While flames and bullets smashed East Timor and the international peace force then painfully took over, NATO and its friends were quietly building a new nation in Kosovo.
The two cases have certain similarities. In each, a vicious colonial power tried to crush opposition by driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and out of their country. With official approval, bands of hooligans and militias murdered, burned, raped, and looted.
One can only hope that the chance of revival is as great in East Timor as it is in Kosovo. One difference is that NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR) went into Kosovo with a UN Security Council mandate providing also for an international civil authority to promote "substantial autonomy and self-government."
However, while the Indonesian government has formally acknowledged East Timor's coming independence, Serbia is trying to hold on to its province. It has been firing protests at the UN since Day 1, denouncing what it calls crass violations of its sovereignty.
The Security Council did indeed reaffirm the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The UN's civil authority, the Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), has elaborately stressed that it is only filling an interval, but Serbia asserts that UNMIK is preparing Kosovo's independence and fumes at having its complaints ignored.
For instance, the UN resolution sees some Serbian personnel returning to key border crossings. Belgrade wants to send them but is brushed off.
Meanwhile, UNMIK sets up customs and police posts on the international borders with Macedonia and Albania. They have already collected millions of German marks in customs and excise for Kosovo's treasury. Belgrade's chagrin is sharpened by a painful humiliation. UNMIK has named the German mark Kosovo's legal tender. Other foreign monies, including the Yugoslav dinar, may also be used but only upon payment of a handling fee.
The notion of the dinar as a foreign currency enrages Belgrade. "Kosovo," it rants, "is an integral part of the single constitutional, legal, economic, financial, monetary, fiscal, foreign exchange, customs, traffic and other systems of the Republic of Serbia."
It further "reminds" the Security Council that "Serbs are not and cannot be an ethnic minority in their own country." The fact is that Serbs, in Kosovo, number some 97,000 against 1.5 million ethnic Albanians.
The UNMIK head, Bernard Kouchner, founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning French aid organization Doctors Without Borders, performs the executive functions of government as a no-nonsense pro-consul until new legitimate authorities are established. He has installed a Transitional Council, including Serb and other minority representatives, which will gradually take over the administration. Local elections will be held next spring, with parliamentary elections later.
New UNMIK identity documents will be issued in October, providing a central register of Kosovo's inhabitants as a basis for vehicle registration, travel documents, and electoral lists.
A Supreme Court has been established, heading a new judicial system already functioning. All Yugoslav state property in Kosovo has been taken over, including the large Treptca mining and manufacturing complex in the north. UNMIK has authorized no symbols of state, but the Albanian flag, with its black eagle on red ground, is the universal emblem of ethnic Albanians.
The Kosovo Liberation Army has been officially demilitarized. Many of its roughly 10,000 men have applied for the police force now being built. The rest may join what is called the Kosovo Protection Corps, a civilian service agency primarily for reconstruction and emergency. This transition has begun smoothly, probably because the leaders, together with most observers, believe that Kosovo is headed inevitably toward independence, when the KLA may well become the national defense force.
With its furious complaints disregarded, Serbia may try violence and destabilization. NATO reports recent infiltrations by groups of Serbian paramilitaries, with bloody incidents, and says the disturbances in the northern town of Mitrovica appear to have been carefully orchestrated.
There is no doubt that KFOR and UNMIK can handle this, but for the longer term, peace and security will not be fully assured until the government of Serbia is changed. Just as a future for East Timor requires at least a sea change of policy in Indonesia.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a long-time foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society