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Albanians Scorn Belgrade's New South Serbia Boss

Ethnic Albanians warn Rasim Ljajic not to count on their help in dealing with this ethnically divided corner of Serbia.
By Skender Latifi

Belgrade’s decision to appoint Rasim Ljajic as head of its Coordinating Committee for South Serbia has provoked mixed reactions in this tense, ethnically divided, region of the republic.


While the international community welcomed the move, local Albanians voiced disapproval while Serbs in the region said it would change little on the ground.


Ljajic replaced Nebojsa Covic, who was also removed as head of the Coordinating Council for Kosovo and Metohija, at the beginning of September.


Covic was sacked after his party refused to support the government’s plans for the future of the Serbian Oil Company, NIS.


Ljajic, previously Serbia and Montenegro’s human and minority rights minister, last week urged Albanians to take more of a part in the political process.


“The state has done a lot to integrate Albanians,” he said, referring to the scrapping of a controversial electoral law for ethnic minority parties, which stipulated that they had to get a certain percentage of votes to win seats.


The Coordinating Council for South Serbia, seated in Bujanovac, was set up in 2000 to end the armed conflict between the authorities and the Albanian rebels of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, UCPBM.


A peace accord mediated by the international community was signed on May 21, 2001 in the village of Konculj, near Bujanovac.


The deal granted UCPBM members an amnesty after which local elections were held in the three ethnically-mixed municipalities of Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja in July 2002.


Ethnic Albanian parties triumphed in Bujanovac and Presevo while Serbian parties took power in Medvedja.


Although Albanian parties contested the local elections, they have since refused to participate in republican and presidential elections.


The end of the armed conflict and democratic elections were only the first phase of the so-called Covic plan for southern Serbia, whose other provisions were economic development and integration of the Albanians into state institutions.


The coordinating council is divided into eight working groups, dealing with problems in agriculture, education, economy, culture, and the media, among others.


While most analysts here doubted Ljajic's arrival marked a sea change in Serbian policy for the region, the local Albanian leadership insisted it has major reservations.


Ragmi Mustafa, head of Presevo’s municipal assembly and leader of the Albanian Democratic Party, DPA, (which has not joined the coordinating council), said Ljajic would not be able to solve any of the main contested issues, such as the use of national symbols and the free flow of people and goods with Macedonia and Kosovo.


“We still won't get involved in the coordinating council because so little has been done to solve real problems of the Albanian community,” Mustafa told Balkan Crisis Report.


The leader of Democratic Union of the Presevo Valley, DUD, Skender Destani, agreed. “This latest move on their part is just a political trick,” he said, though he added that they would wait a few months before finally judging the new man.


Orhan Reqepi, a local PDP leader, refused to meet Ljajic, on account of the fact that he did not have political support in his own heartland of Sandzak, in southwest Serbia.


“Ljajic does not enjoy sufficient support in Sandzak, so he is not competent to help solve the problems in the Presevo valley,” said Reqepi.


Ljajic himself said he hoped to build on the work of his predecessor. “Covic’s strategy has yielded good results,” he was reported to have said on a visit in September. “We should complete the processes that are already under way.”


Ljajic said he would not make personnel changes to the coordinating council as he saw no reason to replace a team that had achieved “extraordinary results under difficult circumstances”.


Diplomats welcomed the promise of continuity. One said Ljajic’s appointment could benefit southern Serbia, as Covic’s relationship with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had been “strained and this could have been a drawback in his work”.


Local Serb representatives were not troubled by Covic's departure, either because they expected no major changes or they disapproved of his work in the first place.


Nenad Mitrovic, of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, said Ljajic would simply continue Covic’s policy, which had worked “to the detriment of Serbs in south Serbia”.


Goran Daskovic, of the Democratic Party, DS, also agreed that little would change, though for different reasons. “Ljajic has no room for manoeuvre to introduce substantial changes,” he said.


“Covic’s successor is coming here too late,” he added. “Covic wasted an opportunity because no other government will ever have the same amounts of money that were invested in south Serbia, but which were not put to good use. Nothing concrete was done.”


Nonetheless, Dusan Janjic, head of the Forum for Ethnic Relations, welcomed Ljajic’s appointment, urging him to draft in economic experts to develop the area, as this is the key to local stability.


“If there are no such people in Serbia, then bring them from abroad. Economic development must be the top priority in this region,” he said, a view Ljajic appears to share.


The government has already invested 300 million dinars (around 3.5 million euro) this year in the three south Serbian municipalities, and around 3.435 billion dinars (about 40 million euro) in the past four years.


An additional 1.55 billion dinars (18 million euro) has come in foreign grants and donations, which makes a total of more than 5 billion dinars, or 60 million euro.


Most of the funds were spent on infrastructure, however, with little direct investment in the economy.


No new jobs have been created in southern Serbia as a result of the investment. Nor has a single local public company been privatised, even though privatisation is a key part of the Serbian government's economic policy.


Ljajic will have his work cut out to achieve much in such circumstances.


Skender Latifi is editor in chief of TV Presevo.


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