CEOL - UN still building autonomy in a Kosovo desperate for independence

PRISTINA, Serbia, Dec 19, 1999 -- (AFP) For six months the UN mission in Kosovo has labored to rebuild the Yugoslav province, caught between Belgrade's vocal hostility to the perceived violation of its sovereignty and the overwhelming desire of Kosovo Albanians for independence.

UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which in June ended NATO's three-month air campaign to halt Serbian oppression of ethnic Albanians, mandated its mission here to administer the province and build "substantial autonomy" within Yugoslavia.

"Every decision raises the question of whether there is an extension of autonomy or a loss of sovereignty" for Belgrade, said one official at the United Nations mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

The issue has dogged decisions to replace the Yugoslav dinar, a non-convertible currency, with the German mark in a bid to develop a viable economy, as well as the production of stamps or UN travel documents for Kosovars to go abroad.

As part of its remit to develop a budget independent of international aid, UNMIK has opted to collect taxes on Kosovo's borders, the official said. Yet for Belgrade, such a move is recognition of Kosovo's own borders and is therefore unacceptable.

UNMIK likewise treads a fine line on defense and foreign issues. Several countries, including the US, Britain and France, have set up "liaison offices" here with consular status and foreign officials visiting Kosovo rarely pass by Belgrade.

"We are trying to establish mechanisms which will allow us to administer but will not prejudice the decision" on the final status of Kosovo, the official said.

However, even while the UN resolution leaves the final status dangling, some western diplomats are already talking in terms of independence.

For Kosovo Albanians, independence is the goal even if they dispute the best route to take.

The decision over the tender for a mobile phone network for Kosovo is a clear example of the regular wrangling between local ethnic Albanian leaders and UNMIK.

Local leaders preferred the German operator Siemens, which came with no international partner and left the door open to demands for an international code different to the rest of Yugoslavia, in contrast to the UN resolution.

However, UNMIK opted for French telecoms firm Alcatel which came with international partner Monaco Telecom, nipping Kosovar ambitions in the bud.

"It's a game between UNMIK and the local authorities to make sure they don't go too far," said one western diplomat, who asked not be identified.

Resolution 1244 is far from perfect but was "painstakingly negotiated and one cannot change a comma" without running into opposition from Russia and China, the diplomat said.

As for the final status of Kosovo, 1244 is sufficiently obscure to leave several doors open. Furthermore, it does not specify that the province remain Serbian, but Yugoslav. Belgrade considers Yugoslavia to be made up of two republics, Serbia and Montenegro, and two Serbian provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina.

"Everything depends on how the region develops," the UNMIK official said. "Another dialogue could develop which will not necessarily use the terms independence and autonomy, one can imagine a different type of regional integration."

Meanwhile, for the UN and the major western capitals, one of the keys to the future of Kosovo is potential changes in Belgrade, should Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic be ousted from power.

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