Kosovo's countdown plays out to Beethoven

PRISTINA, Serbia (Reuters) - The Kosovo Philharmonic is rehearsing for the biggest performance in its short history, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Only the concert date has yet to be set.

“We have signs it will happen in days,” said orchestra director Baki Jashari. “We’ll be ready on the 15th.”

Guessing the date when Kosovo Albanians declare independence from Serbia is the biggest game in town right now.

Hotels are full of foreign journalists and television crews, while the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has told staff to steer clear of “happy shooting” on the big day, whenever it is.

“I’m so excited to be alive right now, that I can play on the big day,” said Jashari. “We will certainly play the European anthem (Ode to Joy) on independence day.”

The windows of the rehearsal hall were open and people in the streets stopped to listen. They have yet to hear Kosovo’s own national anthem.

Backed by the West but opposed by Russia, the breakaway Serbian province is within weeks, and possibly days, of declaring independence almost nine years after NATO went to war to save its Albanian majority.

One Kosovo newspaper told gamblers this week to bet on February 17 and the Gallery of Arts is putting the final touches to an “Independence” exhibition.

Mother Theresa Street, which leads to the parliament building where the declaration will be read, is a fine pedestrian corso, paved with imported Chinese granite and lined with trees and benches.

The buildings either side have been given a fresh coat of paint to stand out from the grey concrete that fills much of the dusty capital.


Still run by the United Nations, Kosovo is without an anthem or a state flag and symbols, and its Albanians prefer the black-on-red double-headed eagle of neighboring Albania.

That flag was carried into battle by guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army who battled Serb forces under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 1998-99 to end a decade of repression.

It flies from state buildings and homes across the province but is deemed inappropriate by Western powers who want an ‘ethnic neutral’ flag that won’t offend Kosovo’s 120,000 Serbs.

More than 1,500 proposals for the flag and emblem have been submitted, and judges have narrowed the choice down to three.

“Ethnic prejudice would not be fair,” said Fadil Hysaj, head of the commission deciding on the symbols. The flag should be simple enough for a six-year-old child to draw and should represent Kosovo as a whole, he said.

Mentor Shala and Besnik Nuli, ethnic Albanians, are among the finalists and proposed a Kosovo map in white on a blue background, surrounded by five stars.

Shala said the biggest star would represent Albanians, who account for 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people.

“Our flag should win because it represents the reality in Kosovo and all the people who live in Kosovo,” he said.

Editing by Matt Robinson and Robert Woodward