This was not supposed to be happening any more. In late March in the gym in the school in Gracanica, a Serbian enclave in Kosovo, Serbs whose houses had just been set fire to or otherwise damaged by ethnic Albanians sat around listlessly on the mattresses and beds provided for them by relief organizations while a group of angry men outside quarreled about what to do next. A woman told me how ethnic Albanian schoolchildren, screaming abuse, had charged into her house and smashed her furniture, and then set the house on fire. The scene seemed depressingly familiar.

On March 18 and 19 Kosovo exploded in the worst outbreak of violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs since 1999. First a young Serb was shot; then Albanians charged that three Albanian boys were chased into a river by local Serbs and drowned.* Thousands of Albanians demonstrated in protest. Very quickly groups of them began to systematically attack vulnerable Serbs and Roma (Gypsies). They set fire to their houses, and to their schools and health centers, obviously wanting to make sure that the Serbs who went to them would never come back. Orthodox churches were destroyed, too, including some precious medieval ones.

At first the UN, which has the final say in running Kosovo, was slow to react, as were the troops from the NATO-led Kosovo force (KFOR); but within a few days NATO flew in reinforcements and brought the situation back under control. By the time the violence subsided nineteen people were dead, eleven Albanians and eight Serbs. Nine hundred fifty-four were injured; thirty-six Orthodox churches and monasteries and other important sites were set on fire or otherwise damaged. By March 24 the UN was reporting that some 4,366 people had been forced to flee. About 360 of them were Albanians and a similar number were Roma. The rest were Serbs.

On the afternoon of March 24 Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who is based in Brussels, held a press conference in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. I don’t think I have ever seen a sophisticated politician expressing his anger quite so openly. What had happened, he said, was “appalling,” “intolerable.” Kosovo’s Albanian leaders, he said, had better not look to the “international community” for money to rebuild what had been destroyed; they would have to pay for it themselves.

It is not hard to understand why Mr. Solana is so bitter. He was speaking exactly five years to the day after he, as the then secretary-general of NATO, gave the order to NATO forces to begin bombing Yugoslavia—because of Serbia’s brutal treatment of Kosovo’s Albanians.


Although Mr. Solana said that violence would not pay, the experience of the Balkans has been quite the opposite. Indeed, in Kosovo during the late 1990s, it was the passive resistance of Kosovo Albanians to Serbian rule that failed to produce results; and it was this failure that enabled Albanian hard-liners to persuade their countrymen that recourse to violence would work. And they were right.

Kosovo, although a region with immense historical and emotional significance for Serbs, has long had an ethnic Albanian majority. In Tito’s Yugoslavia, Kosovo was an “autonomous province” of Serbia. This meant that, although it had considerable autonomy, especially after constitutional changes in 1974, it did not have the then theoretical right to self-determination, which was later exercised by Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina. When Yugoslavia began to fall apart, however, and especially after they witnessed the horrors of war in other parts of the old country, ethnic Albanians, who were perhaps 90 percent of Kosovo’s some two million people, followed a strategy of peaceful resistance, led by Ibrahim Rugova, a mild-mannered professor of Albanian literature at the university in Pristina.

Above all, the Kosovo Albanians wanted independence. But after the end of the Bosnian war in 1995 the strategy of peaceful resistance was seen to have failed and formerly marginal groups of hard-liners decided to launch and support a guerrilla war. They created the Kosovo Liberation Army. Their campaign began in earnest in 1998, though the leaders of the KLA, which had backing both locally and from Kosovo Albanians living abroad, never really believed they could expel the Serbs from Kosovo by force of their arms alone. They wanted to provoke the Serbs into overreacting to their attacks and thus bring in NATO to finish the job for them. In this sense they were the most successful guerrillas in history because they succeeded in getting someone else to win their war for them.

The war was won by means of the seventy-eight-day NATO bombing campaign, under the command of General Wesley Clark, which began on March 24, 1999, and ended with Resolution 1244 in the UN Security Council two and a half months later. According to the Resolution, a UN Interim Administration Mission, UNMIK, would run Kosovo and prepare it, “pending a final settlement,” for “substantial autonomy and self government,” but it also recognized the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. (That state was formally abolished and replaced in February of last year by the “state union” of Serbia and Montenegro.)


