- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The U.N. administration has overstayed its welcome in Kosovo and now is hurting the province’s ability to attract investment, fight corruption and adopt needed economic reforms, Kosovo’s prime minister said in an interview yesterday.

Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi said the inability of the international community to provide an “ultimate vision” for Kosovo “has prolonged the uncertainty about what we can do and where we are heading.”

“It has made our job very much harder, because from the beginning it was not clear what was expected of us or where the road map would finally lead,” he said.

Mr. Rexhepi, in town for today’s National Prayer Breakfast, will meet with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs. The visit comes five years after a U.S.-led coalition ousted forces dispatched by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to crack down on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.

While global attention has since shifted to Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO’s 18,500-strong force in Kosovo remains the alliance’s largest single military mission.

Mr. Rexhepi said Kosovo’s Albanians, who make up an estimated 90 percent of the population, remain overwhelmingly committed to gaining independence from Serbia. But many NATO powers, especially in Europe, fear that independence could cause new political instability and ethnic tensions in the still-fragile Balkans.

Some 220,000 Serbs who fled Kosovo during the war remain in Serbia, and are just beginning to trickle back home. Another 80,000 Serbs who remain in Kosovo are confined largely to enclaves protected by the NATO-led Kosovo security force.

Mr. Rexhepi said Kosovo’s uncertain future has put off potential investors in the still-struggling economy. The interim Kosovo government, which holds its second parliamentary elections in September, cannot issue contract and property guarantees the foreign investors demand. Privatization deals for state-owned industries in Kosovo have also been delayed.

The Kosovar prime minister said U.S. engagement in the province’s future was critical because European powers lacked the military capabilities to underwrite the security mission. An American role in Kosovo’s military and political future was a vital symbol, he said, to reassure Kosovars and prevent the province’s neighbors, and Serbia, from meddling in the final status discussions.

“Kosovo is perhaps the one part of Europe where Americans right now are most popular,” he said, adding that he foresaw a U.S. security role in supporting Kosovo lasting at least a decade.

Mr. Rexhepi praised the announcement late last year by the so-called “contact group” — the United States, Britain, Italy, France, Germany and Russia — that Kosovo’s progress will be evaluated on eight political, legal and social benchmarks in mid-2005, which he said could clear the way for talks on Kosovo’s ultimate political status.

Mr. Grossman, on a tour of the Balkans in December, stressed the planned evaluation did not mean support for Kosovo’s independence, but Mr. Rexhepi said the announcement has been taken as a sign in Kosovo of renewed U.S. attention to the Kosovo question.

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