At least 17 people were killed in riots in Kosovo on Wednesday. Serbs and Albanians have yet again spiralled into conflict, raising the question of what has really changed since the NATO-led war against Serbia in 1999.
Smoke billows from Serbian Orthodox church
Overnight, the situation in Kosovo has escalated, evoking memories of 1999. Back then, NATO decided to put an end to the persistent violence through air strikes. An international peacekeeping force was deployed and Kosovo was placed under a United Nations mandate.
Five years on, the question of the future status of Kosovo remains unresolved. In the eyes of Albanians, Kosovo should be made independent; and in the view of Serbs, it should remain part of a federation with Serbia and Montenegro.
The first important talks between the two sides have gotten underway in recent days to discuss important questions of principle, like the fate of missing people and how to ensure steady energy supplies in the region. The international military presence, U.N. police and local security forces have ensured a certain level of peace. But the latest violence isn't isolated to the disputed city of Kosovska Mitrovica, but has spread simultaneously to a number of places across Kosovo following the circulation of unconfirmed reports about the violent deaths of Albanian children.
Additionally, Serb extremists also set fire to mosques in Belgrade and Nis. Conflict also erupted between Albanians and Serbs during protests across the country. KFOR soldiers and UN police were also attacked as the chaos spread.
Since the end of the 1999 war, such incidents have happened with increasing regularity. But this time the violence was loaded with such intensity that it should have sounded a sharp alarm in the international community -- for this time the turbulence is escalating almost simultaneously in many places in Kosovo and it is encroaching on Serbia and Montenegro.
An even worse suspicion is now arising: Was this a directed escalation of violence? Was it orchestrated by extremist groups on both sides who have been waiting for the right pretext to fuel the conflict with all of their power just days before the anniversary of the Kosovo war?
Kosovo no longer dominates the headlines in the international press, but that doesn't mean things have changed for the better. Democratic structures and a culture of dialog have not yet developed. And the cause of the current conflict -- the political battle over the future of Kosovo -- has been put off. The international community is hoping that the situation will simmer down further so that a solution to the political issues can be settled more easily. But the contrary appears to be the case: The postponement of the status question is engendering bitterness on all sides of the debate.
The political environment has also changed. Serbia now has a new nationalist conservative government that is being tolerated by Milosevic's Socialists. It has left no doubt that it is unwilling to compromise on the status question. Meanwhile, the confidence of Albanians in Kosovo has increased and the UN administration has transferred to them some competencies. The Kosovars have stood firm on their position for some time now, too: The future of Kosovo lies in independence and there won't and can't be any compromise with Belgrade.
An agreement on the future of Kosovo remains elusive even now, five years after the last bombs were dropped. The latest problems show that even a mere spark is enough to set barricades and houses of worship ablaze. That's how it was in 1999 and that's how it is again today. Kosovo is still far away from a peaceful future. And if the Serbs and Albanians are unwilling to compromise, then there's little more the international community can do than merely control the damage. Thus, sovereignty remains a pipe dream for Serbs and Albanians.