Resolution 1244 was an artful construct because it gave something to everyone. It did not foreclose any options for Kosovo or Serbia, and, above all, it bought time. Essentially, though, its purpose was to end the bombing campaign and not to provide an ultimate solution for the future of Kosovo. The usefulness of that resolution now seems about to expire. Indeed, what the recent violence suggests is that while many Kosovo Albanians were at first delighted with the expulsion of the Serbian authorities in June 1999 and were happy to wait for independence, some of the same hard-line groups that organized the KLA are showing their muscle again. They are clearly thinking of going back to war.

With the end of Serbian rule, Kosovo changed beyond recognition. Serbs either fled or were forced out by vengeful Albanians. Initially, KFOR was unwilling, and perhaps unable, to do anything about this. According to the Serbian authorities more than 230,000 people fled from Kosovo after the arrival of UNMIK, of which almost all were Serbs except for some 30,000 Roma. As some Serbs bitterly point out, NATO went to war declaring that the displacement of 250,000 Albanians was a “humanitarian emergency”; but NATO has not been willing to say the same about the expulsion of a similar number of Serbs.

Of course the Serbian figures are questionable. Despite my best efforts over several years I have never managed to get anyone to explain to me how a total of 200,000 Serbs could have fled, with perhaps 100,000 remaining, when, until 1998, no Serb ever claimed there were more than 200,000 Serbs in the province. In fact, all figures are unreliable in Kosovo. The number of ethnic Albanians varies between 1.5 and 2.2 million and the number of remaining Serbs between 80,000 and 120,000.

Today the Serbs live in different parts of Kosovo. After June 1999 the Serbian population was winnowed out. There are now virtually no Serbs in any of the major cities except for those who live in the northern part of the city of Mitrovica, which is separated from the southern, Albanian part by the Ibar River. When you cross the Ibar from south to north you feel as if you are crossing from one country to another. The south is full of people, the language is Albanian and so are all the street signs and newspapers in the kiosks. The currency is the euro and cars have UN-issued Kosovo license plates. Fifty yards away in north Mitrovica, everything is Serbian, many of the cars have Serbian license plates, and people use Serbian dinars. Although technically in Kosovo, this district seems just like any other part of Serbia, and indeed it abuts the borders of Serbia proper and people frequently come from and go to Serbia.

Even odder are the Serbian enclaves south of the Ibar River, which are completely surrounded by Albanians. Kosovo Polje used to be a mainly Serbian suburb of Pristina. After the recent violence, the remaining Serbs moved a mile or two away, into an enclave which is made up of several villages, including Gracanica, the site of a beautiful medieval Serbian Orthodox church. Here again, you feel as if you are back in Serbia. Teachers and doctors and other civil servants are paid by Belgrade and by UNMIK. Serbian flags are flying and everybody uses Serbian mobile phone networks, not the Kosovo Albanian one, which uses Monaco’s international dialing code in order to avoid using the Serbian one. If a Kosovo Serb telephones an Albanian who may be just down the street, the two are, in effect, making an international call. This says a lot about relations in Kosovo.

Still, during the last year especially, Serbs and Albanians were calling one another on their phones much more than before. Duska Anastasijevic, who works for a think tank called the European Stability Initiative, told me that recently there had been more trade between the enclaves and Kosovo Albanians than at any time since June 1999, and more and more Serbs had been gingerly venturing out of the enclaves without KFOR protection to places in Kosovo they would never have gone to before for fear of their lives. Duska’s colleague Verena Knaus told me that for the first time since the war, Serbs, feeling a little more confident, had actually been investing in buildings, something you would not do if you thought you had no future here. Now that nascent trust has been broken. In the village of Preoce near Gracanica I met Nebojsa Devic, an unemployed twenty-one-year-old. He told me that he had some Albanian friends and over the last year or so he had even ventured into Pristina with them, something which would have been too dangerous a couple of years ago. But now he did not want to see those friends again. “As soon as you turn around,” he said, “they stab you in the back.” I had the impression that this was a very common feeling among Serbs. Devic told me that he and his Serbian friends in the enclaves all wanted to leave Kosovo.


