'Respect and Rights'

Can Prime Minister Agim Ceku bring political stability to Kosovo? The former general, who served with the Croatian Army in Bosnia and commanded the Kosovo Liberation Army during the war for independence from Serbia, is facing a tough week as negotiating teams meet Thursday in Vienna for the fourth and final time to discuss the future of the United Nations-run province. His people—90 percent Albanian and a 10 percent mainly Serb minority—are frustrated after seven years of living in what is effectively a no-man's land: legally a part of Serbia but for all intents and purposes a separate nation. "I don't know what is going to happen in the future here," says Mirijana Kostic, a Kosovar Serb student in the divided city of Mitrovica. "So I don't think about any of it because it is all bulls--t."

The U.N. is expected to declare Kosovo the world's newest country later this year—perhaps even as early as this summer. And while most of the region's Albanians welcome the prospect, it's a frightening one for local Serbs. "My concern is that the United States and the European Union are fed up with Kosovo," says moderate Kosovar Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic. "They want to say the story here is finished, but for K-Serbs if there is independence, the story will not be at an end." Ivanovic's sentiments are echoed by those like high-school computer-science teacher Radomir Dukic, a Serb who says he will leave if Kosovo becomes independent. "I am so angry because I have no power, no one asked me my opinion, what happened to me having a voice in all of this?" he says.

Prime Minister Ceku has to deal with more than fear and apathy; there's hostility and violence as well. While Kosovo's Serbs and Albanians do work and socialize together in urban areas like the capital of Pristina, life is less cordial in the Serb enclaves, where many residents have hunkered down since 1999. Mitrovica is just one symbol of the current tension: the area is currently on its highest security alert, known as Stage Black. The city bridge over the brown Ibar River, the scene of the of 2004 riots that left 19 dead and dozens of Serbian Orthodox monasteries in ruins, was recently patrolled by tanks to prevent ethnic clashes. Now, Kosovar police sit in the middle of the bridge, watched over by armed French Kosovo Protection Forces (KFOR) soldiers whose barracks are on the southern side of the river. Just a few weeks ago a Serb was stabbed on the bridge, reportedly by Albanians, and both sides occasionally lob grenades back and forth.

Ceku, who took office in March, is trying to heal the divisions by focusing on minority rights. Although many Serbs consider him a war criminal because of his military activities during the war, he makes of point of weekly visits to talk to local Serbs in enclaves or ethnically mixed villages. Another of his conciliatory steps: making his first address to the Kosovo Assembly in Serbian—a language in which he is said to be more fluent than his native tongue of Albanian. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell at his office in Pristina about independence, dialogue and the challenges that lie ahead. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you hope to accomplish in Vienna?

Agim Ceku: We are very much aware that we have to come up with a solution that satisfies Kosovo Serbs to stay and live in Kosovo. We are offering them respect and rights, and we are going to offer a few new municipalities with a Serb majority. I hope that they will appreciate that, and I think it will be very difficult for the Serb delegation to oppose that.

Is independence for Kosovo the only solution?

It is. But in terms of [independence for] all citizens. A Kosovo that is a democratic, stable, functional, multiethnic state and an example of coexistence amongst communities.

Do you think in the end that Belgrade will have to be forced to impose a settlement?

It might be. Seeing how counterproductive Belgrade [can be], I will not exclude this as a solution.

There has long been the argument that granting Kosovo independence from Serbia creates a precedent for other disputed regions. Does it?

Kosovo is a unique case. It has nothing to do with North Ossetia or Tibet or whatever. A lot of people are making that mistake. Kosovo was a constitutional element of the Yugoslav Federation and Kosovo was represented in the federal government. We [also] had our own constitution, our own presidency, everything. Slobodan Milosevic took that away from us. [Kosovo] was really its own entity.

What is independence going to mean for Kosovo?

Being an independent country means we will finally be a free country. And [it] means we will live in peace, in good cooperation with other neighbors so we have no reason to be concerned about instability, peace and so on in the future. We can run our country by ourselves, and we can enjoy the opportunity to join the EU and NATO like others are. [We can] have the same thing that other nations have.

How will you reach out to the minority Serbs, to curb their unease about independence?

What we missed in the past was dialogue. I am behaving as a prime minister for all citizens of Kosovo and to convince them that I am their prime minister. No one else is their prime minister. I am visiting almost every week to talk to people and say, "Look, we want you to stay here, and I am responsible for you. Tell me what you need. My interest, my wishes, my goodwill is for you to stay here. I am in charge of that, and I am responsible to deliver that to you." I am trying to create an environment where the majority of people [reach out] to Serbs. But Belgrade is preventing them from participating and integrating themselves into [Kosovo] institutions and daily life.

How long would you like to see NATO stay here?

[They can leave] as soon as we join NATO. Joining NATO means we have reformed our security system; we are not representing a threat to anyone else. It means that your security sector is built in accordance to NATO standards. So I think NATO has to stay until this region is stable and is cooperating with each other because all threats are transnational. This region can be stable only if we are cooperating amongst ourselves in the region first.

What are the biggest problems facing Kosovars of every ethnic background?

Economics and the problem of unemployment within the young generation here. That is the biggest issue. The biggest challenge is to improve the quality of life and living standards. And issues like respect for law and order. There is no sense of that among people because the government, the state, for decades was occupied. The government did not care about the majority of the people. The majority of people perceive the government as not their own. They continually fight. They have lived outside the law for a long time. So now we have to convince people that this is the government for these people. For people, if they are accepting protection from the government, they have to invest. They have to pay taxes, they have to cooperate. They have to rely on the government, and the government has to be able to deliver all those services to people. That was not the case in the past, that is the legacy of the past. It will be our challenge.