Kosovo should play it cool.
THERE are two million Kosovars, of whom only 55,000 are of Serb origin. In the name of this tiny minority, the "Assembly of the Union of Municipalities of the Autonomous Province of Kosovo" called itself into being Saturday in the north Kosovo town of Mitrovica. This declaration was in defiance of not only the government in Pristina but also of the United Nations and the European Union.
A first analysis would suggest that the defiance by a Serb enclave that, with the encouragement of Belgrade, refuses to accept the independent Kosovo state, is unacceptable. It smacks strongly of the Serb enclave in Bosnia and would seem to promise continued division and tension. However, it is important for the Kosovo government not to react in the face of this provocation. Belgrade will support the "Assembly" and Moscow, which has refused to recognize an independent Kosovo will doubtless also give encouragement. But what are Kosovo's Serbs actually going to do? Under the Kosovar constitution they are already granted autonomy. They could vote to secede to Serbia but would the Serbs, with their EU membership ambitions, be prepared to accept them? Would Belgrade dare to send troops into Kosovo to defend secessionist Kosovar Serbs? At the moment such an escalation is unthinkable. However if Pristina seeks to deal with its refusenik Serbs with a heavy hand - if they treat what is happening as a rebellion - then they will be playing into the hands of the local Serbian leadership who have engineered the "Assembly." The sensible approach will be to treat this discontented minority with patience and avoid being railroaded into angry protests and demands that the "Assembly" be abolished. Kosovo's Declaration of Independence promised equality and tolerance for all Kosovars. While the ethnic Serb reaction is not in the spirit of equality and tolerance, that does not make it right for the government in Pristina to react in the same way.
However absurd it may seem to the outside world that the site of the battle in which a medieval Serbian Army was routed by the Ottoman Turks should hold such extraordinary significance for the losers, the Balkans is a region of long memories and indeed, short tempers, as Albanian Kosovars can themselves well appreciate. It, therefore, behooves them to treat the disaffected ethnic Serbians with consideration. The glue that binds any society together is trust - trust in the law, in the authorities and in individual rights. That trust obviously does not exist among ethnic Serbs. Pristina is going to have to win it. While in no way legitimizing the "Assembly," the government must ensure that sufficient channels remain open to the Serbian minority, so that they will neither feel themselves isolated from the rest of Kosovo, nor indeed be allowed deliberately to isolate themselves. This will call for a high level of statesmanship by politicians and considerable forbearance on the part of ordinary Kosovars.
People must, however, remember the lessons of their own recent history - that is that it was when ethnic Albanians were attacked by Serbs, that they became strong. Counterattacking ethnic Serbs would have the same effect.
Copyright: Arab News A[umlaut] 2003 All rights reserved.
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