Before the violence some progress had also been made within the terms of UN Resolution 1244 in creating institutions for Kosovo. It now has an elected assembly, a president—Ibrahim Rugova—and a government, which includes, at least nominally, some Kosovo Serbs. In the assembly, thanks to the way the constitution was written, Kosovo’s Serbs are overrepresented in proportion to their numbers. But despite some success in creating institutions such as ministries, customs, and other government agencies, there has been less progress in making the actual “Provisional Institutions of Self-Government,” as they are formally called, actually work. There is hardly any cooperation between Albanians and Serbs in matters of local government. In reality, UNMIK makes the important decisions involving such matters as the police and the protection of Serbs.

Political relations between Kosovo’s Serb and Albanian leaders have also been poor. Recently Serbs boycotted the newly renovated assembly hall because it had been decorated with three large murals celebrating scenes from Albanian history. Still, informal talks between influential Albanians and Serbs were quietly taking place. During the two days in March before the outbreak of violence in Kosovo a meeting was discreetly held in Switzerland to discuss Kosovo’s future. Among those present were three people in key positions: Slobodan Samardzic, who is in charge of policy toward Kosovo for Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s prime minister; Alush Gashi, from President Rugova’s office; and Mimoza Kusari, from the office of Bajram Rexhepi, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian premier. Whether they will go on meeting is unclear.


When I met Mr. Kostunica in Belgrade he complained that the UN had been trying to paint a rosy picture of life in Kosovo when in fact things had been dreadful, especially for Serbs. Indeed, many Serbs are convinced that UN officials, who are, they say, thinking of their next jobs, have in the past claimed that the situation in Kosovo was better than it actually was. Kosovo Albanians say the same things. Both Harri Holkeri, the Finnish UN official who heads UNMIK, and Mr. Solana have put the blame for the upsurge in violence fully on Albanian leaders, who in turn say the Serbs provoked the violence and point out that more Albanians than Serbs were killed in March. The international officials also claim that the Albanian condemnation of ethnic cleansing has been only half-hearted. But then, as Bajram Rexhepi points out, his government has not been given control of the police and security in the province, and so it is unfair to blame Albanian leaders for not controlling violence against Serbs.

Mr. Rexhepi also recalled that when Albanian rioters attacked Serbian homes in Caglavica, near Pristina, he went there to calm the situation, although this was an isolated incident. He also announced that the government would pay for the reconstruction of damaged houses and churches. How many Serbs will go back to homes that they could again be kicked out of is a matter of debate. As for the damaged churches, the offer of Albanians to send experts to examine them was abruptly dismissed by Kosovo’s Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije in Gracanica, who said angrily that this would be “like bin Laden sending experts to examine the Twin Towers.”

Mr. Rexhepi believes that his government should not have to wait much longer to gain some real power and then become independent. “If we postpone too much, if young people don’t see economic and political perspectives for themselves, they will become radicalized.” Everyone I spoke to said that the poor shape of the economy in Kosovo was a major factor in creating discontent. After the war, huge sums were poured into Kosovo both in aid and grants and in the money spent by the tens of thousands of soldiers, international civil servants (from the UN, the EU, the OSCE, etc.), and aid workers. Over the last two years those sums have been shrinking drastically. According to Muhamet Mustafa, who heads an economic think tank called Riinvest, foreign financial assistance amounted to two billion euros in the years between 2000 and 2003 but for 2004 to 2006 the sum will decrease to about 400,000 euros. Reconstruction of the war damage is mostly completed and unemployment runs as high as 39 to 49 percent depending on the season. Large numbers of people survive on remittances, estimated to be about 500 million euros a year, sent home by relatives abroad. According to Mr. Mustafa some 30,000 new jobs are needed every year but at the moment not more than between 5,000 and 10,000 are actually being created.

There are several reasons for this poor economic situation and not all of them can be blamed, as Albanians are wont to do, on the foreign organizations here. Kosovo was never a prosperous part of Yugoslavia and many jobs and factories that were created here were paid for by subsidies from more prosperous places such as Croatia and Slovenia. Kosovo once had an extensive mining industry based around the Mitrovica region—which has deposits of zinc, lead, and gold—but huge sums would be required to get it working again. To make things worse, different parts of the old industrial plant and mines now straddle the dividing line between Serbian and Albanian parts of northern Kosovo. Continued arguments about privatization have also stymied economic development, in part because of Kosovo’s unusual legal status.

