The year 1999 was a very traumatic year for the six million Albanians in the Balkans. Thanks to NATO's intervention and after long years of bad luck, national tragedy, and economic misery, the future looks relatively bright. Despite daunting challenges, Albanians in Kosova are finally free of Serbian repression and can now begin building a new, more stable future. In Albania, there are some signs of recovery from the 1997 economically-induced government crash, although politically, it is still pervaded by a lack of cohesion and direction.

The end of the war in Kosova and the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from the region has raised concerns in neighboring Balkan countries and in some Western capitals about the possibility of the emergence of a Greater Albania. The conventional wisdom holds that the emergence of an independent Kosova will reignite the old dream of Albanian national unification, thereby destabilizing and disrupting current efforts to promote peace and stability in the region. This gives rise to two important questions: Are the Albanians really working for a Greater Albania? And would Kosova's independence or its unification with Albania truly have an adverse impact on regional peace and stability?

To date, after Bosnia, Kosova is the second international protectorate in the Balkans, although Albania is also a hybrid type of protectorate in its own right, due to its lack of clear governing authority, its failure to fully recover from the 1997 collapse, and its continued dependence on foreign assistance. In Kosova however, UNMIK - the UN mission charged with the overall responsibility for civil administration, humanitarian affairs, reconstruction and institution building - has had to start from scratch.

The war left Kosova a wasteland, marred by large-scale, uneven destruction, an economy at a standstill, a collapsed industry and agriculture, and non-existent formal financial and legal systems. Yet, despite criticism of the lagging implementation of reforms and reconstruction programs, UNMIK has made significant progress in laying the groundwork for rebuilding civil service structures, establishing the rule of law, and creating a mechanism for the democratization of Kosovar society. Realizing that it could not govern without involving the Albanians, in December 1999, UNMIK inaugurated a new power sharing arrangement - the Transitional Administrative Council of Kosova - bringing together competing Albanian power centers, dissolving parallel structures, and allotting spaces for eventual Serb inclusion.

Additionally, two issues widely viewed as the most staggering problems for post-war Kosova have been largely resolved: the repatriation of Albanian refugees and the demilitarization of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) and its transformation into the civilian-based Kosova Protection Corps.

Yet, formidable challenges - among which security ranks highest - remain. KFOR, the NATO-led peace enforcement force, has not been able to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Serbs and other minorities, the criminalization of society, or form an effective local police force.

The economy has also proved challenging. Despite initial large pledges of economic aid, the international community has been slow in delivering actual assistance, leading to the UN Chief Administrator in Kosova, Bernard Kouchner's lamentable conclusion that Kosova has been "abandoned" by the international community.

The political scene, despite the new power sharing arrangement, remains fragmented with three main political forces vying for power:

  • the non-violence advocate, Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) which dominated the political scene throughout the 1990s but was discredited during the war for attempts at negotiating with Milosevic;
  • former KLA leader, Hashim Thaci's Party for the Democratic Prosperity of Kosova which, after the liberation, moved in swiftly as part of the attempted self-proposed provisional government. Torn by internal disagreements, an inability to deliver on promises, along with reports of criminal activities by former KLA officials and a lack of recognition by the international community, the party's former popularity base has been eroded;
  • the United Democratic League (LBD), a coalition of several parties formed in the spring of 1998 with close ties to the KLA, has since collapsed with the withdrawal of the Parliamentary Party, the Liberal Party and the National Unification party.

Currently, Rugova's LDK is making a comeback with recent polls indicating more support for Rugova than for Thaci. Internal problems and factions remain however, but no direct challenger to Rugova has yet surfaced.

None of these political forces however, are well developed parties with clear programs, though all favor a multi-party system and a market economy. Disagreement also remains over the timing and sequence of elections, with many arguing for simultaneous local and nation-wide elections. Nation-wide elections are perceived as an important tool for filling in the continuing institutional vacuum, giving Albanians a stake in the ruling process. There is the danger however, that Albanians would view elections as a referendum on independence.

While Kosovar politics continue to be fractious, almost without exception all forces have welcomed the establishment of an international interim administration. There is also widespread recognition among Albanians that Kosova will remain an international protectorate for many years, though, at the same time, there is complete unanimity that at the end of the interim period, Kosova should become an independent state.

