Kosovo’s parliament overwhelmingly endorsed a declaration of independence from Serbia, read by Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, in a historic session.
"Our message to you, all Serbs in Kosovo, is to remain in your homes and around your monasteries, regardless of what God allows our enemies do," said Bishop Artemije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo. shortly before the announcement was made. He spoke at a church service in the ethnically divided northern city of Mitrovica, where dozens of people were killed and hundreds of houses destroyed in 2004, despite presence of NATO-led peacekeepers.
There have been other incidents, including a bomb blast last week, in Mitrovica, where paramilitaries have enforced a strict split between the Serbian command and ethnic Albanian communities. Serbs live on the north bank of the River Ibar and the suburbs climbing the hills overlooking the town; Albanian Kosovars are confined to suburbs south of the bridge over the Ibar river.
Serbian officials fear mote attacks against Serbs and their churches and monasteries by revenge seeking ethnic Albanians. Most Serbs fled Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombardments ended a Serbian military crackdown on Kosovo’s independence seeking ethnic Albanian majority. Of the 120,000 who stayed, about half live in the northern enclave. But the rest are scattered in small, isolated and vulnerable villages.
RESPECTING MINORITY RIGHTS
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has promised however to respect the rights of all minorities, including Serbs. A justice and police mission of the European Union of some 2,000 people was due to arrive to oversee that all human rights are expected.
"The influence of Belgrade has ended," Kosovo Thaci said. "The success of Kosovo’s independence as a new beginning will be clearly measured by respect for the rights of minorities, especially Serbs," the former guerrilla added.
However in a more controversial statement, Bishop Artemije said Serbia should rally its armed forces, declare Kosovo "occupied territory" and buy weapons from Russia to reclaim it. "The statement by the chief of staff, General Zdravko Ponos, that Kosovo will not be defended by the army, is a disgrace," he was quoted as saying by the daily Glas Javnosti. "Serbia should buy state of the art weapons from Russia and other countries and call on Russia to send the volunteers and establish a military presence in Serbia," he reportedly said.
KOSOVO "IS SERBIAN"
"Kosovo was and always will be Serbian," the bishop said. The declaration of independence on Sunday, February 17, means "a temporary state of occupation". Yet, he said, "Everything will pass, and so will the occupation of Kosovo," the 73-year-old church leader added.
His anger has been linked to frustration over attacks against individual believers, including nuns and priests, as well as the destruction of dozens of churches, monasteries and Orthodox grave yards in recent years by ethnic Albanian mobs, often under the nose of NATO peacekeepers.
Russia and Serbia are among the countries that have already said they opposes Kosovo’s independence. The United States and most European Union countries have however pledged to recognize an independent Kosovo. Yet some EU countries, including the Netherlands, have not yet committed themselves. "We first want to see what is in that declaration of independence. For instance we want to see if the rights of the Serbian minority are respected," Dutch European Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans told BosNewsLife in Budapest, Hungary.
MORE HELP NEEDED
In addition, analysts say impoverished Kosovo, whose population of two million is Europe’s youngest, will need a lot of development aid and on-the-spot guidance for years to come.
The West has also expressed concerns about a Kosovo fallout in ethnically divided Bosnia, where some Serbs threaten to secede, breaking up their uneasy partnership with Muslims and Croats in what would be yet another Balkan fragmentation.
Yet, Christian mission groups and local churches have also been involved in trying to rebuild bridges between different ethnic groups, after the Balkan wars of the 1990s in which a quarter of a million people died and many more were injured and forced to flee their homes.