These difficulties, as well as a pervasive fear that the Western nations will try to force Kosovo back into some form of state system with Serbia, have led, in the words of the Kosovo Albanian analyst Ylber Hysa, to “serious frustration for many segments of society.” At the failed Rambouillet conference outside Paris in 1999, just before the NATO bombing began, the plan backed by Madeleine Albright proposed that consideration of Kosovo’s final status would be delayed for three years. “Now,” Hysa says, “we have had five years…and we have a government that is not a government because it is seriously lacking in competences, especially when it comes to security and the rule of law.”


International policy toward Kosovo, endorsed by the Security Council, is now called “Standards before Status.” The idea is that before moving on to discuss Kosovo’s final status, Kosovo and its institutions should live up to the standards specified by the UN: “a multi-ethnic society where there is democracy, tolerance, freedom of movement and equal access to justice for all people in Kosovo, regardless of their ethnic background.” Indeed the details of what is supposed to be done in Kosovo are fairly uncontroversial, and Albanian leaders have grudgingly accepted them.

Serbian leaders have for the most part refused to have anything to do with the standards, seeing them as opening the way for Kosovo’s independence. Still, last year Marc Grossman, US undersecretary of state for political affairs, said that if good progress was made toward implementing the standards then it would be possible to begin in mid-2005 to consider a process which could eventually lead to final status talks. He had, he said, the full backing of other major European countries involved in Kosovo.

Mr. Holkeri still says that he believes talks will begin in 2005. The problem faced by international officials is that while the recent violence has made it clear that something needs to be done in Kosovo in order to head off even worse outbreaks of violence, no one wants to be seen to be giving in to it and thus encouraging more, by seeming to do something only when people have been killed.

The Albanian hard-liners are not hiding their aims or their conviction that NATO is now the enemy. The National Movement for the Liberation of Kosovo (LKCK) is a small hard-line party that has affinities with the KLA of the 1990s. In a pamphlet distributed under its name in the town of Prizren following the violence this March, it accuses UNMIK of being a dictatorship. In a similar vein the municipal assembly of Malisevo, once a KLA stronghold, accused UNMIK and KFOR of imposing a Stalinist-style occupation, a blatantly absurd statement.

Ever since the end of the war in Kosovo, Serbian politicians in Belgrade have avoided the question of the future status of Kosovo because they had no answers, and besides there were no votes to be won in taking up the issue. Now, the situation has changed, as Serbian politicians and observers draw some satisfaction from what they regard as the provocative and self-destructive positions of Kosovo Albanians. In Belgrade, Serbian leaders have coalesced around ideas of decentralization or cantonization that will protect Serbs while keeping open the hope that Kosovo will one day return to Serbian rule. On April 29 the Serbian parliament unanimously backed a plan that called for the creation of five autonomous Serbian regions in Kosovo and would also create “personal autonomy” for Serbs in Kosovo who lived outside them. The entities which would be created would be all but independent of the rest of Kosovo. Mr. Kostunica argues that territorial autonomy for Serbs (and other non-Albanians) in Kosovo is essential for their very survival.

The problem, however, is that, whatever you call the policy, it causes tremors of fear among Albanians because they believe that the long-term Serbian aim is to formally partition Kosovo by drawing a new border across it, keeping part for Serbia and letting the rest become independent. And they are probably right about this, in spite of official claims to the contrary. So Kosovo Albanian reaction to the plan has been predictably negative. As for Kosovo becoming independent, Mr. Kostunica simply says that this would have severely “negative consequences” for the rest of the region, provoking instability in Bosnia and in the regions of southern Serbia proper and Macedonia that are inhabited by Albanians.

Since the violence in March it is becoming clear that policymakers in Europe and the US are both now far more inclined to listen to arguments in favor of territorial autonomy for Serbs than they were before. They are, however, quite likely to take their cue from a decentralization plan proposed recently by the Council of Europe rather than the far more radical Serbian one. Besides, the Serbian officials I talked to say that once the Serbs are protected by the form of autonomy they propose, they would be happy if the UN international protectorate went on for many years to come. Autonomy for them is simply a means of freezing the situation rather than of coming to an agreement on Kosovo’s final status.

