Kosovo deserves its independence

Far beyond the borders of Serbia a sickening form of revisionism has prevailed across the years among critics of Kosovo's desire for independence. Some of it is born from a smug desire for controversy. Much of it comes from ignorance. A part of it derives from racism: inscrutable, impoverished, Muslim, their language and culture unlike any other in Europe, Kosovo Albanians are an easy “white nigger” target for the self-satisfied elements of Western Europe's pseudo-political classes.

The argument of the critics of Kosovan independence rests on two bogus tenets of denial. First, they state that Serbia was not responsible for the widescale massacre of Albanian civilians between 1998 and 1999, and propose instead that Serb security fores were somehow tricked into killing thousands of innocents by the provocation of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Secondly, they advance the theory that the 800,000 Albanian refugees who fled their homes during Nato's 79-day air campaign did so as they were frightened of the bombing rather than Serb military units.

Were these claims true then the fundamental case for Kosovo's independence, in the spotlight since the expiry on Monday of a UN deadline for Pristina and Belgrade to reach agreement on the province's future status, would be fatally flawed.

But they are untrue. I know this not as an assumption, but as a fact. I have many memories of Kosovo acquired during the time I spent reporting there between 1998 and 2000. Among the images of mass graves, burnt villages and swelling bodies that spring to mind is one of particular significance. In the fields outside the town of Istinic in southwestern Kosovo one summer day I watched some 40,000 Kosovans corralled together by rings of Serb police. The young, the old; man, woman, child, they stared in abject fear to the horizon where smoke from their villages, torched in a Serb purge from which they fled, gathered thickly in the skies. “Where is Europe? Where is America?” one refugee beseeched me.

After a day or two the Serb police pushed them back into the hinterland, driving them with stinging switches and robotic threats broadcast from tannoys mounted on the sides of armoured personnel carriers. These people had not fled from fear of Nato bombing.

The first Nato bomb was seven months away from falling. This was the summer of 1998. The world little cared for Kosovo then and in a dry run for their larger purge operations a year later the Serbs were already driving thousands of people from their homes.

The memory is pertinent to Kosovo's case for independence now as it revealed the absolute complicity of the Serbian authorities in human rights abuses in Kosovo and proved them then, as later, a cruel and unjust power from which the oppressed Kosovo Albanian majority thoroughly deserved to be independent.

The KLA were no angels. An everyman insurgent force (rather than a simple mafia entity as suggested by revisionists) comprising freedom fighters, intellectuals, peasants, nationalists, they also had a criminal element and their own human rights record was abysmal. But they reflected the majority population's desire for independence, a wish made credible, more than anything else, by the behaviour of the Serbian Government towards the civilian population.

As the international community wrings its hands over what to do with Kosovo now, it would do well to remember those facts. For time is no longer on anyone's side. Too much of it has already been wasted in vaccilation since 1999.

Earlier this year a resurgent Russia, keen to reinvigorate its influence on the region, torpedoed the UN's reasonable plan for supervised independence for Kosovo. A further five months of fruitless negotiation between Serbs and Kosovans followed before the December 10 deadline passed without result.

The current impasse seems solid. On one side Kosovo's newly elected Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, a former KLA member, is readying himself for a unilateral declaration of independence, backed by the US, Britain, France and most of the EU.

On the other Serbia's nationalist Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, backed by Russia, has made Kosovo's status as part of Serbia a lead issue in Serb politics and has given warning of dire consequences should the EU recognise Kosovan independence.

Doom merchants paint a grim picture in which Kosovo declares independence only to have it challenged by Serbia as being illegal without the imprimatur of the UN Security Council, in turn blocked by Russia. Violence subsequently flares in the province, then across the Balkans as Serbs in Bosnia and Albanians in Macedonia also demand independence. Presto: a new Balkan war made worse by a new cold war.

But the realities suggest otherwise. Mr Thaci knows he needs international recognition for independence and has already said that a declaration will be made in collaboration with the EU and US. He understands that a rash unilateral declaration would only deepen the economic malaise of a province totally reliant on outside financial assistance for survival.

Furthermore, for all the Kostunica hype in Serbia, most Serbs are far more concerned with their own economic woes than Kosovo's status, and may be reluctant to seek Russian patronage if it means worsening relations with the EU. Having fought and lost four wars in 16 years they are in no particular hurry for another conflict, and despite the sabre-rattling there has been no mobilisation of Yugoslav army units.

In Kosovo itself, due to the absence of any reconciliation between the two ethnic groups since 1999, the minority Serb population exists in enclaves largely removed from the Albanians. Low-level civil unrest, rioting and murder are possibilities, but with 16,000 Nato troops in the province it is unlikely that there can be any widescale clash of opposing paramilitaries.

So the road ahead may not be as perilous as it is feared. Wriggle room exists. However, in the meantime the EU should bolster its civilian and military missions in Kosovo, ensuring that the Serb minority is well protected. Though it would be ideal if a way forward could be found with Russian and Serb agreement, the EU should also accept that this is now unlikely to happen.

And when considering how to respond to the inevitable declaration of independence, the EU should also divest itself as best possible from the emotive language of regional players and revisionists alike and remember three simple facts. The Serbs effectively and irreversibly lost control of Kosovo in 1999. The majority of Kosovans want independence. And, above all, they deserve independence.

Anthony Loyd