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Balkan commentator Richard Cowper reports from Pristina on the world's newest country.

Richard Cowper is a foreign policy expert and worked for the Financial Times for 30 years .

Violence over Kosovo independence
may turn out to be short-lived

By Richard Cowper in Pristina

Rioting in Belgrade and two car bombs in Kosovo have cast a shadow over the extraordinary celebrations which followed the declaration of independence by Kosovo, the world’s newest nation.

One person has already died and there is the prospect of more violence to come in Serbia itself and possibly in the surrounding region as a consequence of Belgrade and Moscow’s attempt to reverse a declaration that they claim is illegal and null and void.

Last week as many as 150,000 Serbs have taken to the streets in violent protests in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, against western support for Pristina’s independence announcement on February 17. In addition there have been a number of incidents in Kosovo itself and fresh demonstrations have taken place in the northern Kosovan city of Mitrovice, the southern Serbian town of Nis and the capital of the neighbouring country of Montenegro.

Just as the troubled Balkans was beginning to look forward to a prosperous future as part of the new Europe the renewed cold war chill centred on the economically and politically-fragile ex-Yugoslav province is raising serious concerns throughout the region as well as in western capitals.

Backed by the US and the European Union, Kosovo announced it was going independent in the face of a growing chorus of objections from Moscow and Belgrade, even though it was still legally part of Serbia, run by a United Nations administration and protected by some 16,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops.

In the short-term the failure of the US and the European Union to engineer an agreed international diplomatic solution for the breakaway province seems bound to exacerbate tensions in a region, where ethnic, racial and religious sensitivities are still raw following the series of civil wars in the 1990s which resulted in the break-up of Yugoslavia. .

Hopes that Russia would agree a compromise with the West were dashed last August when Moscow scuppered a plan for supervised independence from Serbia by threatening a United Nations Security Council veto. Now Moscow appears to be doing everything in its power, short of violence, to scupper the independence party in Pristina.

Some nine years after a United Nations administration took control of the province following a Nato bombing campaign which ended a harsh Serbian army and paramilitary crackdown against ethnic Albanian rebels and led to the eventual overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, the Kosovar majority is anxious to make a serious start towards standing on its own feet.

But Moscow and Belgrade both say they will never accept the declaration and will take counter measures. Moscow is attempting to call a special United Nations meeting to discuss the issue, which it says will set a dangerous precedent, legitimising independence claims from separatists across Europe such as Basques, Turkish Cypriots and Scots. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime-minister, is also keen to use the issue as another opportunity to reassert Russian pride and power in its Slav hinterland.

Analysts expect the disagreement to exacerbate disputes between Moscow and the West over an array of security issues ranging from missile defence to Nato membership for the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia.

Serbia badly wanted to hang on to the province, which it argues is the medieval cradle of both its state and religion. Pec, a town in the western part of the province, is the seat of the Serb orthodox patriarchate, while an array of world-class icons and sculptures in Serbian monasteries such as those at Decani and Sogolica tug at almost every Serb’s heartstrings, even if they have never visited them. What is regarded as the most important battlefield in Serb history – the battle of Kosovo of 1389 when Christian Serbs lost out to a rising Ottoman empire – is located just a few kilometres outside Pristina, and to this day raises such emotions that it is guarded day and night by four tanks and a host of Slovenian Nato K-For troops.

When I visited Decani monastery for the first time recently one visiting monk from Belgrade told me: “This is Serbia and it will always be so! I will never accept its loss.”

At another Serb religious institution in Kosovo one highly-respected inhabitant hinted that she had access to explosives and would blow herself up rather than give up her position within Kosovo itself.

Given such Serb sensitivities and the legacy of Kosovar Albanian hatred from the 1998/1999 Serb army and paramilitary repression in the province, some fear there is a real possibility of further isolated acts of violence within Kosovo.

The dispute is causing considerable nervousness in the capitals of all the ex-Yugoslav states, some of which have both Albanian and Serb minority populations. The fear is that any inter-ethnic fighting within Kosovo might spill over into parts of Montenegro and Croatia, for example. Recently Croatian police were forced to arrest 44 people who burned the Serbian flag in Zagreb's main square after Serb protesters attacked the Croatian embassy in Belgrade during a rally against Kosovo's independence.

Some believe that the European Union and the US may have missed an important political strategic trick by not ensuring that Kosovars participated in a formal United Nations independence referendum, before going it alone. “It would be very difficult to have argued with a formal UN vote, “says one political insider in Pristina. “Now, with a big US base at Bondsteel in southeast Kosovo, some may portray it as Washington simply moving the West’s front line further east.”

Despite these arguments and the flurry of violent incidents there is some reason to suppose that the dangers may have been exaggerated.

First, there may be little Moscow and Belgrade can do in practice if the majority of countries in the United Nations recognise Kosovo’s independence, as they seem likely to do. More than a dozen countries have already recognised Kosovo's declaration of independence, including the US, Britain, France and Germany. But the declaration has so far been rejected by Russia, Serbia's government and the Serbs who live northern Kosovo.

Second under the so-called Ahtisaari plan detailing the transition from UN protectorate to independences Kosovo has gone out of its way to give Belgrade assurances on key issues like the special status of the orthodox Serbian church and its monasteries and on protection of the minority Serbian population.

Third any attempt to foster violence within Kosovo itself could lead to uncontrollable reprisals against the Serbs living there, something no Belgrade administration might survive politically if it was seen to have encouraged it.

Just a day after the independence announcement a demonstration by 5,000 Serbs in the deeply split and ethnically mixed northern town of Mitrovice passed off peacefully. As I passed through the town Nato troops on high alert were still relaxed enough to share a joke, next to their heavily-armed military vehicles.

From Pristina’s point of view any victimisation of Serbs by Albanians would undoubtedly lengthen and seriously complicate the process towards full UN statehood.

Lastly, all parties, including Belgrade, may eventually be prepared to accept that with 90% of Kosovo’s population of one ethnic and religious denomination and clearly determined to go it alone, the decision to secede may ultimately prove to be the best long-term political solution for the area.

For these reasons the violence and the cold war chill over Kosovo’s declaration of independence may be short-lived. When the dust settles Serbia may yet be grateful for a stable independent Kosovo under the protection of Nato troops on its southern border (and moreover one that did not join up with Albania) leaving Belgrade to get on with the more strategically important and domestically vital job of getting its economy in shape and creating the financial base for once again becoming a driving force in the Balkan region.

© Richard Cowper: foreign policy expert, who worked for the Financial Times of London