Others have different views. Some in Belgrade would clearly prefer to simply carve off and keep the north of Kosovo, above the Ibar River, and let the rest of Kosovo become independent, as the Albanians fear. This would probably mean that the Ser-bian enclaves to the south would be doomed and their residents would move north. Most Albanians are opposed to this division, in part because of the mineral wealth they believe remains in Mitrovica.

Veton Surroi, the influential Kosovo Albanian publisher, has a different idea. He says that Serbs, who may now only make up 7 percent of Kosovo’s population, should be granted a bill of rights which would guarantee them constitutional protection instead of securing their rights through territorial autonomy. It is not an argument that would impress Serbs. Most Albanian leaders simply say that everything will be all right so long as Kosovo, in its current borders, becomes independent. But Mr. Rexhepi says of Serbs: “We must think of another way to increase their ethnic rights.”

It seems clear that Serbs and Albanians by themselves will be unable to reach a mutually agreeable solution. And time is running out, not just because of the threat of the hard-liners, but also because by early 2006, if not before, Montenegro may exercise its right under the EU-sponsored agreement, which created the state union with Serbia, to hold a referendum on independence. Kosovo Albanians will ask: If 650,000 Montenegrins can vote for independence why shouldn’t three times more ethnic Albanians be allowed the same thing?

So the hunt is on for a new policy. In a move to placate the Albanians and apparently to undermine the Albanian hard-liners, the Kosovo government will be allowed by the UN to open an office for “international cooperation.” Until now, foreign affairs was strictly out of bounds for the government. The Serbs are furious, saying, as indeed Kosovo Albanians do, that this is the embryo of a foreign ministry for an independent Kosovo. But neither the Serbs nor the Albanians seem to have realistic long-term plans to propose.


Leaving Kosovo, I flew to Tirana, to see whether attitudes toward Kosovo in Albania itself had changed significantly over the last few years. Most Kosovo Albanians and Albanians from Albania itself have never been interested in creating a Greater Albania, but the Serbs, who, after all, fought a war for a Greater Serbia, have always accused them of harboring such ambitions. In fact a distinct idea of Kosovo Albanian nationalism has crystallized in the last few decades. A UNDP poll of Kosovo Albanians found that while 86.1 percent of those in Kosovo wanted an independent state within its present boundaries, only 13.7 percent wanted union with Albania. But that figure had grown from 9.8 percent a year before. (Of Kosovo Serbs, 81.9 percent thought Kosovo should be an autonomous province within Serbia and 13.3 percent that it should be divided between Serbs and Albanians.)

I met Fatos Nano, Albania’s premier, the day before he was to leave for Washington, where he was to meet President Bush. I asked if he was worried about the violence in Kosovo. Surprisingly he answered that what had happened in late March had only had “positive implications for Albania.” Thanks, he claimed, to his own appeals to Kosovo for moderation and calm, the violence had stopped. So, he said, the result was that Albania was “considered a major factor of stability in the region.” He’d heard that people were describing his achievements as “Nanotechnology in Kosovo.”

While his views on a settlement were vague when it came to details, they were firmly based on the idea that the entire region should move together toward integration with the EU. Kosovo and the other states of the region, he believed, should quickly sign treaties with the EU, which would thus have an investment in the region. Meanwhile local politicians should be “prohibited from talking about borders.”

Many people I talked to in Albania said that the events in Kosovo had been alarming not because their fellow Albanians had been involved but because it might hurt their chances of eventually joining the EU, NATO, and other Western organizations. As with many others throughout the Balkans, they felt that anything that could delay or distract the country from the goal of joining European institutions would be bad news. Indeed, according to the publisher Piro Misha, none of the leading politicians wanted to make a fuss about Kosovo, because “they think they can’t stay in power here without the approval of Washington and Brussels.” Virgjil Muci, who advises Premier Nano, said he was not interested in a Greater Albania, “but we do…want to be part of a Greater Europe.”

Tirana looks like a boom town. Modern buildings are going up everywhere. This seeming prosperity, fed in part by money Albanians send from abroad, is fragile and does not extend much beyond the capital. Still, Tirana, unlike Pristina, feels like a real capital city. There is little doubt that Pristina, too, will one day be an Albanian capital. But how that will come about, and when, no one can say.

—Pristina, May 12, 2004

This Issue

June 10, 2004