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Kosovo Seeks Jewish Backing for Independence

Pro-Albanian advocates are ratcheting up efforts to rally congressional and Jewish support to force the Bush administration to throw its support behind full independence for Kosovo.

Last week, international mediators presented their plan for the province, which is formally part of Serbia but has a population that ethnically is 90% Albanian, proposing Kosovo’s permanent secession under continuing international supervision. The plan, which was handed to the United Nations secretary general this week and is slated for presentation to Serbian and Kosovo Albanian delegations February 2, will be debated both in the Balkans and at the U.N. in the coming months and could lead to the creation of a new country under foreign tutelage in southeastern Europe — much like neighboring Bosnia.

Independence advocates object to the plan, arguing that the international oversight of Kosovo is an unacceptable gesture by Western powers to soothe Serbia and its main ally, Russia. They also see the compromise as the result of a strong Serb lobbying effort in Washington.

“The international community has come up with a solution that’s no solution,” said Joe DioGuardi, a former New York congressman who is now president of the Albanian American Civic League, a registered lobby and staunch supporter of Kosovo’s independence.

Under the proposed plan, an international civilian representative would have authority to remove officials or invalidate legislation, similar to the authority of the high representative who still helps govern Bosnia under terms of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. A separate, 1,000-strong international monitoring mission, under the control of the European Union, would replace the U.N. mission and exercise authority over Kosovo’s local police force and judiciary. Kosovo’s Serbs would be given control of a handful of new municipalities sprinkled across the territory and offered new protections, and, most crucially, their lawmakers could invoke “vital interests” to block legislation. According to DioGuardi, this would lead to a de facto partition of Kosovo.

“The plan is deeply flawed and will end up creating a failed state with ethnic enclaves that is in direct contradiction with the goals of European integration,” DioGuardi said. The lead international negotiator, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, had delayed delivering his plan in order to avoid encouraging votes for nationalist parties in Serbia’s legislative elections, held January 21. An ultra-nationalist party rallied most of the votes, but a coalition government composed of more moderate parties will likely end up ruling the country. Last October, Serbia held a constitutional referendum that declared Kosovo “an integral and inalienable part” of Serbia. Kosovo supporters point to those public consultations as evidence that Serbian meddling will continue if the international plan is adopted in its current form.

DioGuardi has been cultivating Jewish groups that supported NATO’s intervention to dislodge Serbian forces from Kosovo in 1999 but have been quiet since. In order to elicit their backing, his group has been distributing literature and appearing at synagogues to educate Jewish audiences about the little-known fact that Albania had protected all its Jews during World War II.

“During the Kosovo war, Jews were at the forefront,” he said. “After the war, everyone stepped aside and the Serbian propaganda machine went to work, using the fact that Albanians are Muslims.” He noted that the American Jewish Congress is to lead a delegation to Albania in the spring to honor the country’s role during the war. In 1994, Yad Vashem bestowed the title of “Righteous” on Albania.

DioGuardi, who was born in Italy, the son of an Albanian man, used his stint in Congress in the late 1980s and early ’90s to advocate a more aggressive Western response to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s nationalist ambitions. He is now urging Congress to push for immediate recognition of Kosovar independence, adding that so far the Bush administration has chosen to appease Serbia and Russia by adopting a more cautious line.

The 114,000 Serbs living in Kosovo have complained of discrimination and harassment at the hands of the Albanian-controlled transitional government, in place since the end of the war alongside the U.N. administration.

Backers of independence have secured the support of several influential lawmakers in Washington. On January 5, the new chair of the House International Affairs Committee, Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, and the GOP’s ranking member, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, issued a “sense of the House” resolution calling on the United States to immediately recognize Kosovo’s independence. They will now send a “dear colleague” letter and probably hold hearings in the coming months. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, has indicated support for independence.

Historically a province of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the U.N. since 1999, when a NATO air campaign forced out the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, ending its brutal war against guerrillas fighting for self-rule of the province’s ethnic Albanian majority.

Even after the demise of Milosevic, Serbia’s leaders have persistently campaigned against any forced separation of Kosovo, and Belgrade has often counted on Moscow to give support and, if needed, to use its veto threat in the U.N. Security Council to secure a favorable outcome. Russia’s attitude at the U.N. will be a key factor in achieving a final decision on the status of Kosovo and could depend on other key international issues, such as the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.

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