16 February 2008 – Kosovo’s planned independence this weekend comes at a price, most visible in the little-noticed corners of the Balkans, Doug Saunders explains

At some point this weekend, Europe’s newest nation will announce its own birth. But its painful gestation has left damaged traces of humanity scattered across the Balkans, many of them hidden away on patches of land beside railway tracks and beneath highway overpasses, recognized by no one and without a home.

The leaders of landlocked Kosovo (population: two million) say they will declare independence. The move will be endorsed by the United States and most European countries, bitterly opposed by Serbia and Russia, and celebrated by the region’s Albanian-speaking majority, itself one of Europe’s lost peoples.

But the price of this freedom is visible in the little-noticed corners of the Balkans where the hundreds of thousands of people cast out of Kosovo in the past decade have been forced to live a marginal existence in squatter compounds. About 200,000 people have fled or been driven out, and there is fear among observers that soon those who remain will rush to join them.

Tens of thousands of Serbian-speakers, often with roots in Kosovo that go back centuries, now live in squalid camps across northern Serbia, but even worse off are the Romani-speakers, known to themselves as Roma and to many Europeans as Gypsies.

In Kosovo, they were once among the more prosperous and well-established citizens, with handsome villages dating from the 1300s, flourishing craft-based industries and their own media and infrastructure. Their violent expulsion, putting more than 100,000 people in flight, has created a refugee population with truly no identity.

At the very least, independence will put an end to almost a decade of strained ambiguity. Kosovo was the subject of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization war in 1999, in which Canada helped to end former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s bid to make the region ethnically Serb territory. Since then, it has been an impoverished, stateless protectorate, guarded and administered by 100,000 foreigners from the UN, NATO, the European Union and a dozen other organizations.

Now, it will try to stand on its own, but non-Albanian residents are learning one of the uglier lessons of the past century: Whenever an ethnic nation is created, those who don’t belong to that ethnic group are often treated terribly. Kosovo is not supposed to be an ethnic nation; its leaders, all Albanian-speakers, say they will grant minorities equal rights; the UN and the EU say they will enforce this.

But the displaced Roma prove otherwise (as do the Egyptians, Ashkalis and other ethnic groups branded “Gypsies” by the Albanian majority). In one terrible month in 2004, thousands saw their villages looted and burned before they were forced out.

Today, Kosovo is almost devoid of Roma. A population that stood at 150,000 in 1999 and gave the region much of its cultural life and livelihood, has been reduced to fewer than 35,000, according to the European Roma Rights Centre. UN efforts to resettle the communities have had limited success: There has been a palpable fear, fully justified in the circumstances, that independence will require increased commitment from any nation that helps out.

Source: The Globe and Mail