based but ethnic. The tiny 3 percent Catholic Albanian population, for its part, feels fully integrated in the Albanian community and shares the Muslims’ apprehension of Serbs.

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find the “Islamic look” or a veiled woman in Kosovo. Initial efforts by Saudi Arabia to import its brand of conservative Islam to Kosovo failed utterly. Islamist groups who invested funds building mosques and schools have withdrawn, except for one involved in health care.

The province, technically still part of Serbia and Montenegro, struggles to convince the world — and the Western governing powers that administer it — of its readiness for independence.

The majority ethnic Albanians will have difficulty persuading Serbia and its President Boris Tadic to sever the umbilical cord attaching the province to Serbia. Many of Serbia’s most treasured historic churches are in Kosovo, such as in Metohija.

In an editorial published during his mid-July U.S. visit seeking reassurances from the United States, Mr. Tadic said Serbia is working for a lasting and just peace for “our southern province,” meaning Kosovo.

At issue, besides the old churches, are Kosovo’s Serbs. They fear for themselves if Serbia withdraws from the province. The precariousness of Serbian-Albanian relations was demonstrated by what in Kosovo are called “the March incidents.”

What transpired between March 16-18 depends largely on whether you ask Serbs or Albanians. And the answer is still not clear. What is clear, however, is that trouble broke out after four Albanian boys were chased, some say by Serbs with a dog. The boys took fright, ran, fell in a swollen river and drowned. One survived to tell the story.

It did not take long for the story to make the rounds of the Kosovar media, which fed the frenzy of the crowds, triggering a new round of violence. The result was 19 killed — 11 Albanians and eight Serbs — 600 injured, thousands evicted from their homes, hundreds of Serb houses destroyed and 35 Serb churches burned. In its haste, and probably to avoid further ethnic violence, UNMIK, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, quickly closed the case, claiming the dog could not be found.

After the “incidents,” the U.N.-appointed civilian media administrator blamed the local media for fanning the flames, pointing the finger at one particular local television channel. The media in turn blamed the international security forces KFOR, or Kosovo Force, for not being more prepared.

KFOR is the postwar multinational security force created to provide security in Kosovo. It is comprised of NATO forces, of which the U.S. is a major contributor along with a number of Eastern European nations, such as Bulgaria and Ukraine.

KFOR, the media say, was caught completely by surprise, lacking proper intelligence. KFOR did not anticipate the level of violence and had far too few troops deployed on the ground to handle the crisis. Does this sound familiar?

The chasm between the two communities was distinctly apparent during a multi-ethnic symposium on the crisis role of the media. The meeting, arranged by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, heard Serb and Albanian journalists’ conflicting reports of the March incidents. Each side accused the other of being unprofessional, of distorting the facts and of escalating the crisis.

Kosovo, meanwhile, continues under UNMIK administration. Although Kosovo has a “president,” an ethnic Albanian supported by a full Cabinet, UNMIK is the real power.

It took the United States, with U.N. assistance, just a few weeks to put together Iraq’s interim government. The slower-working United Nations and European Union have now been working for five years to democratize Kosovo.

Many in Kosovo remain critical of UNMIK. They accuse it of being too slow in establishing the institutions needed to allow Kosovo’s transition to democracy and possibly independence. Much as in Iraq, the concept of democracy has been largely absent. While Iraq was ruled by a dictator for the last 30 years, Kosovo was part of Josip Broz Tito’s communist Yugoslavia; ethnic Albanians had little if any say running the province.

The United States, an active member of the nation-building powers in Kosovo, should have drawn lessons from UNMIK’s experience when it came to Iraq. Kosovo offers a prime example of ethnic divides and tensions, of a crisis that could erupt into a conflict at a moment’s notice and of the difficulties of introducing coherent democracy in such an environment.

Unlike Iraq, where the United States believed it could instill democracy almost by osmosis, UNMIK went about the task far more systematically — some would say bureaucratically, as is typical of the United Nations.

It set about establishing four “pillars” of support: police and justice, civil administration, the OSCE — comprised of some 55 nations, including the European Union and the United States; and reconstruction, being paid for by the EU.

Part of the OSCE’s mission includes democratizing the province, establishing an independent media and providing parliamentary support and help in local elections.

Kosovars, by the way, will go to the polls next October for the fourth time since arrival of the international community — this time to re-elect their parliament.

Kosovar Albanians are convinced they will be granted independence, some believe by 2005. “We have no ties to Serbia,” said Fatos Bytyci, an ethnic Albanian journalist. “There are borders with custom checks between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovar Albanians have long stopped applying for Serbian passports, refusing to sign a waiver stating they are citizens of Serbia,” he said. Instead, Kosovar Albanians are issued U.N. travel documents. And the province has opted to use the euro as its currency instead of Belgrade’s dinar.

In fact, the only remaining connection to Serbia, explains Mr. Bytyci, “is that international telephone calls into the province share the same country dialing code.”

Many feel the March incidents reversed the progress made in the last five years.

“If they refuse to grant us independence, then war will break out again,” warns Mr. Bytyci, who predicts ethnic Albanians will fight for separation from Serbia and self-governance. But the Serbs are also likely to fight to prevent such an outcome.

Ironically, once independent, Kosovar Albanians hope for EU membership, which Serbia also wants eventually. But first, both sides must work out their differences.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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