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Thursday, Nov. 16, 2000

Seventeen months have passed since NATO replaced Belgrade as the effective power in Kosovo, even as the province remained nominally part of Serbia. As long as Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, held on to the Yugoslav presidency, relations between Serbia and Kosovo – or perhaps more critically, between Serbia and NATO’s member states – had little chance of improving. But at present, after the dramatic changes in Belgrade that culminated in the ascension of new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, the situation is more fluid.


Having suffered notoriously under Milosevic’s opportunist brand of nationalism for more than a decade, the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo might have been expected to celebrate the Serb leader’s fall from power with special fervor. Yet in pointed contrast to the West’s enthusiastic embrace of Kostunica, Kosovar Albanians have reacted stoically. Rather than voicing optimism over the promise of an improved relationship with Serbia, most ethnic Albanians have been reluctant even to acknowledge that circumstances have changed in any meaningful way. Evidently, in the view of the Albanian majority, the best possible relationship with Serbia is no relationship at all.

It is still too early to make firm predictions as to what the future holds for Kosovo and Serbia, but the many issues raised by Milosevic’s ouster merit examination. Indeed, in the less than two months since Kostunica took office, events have proceeded at a rapid pace.

Kosovo’s Hostage Crisis

If any single issue continues to anger Kosovo’s Albanian population, it is the question of some 800 ethnic Albanians still held in Serbian prisons. Earlier this week, tens of thousands of Albanians demonstrated in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, to demand the prisoners’ immediate release.

The ethnic Albanian "hostages," as they are called, were brought to Serbia before the Yugoslav forces left Kosovo in June 1999. Some have been prosecuted for terrorism and other crimes, on the basis of little or no evidence besides their ethnicity; others have been detained without trial. Of the over 2,000 prisoners who were originally transferred from Kosovo to Serbia proper, over 1,000 have already been released after the charges against them were dropped or their sentences served. But the rest remain incarcerated.

Kostunica initially made statements indicating a degree of sympathy with the view that the fates of the ethnic Albanian prisoners and the missing Serbs should be linked. But he also appears to recognize the importance of rapid and unconditional prisoner releases. Indeed, to the extent that we view the prisoner issue as a litmus test for Kostunica’s willingness to depart from Milosevic’s repressive policies, there are good reasons for optimism.

Specifically, Kostunica has pledged to initiate the drafting of an amnesty law that is expected to cover both Albanian and Serbian political prisoners. And on November 1, putting his good intentions into rapid effect, he signed a special decree releasing Dr. Flora Brovina, a human rights campaigner who was perhaps the most prominent of the detained Albanians. It seems like only a matter of time before the others will follow.

Dealing with the Past: An Accounting of Serb Abuses

But the prisoners are just the most pressing of the many human rights concerns related to Serb repression in Kosovo. Thousands of ethnic Albanians who disappeared since the start of the Kosovo crisis in 1998 remain missing. The fate of thousands of others is known – their bodies fill Kosovo’s graveyards – but the bitterness and resentment caused by their killings have not gone away. Long after the last ethnic Albanian prisoner has returned to Kosovo, the larger question of how to deal with past Serb abuses will persist.

The issues of truth and justice will be central to any effort to deal with the past. As its most prominent indictee, Milosevic had no incentive to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal set up by the United Nations to prosecute abuses in the former Yugoslavia. In contrast, Kostunica, in an encouraging move, recently agreed to allow the court to open offices in Belgrade. While Kostunica has previously criticized the court and is unlikely to hand over Milosevic for prosecution any time soon, the president’s recent statements do not rule out that possibility in the long run. Instead, he carefully explains that Milosevic’s extradition to the Hague is not yet a priority.

Kostunica’s reformist Foreign Minister, Goran Svilanovic, has announced plans to set up a truth commission to establish the facts about Serbia’s war crimes. If properly constituted, this commission, too, would represent an important step forward. Although reconciliation seems far too ambitious a word to employ in today’s Kosovo, a frank acknowledgment of past abuses by the Serbian authorities could only improve relations between Serbs and Albanians.

The Impact of the Kosovo and U.S. Elections

Not only Kostunica’s victory, but also the victory of moderate political forces in Kosovo’s own recent elections fuels hopes for improved relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Although Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the winning party, has ruled out dialogue with Belgrade prior to the release of Albanian prisoners, he is generally much more open to the possibility than is his main opponent, former guerrilla leader Hashim Thaqi.

A final important variable is the incoming U.S. administration and its approach to the province. Bush’s October suggestion that U.S. troops should no longer participate in Balkans peacekeeping received wide press coverage in the region, sending a collective shudder through Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. On the narrow issue of troop deployment, Bush’s views may not be terribly meaningful, as European military units already make up the majority of soldiers stationed in the province. Yet it is what Bush’s comments revealed about his foreign policy priorities that worried Kosovar Albanians, who see U.S. involvement as crucial to their security. A Gore presidency, with Richard Holbrooke as a potential Secretary of State, would be their clear preference.

The most difficult and perhaps intractable issue of all is, of course, that of Kosovo’s future legal status. The conflict over this issue is plain: Even the most moderate Kosovar Albanian leaders insist on independence; even moderate Serbs insist that Kosovo is and will remain part of Serbia. The U.N. resolution authorizing NATO’s deployment in the province employs constructive ambiguity to evade the question, and the U.N. administration has skillfully capitalized on this ambiguity. But at some point the status issue will have to be resolved.

Certainly, Belgrade’s systematic human rights abuses against Kosovar Albanians have weakened its claims to sovereign power over the province. Yet it should be emphasized that, measured by the same criteria, the ethnic Albanians also have an extremely poor record. Serbs, Roma (Gypsies), Muslim Slavs, and other ethnic minorities in Kosovo have fallen victim to egregious and often well-planned abuses committed by ethnic Albanians, including summary executions, rapes, and kidnappings; over 200,000 members of ethnic minorities have fled the province since NATO’s entry. To date, the Kosovar Albanian majority has in no way demonstrated that it would govern the province fairly.

Ultimately, if the goals of democracy and human rights protection are achieved in Kosovo and Serbia proper, the status question should become less important. If each group could be confident that the other would fully respect its rights, each would feel much less need to control military and government power. This remains the key issue facing Kosovo.

Joanne Mariner, a FindLaw columnist, is Deputy Director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. She recently returned from a week in Kosovo.

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