Dominic Swire in Pristina -
Kosovo has finally made its first official announcement on the date it intends to declare independence, with February 17 or 18 the chosen dates. However, threats from Serbia and tension on the streets of the breakaway province make it hard to predict how the day will pan out.
Although speculation has been rife that February 17 would be the likely date Kosovo chooses to declare independence - with the province's prime minister, Hashim Taci, promising the media the announcement was at first months, then weeks and finally only days away - it was only on the evening of February 12 that any official from the government made reference to a specific date.
Speaking on local television, the former Prime Minister of Kosovo, Bajram Rexhepi, said: "The date is known actually, even though at the beginning it was said 'within February.' It will be on Sunday [February 17] or early on Monday morning."
If the date is met, it would bring an end to nine years of political limbo, during which time the breakaway province has technically been still part of Serbia but administrated by the UN.
Predictably, the announcement of the date caused uproar in Belgrade, with the issue almost toppling the Serbian government. Passions have been running so high that some have warned of trouble on the streets in the Serb enclaves of the province. On top of this, the Serbian government also announced it has a secret "action plan" it's ready to use following any move, which many speculate could include measures designed to economically squeeze the new state.
Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica recently referred to Kosovo as a "fictitious state on Serbian territory."
"We shall not allow such a creation to exist for a minute," Kostunica said. "It has to be legally annulled the moment it is illegally proclaimed by a leadership of convicted terrorists."
In a last ditch effort to halt independence, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic urged at a closed session of the UN Security Council on February 14 to oppose the Kosovo's expected declaration of independence and called for a continuation of talks at the UN to find a solution. He warned that allowing independence would give a green light to other separatist movements in Europe. However, Security Council members France, the UK and the US are sticking to the line that Kosovo should make up its own mind, and that individual member states should decide whether or not to support an independent Kosovo. As such, Jeremic's UN speech provided little more than catharsis for Serbia.
One of the chief causes of complaint recently in Serbia has been the proposed replacement of UN workers with a 2,000 strong EU mission consisting of police, officials and customs officials. Kostunica then threatened to pull his Democratic Party of Serbia out of the ruling coalition and stop Serbia signing the Stability and Association Agreement with the EU should the move go ahead, pushing the Serbian government to the brink of collapse. However, the political storm calmed following a meeting between Kostunica, Serbian President Boris Tadic and Speaker of Parliament Oliver Dulic on February , during which they agreed to annul all "illegal" acts made by Kosovan self-governing institutions following independence.
For its part, Kosovo's government is more concerned with making sure that the independence celebrations go ahead peacefully while the eyes of the world are watching. So far, the atmosphere on the streets of Pristina is calm, with many Albanians scarcely believing that their nine-year wait for independence could finally be over. "I don't believe it will happen," says 21-year-old theatre student Hane in a smoky cafÃ© in Pristina. "And even if they do declare, it won't be full independence - we will still be controlled by the EU."
Glauk Konjufca, spokesperson of the organization Vetevendosje (Self Determination) that fights for independent rule in Kosovo, warns unrest is likely and points the finger at the international community for not making the future of an independent Kosovo clearer to the Serb communities in the province. "One day Serbs will wake up in the morning to see they are living in a different state called Kosovo - the shock that they will feel will be so huge that their reaction may be very unpredictable," he says.
Indeed, many Serb communities in Kosovo are growing increasingly isolated, trapped and scared. One such place is the small town of Gracanica, home to what many Serbian people believe to be their country's most important monastery. The grounds are guarded by a heavily armed Swedish soldier, who salutes UN cars as they pass. In a cafÃ© across the road an agitated, smartly dressed young Serb who refuses to give his name expressed his fears.
"I tell you my friend, this is the biggest Alcatraz in the world," he says. "I travel to Pristina every day to work, but I always use English - it's not safe to speak Serbian there."
Despite being forced out of Pristina in 1999, the young man says he doesn't want to move out of Kosovo. "I have many Albanian friends - my trouble is not with them but with the politics."
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