'Are we a society of values, or of blood?' Old questions hang over the new Kosovo

Albanians and Serbs united in uncertainty as province prepares to go it alone

Just before dawn on one of Kosovo's last mornings as a Serbian province, young military cadets are being put through their paces on a concrete drill field.

The 38 young men and women in matching tracksuits represent Kosovo's hopes for the future, at least for its Albanian majority. As dense clouds of jackdaws swoop and wheel above them, they run in perfect formation, chanting their determination to defend the new nation about to be born.

"Bullets don't scare us," they shout. "A just war makes us even braver."

These are the seeds of a modern security force that is supposed to be built on democratic values rather than ethnic ties, just like the embryonic state it is pledged to defend. But on the eve of independence, it is far from clear whether either will live up to the ideal.

"This is the question we are trying to answer," said Migjen Kelmendi, a publisher and broadcaster who has been involved in a long painstaking effort to construct a new national identity. "Should we be a society of values, or of blood, belonging and biology?"

New nation

Whatever the answer, the new nation is set to declare its existence to the world tomorrow or on Monday morning at the latest, and be rapidly recognised by its international supporters, including Britain, much of the European Union and the United States.

It is the last act in the long, bloody unravelling of Yugoslavia that began 17 years ago, that triggered a Nato intervention in 1999 to protect Kosovo's majority Albanian population from Serb forces and led to the establishment of a UN protectorate in the province.

The final amputation, however, is unlikely to bring much tranquillity. Kosovo is only a province, not a republic like the other post-Yugoslav states, and the legal grounds for its secession from Serbia are hotly contested. Belgrade and Moscow have vowed to ensure Kosovo's birth is a painful one and will try to strangle it in its cradle. Serbia has threatened to enforce an embargo and Russia says it will veto Kosovo acquiring a seat at the UN.

Nevertheless, the cadets at the military academy in the capital, Pristina, are undaunted, confident they can rely on US and Nato backing. The instructors trained for four years in South Carolina, they teach US-style military doctrine and the young trainees all speak English with the same well-disciplined optimism.

"There is no discrimination in our army," said Kadri Berisha, a 24-year-old who was a refugee in Doncaster during the 1998-99 war. "We are looking to the future. Our history is behind us."

When the sun comes up, however, the cadets turn to salute a symbol rooted in the past - the blood-red Albanian banner emblazoned with a black double-headed eagle.

By tomorrow or the next day, that will be replaced by a new flag. It is yet to be approved by parliament but it is certain to be deliberately bland. It may well incorporate a map of the new country on a blue background, reflecting its desire to join the UN, the EU and Nato.

But history in this part of the world is not shrugged off so easily. The new colours are supposed to be ethnically inclusive, but on the drill field at least, there will be no Serbs to salute them.

"We tried to recruit Serbs. We went into the high schools to talk to them, but there was no interest," said Captain Berat Shala, one of the instructors.

The new army will embody many of the strengths and weaknesses of an independent Kosovo. It will be heavily supported and monitored by the EU and the US to ensure it sticks to its UN-designed democratic, multi-ethnic blueprint. But it has so far failed to draw meaningful participation from an angry and fearful Serb minority - roughly 10% of Kosovo's two million people. Nor is it clear whether the Albanian majority is willing to give more than lip service to the ideals of the brand new nation.

Fadil Hysaj, a playwright who headed the commission that drew up a shortlist of three flags, admitted he was anxious about the public reaction. "Politically, the new flag is right, but it really doesn't have the emotional effect that a flag should have," he said. "Removing the eagle, for most Albanians, will be like a surgical operation."

For Albanian nationalists such as Albin Kurti, an outspoken youth leader, the new nation has bargained away its soul even before its creation.

"A flag should have a history. I don't think people will identify with these ad hoc flags," he said. He is similarly dismissive of the new constitution, which is packed with safeguards for the Serb minority and the enclaves in which they live. "We're going to have a Serb entity, just like Bosnia," he warned.

Passive resistance

If that separate entity does emerge, its centre of gravity will be in the north, along the border with the rest of Serbia and around the divided city of Mitrovica. There, Serb refusal to acknowledge the new state could lead to violence and, with Belgrade's encouragement, could threaten de facto partition. Nato has sent troops to the north to counter the threat, but it will be hard for them to tackle passive resistance.

More than half the Serb population lives south of Mitrovica, scattered in smaller enclaves, some of which could be just as big a headache for the Pristina government and its backers.

In the Lipjan area, near the centre of Kosovo, 10,000 Serbs live uneasily alongside a similar number of Albanians. The municipality is, in theory, the sort of multi-ethnic paradigm the new country is meant to be, led by an Albanian mayor and a Serb deputy.

The mayor, Shukri Buja, insists he works hand in glove with the Serbs, and claims they are not bothered by the war mementos he keeps in his office from his days as an Albanian guerrilla. "They liberated not just us but the Kosovo Serbs too," Buja said. "I don't think any of this history can hurt integration.

A few steps down the corridor, however, his Serb colleagues told a different story. "We've complained to the deputy mayor, to the UN, to everyone, about all these pictures and things," said Lidija Ivanovic, who is in charge of minority affairs. "We don't want to be constantly reminded of the war."

Taking down the war relics and putting up a new flag would make life easier for Serbs in the municipality, she said, but it would not be enough to make her a Kosovan.

"I can't imagine that," Ivanovic said, because I will always see myself as a Serb."


Julian Borger in Pristina

The GuardianTramp

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