© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kosovo Prepares to Declare Independence

Ethnic Kosovo Albanians pass by a billboard reading "Independence" in Pristina, Kosovo.
Armend Nimani
AFP/Getty Images
Ethnic Kosovo Albanians pass by a billboard reading "Independence" in Pristina, Kosovo.
A Kosovo Serb waits for customers at a stand selling vegetables in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica on Tuesday.
Robert Atanasovski / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A Kosovo Serb waits for customers at a stand selling vegetables in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica on Tuesday.

The breakaway province of Kosovo is expected to declare its independence from Serbia this weekend. But the official separation can't take place until a new constitution, flag and national anthem have been approved by parliament.

One of the biggest constitutional issues still being discussed is about guaranteeing the rights of ethnic minorities in a new country expected to be called "Kosova."

In Gracanica, an enclave in central Kosovo of several thousand of the remaining Serbs, no one wants to talk to foreign reporters. Most young people have gone to Serbia to seek work. Those left look glum.

A middle-aged woman says, "Don't ask me anything. I'm very tired, and too much has happened here."

Nearby is the 13th-century Serbian Orthodox church of the Gracanica Monastery. In this cradle of Serb medieval statehood, the few remaining Orthodox nuns and priests feel besieged by Kosovo Albanians.

Father Damian complains that Albanian tourism officials are appropriating the Serbs' art history by describing this jewel of Serbian Byzantine architecture with the newly coined expression "Gothic Albanian."

"They took everything. In new prospect of Kosovo tourism organization, we have something old and Albanian-style," he says, laughing.

When asked if he will stay in Kosovo, he responds, "Yes. This is our land. Why should we leave?"

Father Damian says Serbs are harassed and pressured to leave — a claim confirmed by international human rights monitors.

"I'm afraid for them. It is very serious," says Julie Chadbourne, who works for the Norwegian chapter of the Helsinki Committee. "People are afraid to move. People do still experience low-level harassment and threats, you know, stone-throwing, spitting, cursing, subtle threats about 'when we get independence you'll pay, you'll be gone then, don't worry. You think you stayed all these years and you have a place in Kosovo, but you don't, just wait.'"

The Western powers insist that Kosovo be a multi-ethnic state, whose trappings must exclude Albanian nationalist symbols and language offensive to any minority group. But the task is proving difficult. The anthem, flag and constitution have yet to be produced.

An international flag design contest ruled out the two-headed eagle dear to Albanians and no alternative design has been chosen yet.

As for the constitution, definition of minority rights has been slow and has delayed the final draft's release. Human rights activist Sarah Maliqi says no one wants to be labeled a "minority," so the word has been eliminated from official language.

"It's complicated," she says, "because you don't have minorities as such in Kosovo, you have communities. There's no word 'minorities,' it's all communities. There is no majority/minority legally."

The speaker of the Kosovo parliament, Jakup Krasnici — the official who will make the independence announcement this weekend — acknowledges that Kosovo's sovereignty will be limited.

"We can freely say that Kosovo is ready to govern itself, but the international community still haven't gained the trust that Kosovo institutions are ready to deal with issues related to the rights of other communities or the human rights in general," he says.

NATO will remain in place with its peacekeeping force. The European Union will take over from the United Nations in overseeing the judicial system and ensuring rule of law.

Human rights activists like Chadbourne say international bodies have established the legal framework for a Western democracy, but have been unable to change the culture of fear and oppression among the peoples of Kosovo.

"Even if the justice system were functioning very, very well, if the impression on the ground is that it's crap, it is crap at the end of the day because nobody uses it — nobody goes to it and believes in it," she says. "One of the most critical aspects of creating a rule-of-law culture is creating faith or belief that the system can answer to you as a citizen."

Kosovo's independence appears to be a work in progress. It's still not known how many of the 27 EU members will recognize the new state, nor how long the EU supervisory mission's mandate will last.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.