How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
Report 155 / Europe & Central Asia

Collapse in Kosovo

On 17 March 2004, the unstable foundations of four and a half years of gradual progress in Kosovo buckled and gave way. Within hours the province was immersed in anti-Serb and anti-UN rioting and had regressed to levels of violence not seen since 1999. By 18 March the violence mutated into the ethnic cleansing of entire minority villages and neighbourhoods. The mobs of Albanian youths, extremists and criminals exposed the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) as very weak. Kosovo's provisional institutions of self-government (PISG), media and civil society afforded the rioters licence for mayhem. The international community urgently needs new policies -- on final status and socio-economic development alike -- or Kosovo instability may infect the entire region.

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Executive Summary

On 17 March 2004, the unstable foundations of four and a half years of gradual progress in Kosovo buckled and gave way. Within hours the province was immersed in anti-Serb and anti-UN rioting and had regressed to levels of violence not seen since 1999. By 18 March the violence mutated into the ethnic cleansing of entire minority villages and neighbourhoods. The mobs of Albanian youths, extremists and criminals exposed the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) as very weak. Kosovo's provisional institutions of self-government (PISG), media and civil society afforded the rioters licence for mayhem. The international community urgently needs new policies -- on final status and socio-economic development alike -- or Kosovo instability may infect the entire region.

The rampage left nineteen dead, nearly 900 injured, over 700 Serb, Ashkali and Roma homes, up to ten public buildings and 30 Serbian churches and two monasteries damaged or destroyed, and roughly 4,500 people displaced. The riots were more spontaneous than organised, with extremist and criminal gangs taking advantage, particularly on day two. Frustration and fear over the international community's intentions for Kosovo, UNMIK's inability to kick-start the economy and its suspension of privatisation, and Belgrade's success over recent months in shredding Kosovo Albanian nerves all built the tension that was released with explosive force by the inciting incidents of 16 March.

Regional security implications are serious and widespread. KFOR and NATO have lost their aura of invulnerability and invincibility. The perception of international weakness and lack of resolve will not be lost on extremists in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans, including newly resurgent nationalists in Belgrade. If the underlying causes of the violence are not dealt with immediately and directly -- through political, developmental and security measures alike -- Kosovo risks becoming Europe's West Bank.

The violent explosion revealed Kosovo Albanian society to be deeply troubled, lacking institutions, leadership and the culture to absorb shocks and contain its violent, criminal minority. In its current state, this society will continue to push out minorities and ultimately consume its own wafer-thin layer of liberal intelligentsia. Its large number of young people threaten to sweep aside the fragile institutions of the older generation. Since 1999 a migration from the undeveloped countryside has swamped the capital and the modernised elements of society. UNMIK has not come near to making good Kosovo's development deficits, particularly the decay in education and literacy.

UNMIK's structure and mandate are now exposed as inappropriate to prepare Kosovo for the transition from war to peace, from socialism to the market economy, and from international political limbo to final status. The international community had beguiled itself into believing that the patchy half-promises of its November 2003 undertaking to begin reviewing Kosovo's final status by mid-2005 represented a complete policy. Unable to agree on what that final status should be, it relied on the naïve assumption that delaying the decision would allow passions to cool. It also failed to take security concerns seriously and deal with parallel structures and criminal groups. This lack of resolve left the majority Albanian and minority Serb communities locked in a confrontation that was suppressed, never resolved.

With status uncertainty deterring investors, and without the myriad club memberships open only to nation states, Kosovo's development is stunted under the current UN rule. Its GDP -- dependent on the waning contributions of prematurely disengaging donors and with only 4 per cent of imports covered by exports -- is unsustainable at even the current low level. With many families dependent on remittances from their migrant children, Kosovo is engaged in a humiliating demographic war of attrition with Western Europe. As Kosovo Albanians furtively cross their borders and enter their labour markets, these nations seek to throw them back. For the more than 50 per cent of Kosovo's labour force that is unemployed, including the 30,000 to 40,000 who join it every year, the present interim dispensation for Kosovo is not enough.

It is crucial that all concerned face up quickly to the implications of 17-18 March. The international community's institutions in Kosovo need new ways of operating and, in the case of UNMIK, a new structure and mandate. If the notion of partition is to be rejected -- as ICG believes it still should be except in the unlikely event that both interested sides freely choose it (in which case it would be consistent with the Helsinki principles) -- this can no longer be out of hand or on faith but only because new international policies and new honesty among Kosovo Albanians about their society produce changes on the ground that make Kosovo a much more viable place for all its communities.

If this is to happen, a real political, social, economic and institutional development process must be put in place rapidly to absorb the energies of Kosovo's population. The present policy of "standards before status" is only half a policy. The regional consequences of continued drift leading to a destabilised Kosovo are incalculable. The international community has a very brief window in which to learn from its mistakes and regain control of the agenda. Otherwise Kosovo may become ungovernable and dissolve into a vicious cycle of violence that infects all of the Western Balkans.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 22 April 2004

How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue

Online Event to discuss Crisis Group's report "Relaunching the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue", in which we discussed what currently stands in the way of a new status quo and what it will take to relaunch the process with the Pristina elections in view.

Thirteen years after Kosovo broke away from Serbia, the two countries remain mired in mutual non-recognition, with deleterious effects on both. The parties need to move past technicalities to tackle the main issues at stake: Pristina’s independence and Belgrade’s influence over Kosovo’s Serbian minority.

In this conversation, we discussed what currently stands in the way of a new status quo and what it will take to relaunch the process with the Pristina elections in view.

How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue (Online Event, 28th January 2021)