By Rada Trajkovic in Gracanica, Kosovo (BCR No. 314, 1-Feb-02)
The only way out of the present crisis in Kosovo and Metohija, KiM, is to freeze the debate over its final status. This question preoccupies both the Albanian and Serb communities and is generating even more conflict. Time must pass before some sort of compromise can be reached under the auspices of the international community.
Discussions about KiM's future should be frozen for at least three elections until a new generation capable of a more rational approach comes of age. Now, for the first time in our history the international community is on the ground in Kosovo - a neutral presence capable of rising above the extremism in both communities and facilitating a fair and mutually acceptable solution. The internationals are well aware that any solution which hands absolute victory to one side will not secure stability for the region.
While placing the status of Kosovo on the back-burner, the international community should also work with local leaders to demilitarise society and strengthen civil institutions in the province. Decisive steps must be taken to revive Kosovo's war-ravaged economy. Economically, the region cannot survive on its own; the West is well aware of that and reluctant to bankroll an artificial existence.
Priority should be given to achieving peace, stability and a safe return for those who fled their homes. After all, the establishment of peace, human rights and the fostering of democratic institutions has been the international community's political aim ever since its arrival in the aftermath of the NATO bombing of Kosovo.
The current blockade on communication between Pristina and Belgrade needs to be overcome. Better contact, not only between politicians but also between victims of the conflict, should be encouraged. Those who suffered during the years of the Kosovo conflict should be given the chance to air their grievances. To achieve reconciliation, Belgrade must acknowledge Albanian suffering.
At the moment, a gulf divides the two communities. Advocating anything less than independence for Kosovo is political suicide for an Albanian politician, while for a Serb to endorse the idea would also spell political oblivion.
The essence of the Kosovo problem lies in the irreconcilable demands of Kosovo's Albanian and Serb communities: Albanians want an independent Kosovo based on the fact that they are the majority; Serbs want Kosovo to remain part of the Yugoslav state because of its historic and cultural links with the territory.
The Albanian community in the province refuses any official contact with Belgrade, while the Serbian community refuses to consider life there without a link to Serbia.
Kosovo's history has been marked by the struggle of these opposing visions, with both Albanian and Serbs prevailing at different times. The pattern never changed: whichever community was on top always rode roughshod over the rights of the other.
Bad experiences under the Serbian authorities have left Kosovar Albanians justifiably suspicious of the Serbian state, while their own recent experience has left the Serbs fearful of their fate in an Albanian-led state. In fact, no one is innocent, there are victims and executioners on both sides.
The question of Albanian and Serb relations went unresolved throughout the 20th century.Various solutions were tried: liberal, conservative and economic. Not one brought peace.
From 1961 to1981, when Kosovar Albanians enjoyed the political upper hand, around 92, 000 non-Albanians - Croats and Montenegrins as well as Serbs - felt pressured into leaving the province. Between 1981 and 1990, a further 50, 000 left their homes.
With the arrival of Slobodan Milosevic in 1987 and his famous pledge to Kosovar Serbs that "No one should be allowed to beat you", came a change of policy giving Serbs the upper hand. Now the pressure was on Albanians. Euphoric over their new status under Milosevic, the Serbs did not recognise the rights of Albanian community.
Milosevic's policy culminated in huge crimes against Albanians. The consequences however, were disastrous for the Serbs. The international community punished Milosevic by bombing Yugoslavia. After the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo in June 1999, Serbian institutions also disappeared from the territory.
Now it is the Albanian side which is blind to Serb needs. The Albanian political leadership does not recognise Serbs or Serbian state institutions as relevant to Kosovo.
Over the last two and a half years, Milosevic's ethnic cleansing has given way to Albanian expulsion of Kosovar Serbs. Around two-thirds of KiM territory is now devoid of Serbs. About 1,300 of them have been killed, the same number have been kidnapped, and around 250, 000 forced to flee.
This process has involved a spiritual devastation: more than 110 monasteries and churches and tens of thousands of Serb monuments have been destroyed; and more than 30 cities have had their names changed. Albanian symbols now dominate everywhere. Serbs in Kosovo now live in totally segregated enclaves, with no freedom of movement. Democratically-minded Albanians are equally frightened to speak up.
For the first time, an international presence on the ground gives Kosovo's polarised communities a chance to work together to create a fair and democratic society where the majority will not ride roughshod over the rights of others, where both communities can fulfil their potential.
Rada Trajkovic is the leader of Kosovo Serb coalition Povratak (Return).