The UN Security Council resolution leaves Kosova's final status vague. In one clause, the resolution reaffirms the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia" while in another clause, the resolution pledges that the UN interim administration will facilitate "a political process designed to determine Kosova's future status, taking into account the Rambouillet Accords." The only clear fact seems to be that the international community is interested in postponing indefinitely Kosova's final status. There are indications however, that the international community is finally coming around to the realization that Serbs and Albanians in Kosova cannot coexist in the immediate future. This is visible in the international community's recent rhetoric, advocating a change from the initial push for a "multiethnic society" in Kosova to the current, downgraded call for "peaceful coexistence"of the two ethnic groups.

It is the opinion of this writer that only independence represents a viable option, with the possibility of some border adjustments but no partition. Serbia has forfeited its right to rule over Kosova despite its historical claims. The self-determination of the Albanian people in Kosova must be viewed as a higher good than support for state sovereignty. The option of remaining within Serbia or Yugoslavia is simply unthinkable for the overwhelming majority of the now radicalized ethnic Kosovar Albanians. Most Albanians would like to see all Serbs leave Kosova.

The case of independence is clear even in legal constitutional terms - Yugoslavia's breakup was interpreted by the international community as a complete dissolution of a federal system. Kosova was a functioning federal unit so Kosovar independence would be similar to that of other former Yugoslav republics, involving only an "upgrading" of existing state borders.

For its part, Albania is in the middle of a painful and prolonged transition. The post- Berisha government has been unable to restore order and revitalize the economy while crime and corruption have become a way of life, discouraging foreign investment, diverting political energy and generally distracting the government and the population from implementing urgently needed reform tasks.

Yet, the war in Kosova provided an unprecedented opportunity for Albania to improve its badly tarnished image. At the same time however, the ruling socialist government of Prime Minister Ilir Meta used the Kosova war as a justification for its lack of progress on necessary internal economic and political reforms.

The largest opposition party - the Democratic Party (PD) - has never accepted the 1997 election results which ushered the socialists to power. Despite its own vague party platform, the Democratic Party has done everything in its power to undermine the government, capitalizing on the growing discontent and political fragmentation inside the socialist party.

The Kosova crisis was resolved too soon for Albania to reap significant benefits such as the foreign assistance necessary for building its dilapidated infrastructure. The public's focus has now returned to the crises between the government and the opposition as well as to the crime and corruption issues. The main problem is that the government lacks legitimacy in the eyes of its people. Unless Meta's government can bring about perceptible improvements in law and order, in the struggle against corruption, and the revitalization of the economy, there is little future for the ruling socialists.

Due to both the opposition's and the government's failure to coalesce and present a viable strategy to lift the country out of the current political, economic and social crisis, Albania will remain a flash point to be watched closely over the next few years. Unfortunately, this "muddling through" will cost Albania the loss of the historic window of opportunity offered by the end of the war in Kosova and the Stability Pact.

Kosova however, was not and is not a salient issue in Albania's domestic politics. While the Albanians see the protectorate as a significant step toward resolving the Albanian issue, they are not pushing for the unification of Kosova with Albania. Preoccupied by internal political and corruption problems, Albania's goal is to have open borders and improve communication and trade with Kosova. Currently, Albania is not in a position to play the role of a spiritual and political mother country to Kosova. The impetus for changing the status quo will come not from Albania but from the diaspora.

For its part, Kosova will not look to Albania as the primary actor working for unification. The separation has been too long, the respective economic, political and social development too different to enable the merging of the two regions in the short term. Despite the war, Kosovar Albanians seem to have a higher level of political and social development than their Albanian brothers. Consequently, Kosovar attitudes are focusing inward, on the revival of their own society, on the rebuilding of institutions.

While the war in Kosova did reawaken the dream of Albanian reunification, Kosova's unification with Albania does not appear to be a realistic option in the short term. There is however, a gradual movement in terms of education, economy and politics towards eventual unification. This gradual change should be embraced rather than feared, as long as it is effected gradually and under international law. Unification in this fashion would represent a permanent solution to the Albanian question and would be consistent with the principle of self- determination and the past creation of other European nation-states. Such a united Albania would not represent a serious threat to any of its neighbors. It should therefore, not be opposed, but rather managed to ensure that it is achieved peacefully and gradually.

Elez Biberaj spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on February 2, 2000