Chipper Kosovo Serbs

Kosovo's beleaguered Serbian communities see light at the end of the tunnel

Chipper Kosovo Serbs

Kosovo's beleaguered Serbian communities see light at the end of the tunnel

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Kosovo's Serbian leaders are positively chipper these days. With the collapse of Slobodan Milosevic's regime and the rapid restoration of Serbia to international respectability under President Vojislav Kostunica, they believe things are beginning to turn their way.

"The changes are definitely encouraging," says Father Sava, adviser and spokesman of Bishop Artemije. The Bishop is headquartered in the medieval monastery in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica, defended by Swedish K-For troops from the NATO-led peacekeeping force. "It is a great relief that we finally see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Gracanica is only a ten-minute drive from Pristina, but Serbs cannot go there without risking their lives unless accompanied by an international escort. By contrast, the monastery plays host to a constant stream of high profile foreign guests.

According to Father Sava, Kosovo's Albanians "almost had independence in their hands" while the Milosevic regime held sway in Belgrade. "Now for Kosovo Serbs there is some hope that the government will be able to protect our rights and the interests of our state."

A similarly chipper mood prevails in Serbian-controlled northern Mitrovica. Oliver Ivanovic, the leader of the Serbian National Council, SNC, in the town, believes Kostunica's election victory and the ending of Serbia's isolation has completely reversed the province's political fortunes.

Kosovo's Albanians, predicts Ivanovic, will find themselves living in "increasing isolation" if they fend off eventual demands from the international community for talks on the return of Yugoslav troops and their recognition of Yugoslav sovereignty.

"It was like that for us," said Ivanovic talking about the period before Milosevic's fall, "but world politics can change overnight - and they did change overnight!"

Under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which ended Serbian rule in Kosovo, established the UN administration, UNMIK and K-For, "hundreds" of Yugoslav and Serbian "personnel" should eventually be allowed back into Kosovo to perform specific tasks.

While Milosevic was still in power in Belgrade there was no question of this happening.

For the moment, even a symbolic return of troops, is still being ruled by the international authorities here. UNMIK chief Bernard Kouchner says he would rather concentrate now on the return of Serbs and others who fled or were driven out of Kosovo after June 1999.

"Let's work first on the return of civilians. The representatives, even symbolic, of people who were killers, mass!" he said.

Still, while Ivanovic agrees it is still too early to raise this question, in part because he knows ordinary Serbs might be murdered in retaliation, he also believes that the international community has a duty to fulfil its obligations under Resolution 1244, especially, in the wake of the changes in Belgrade.

"We'll have to wait a little longer," he said, "but there will be federal troops in Kosovo. The internationals must tell the Albanians that this is agreed at the highest level, at the UN Security Council. Political leaders are not just for the good news."

Until now, Kosovo Serb politics has been plagued by internecine squabbling. Bishop Artemije's Gracanica based SNC has been at odds with the Mitrovica SNC. Within Gracanica, the SNC has been at odds with Momcilo Trajkovic's Serbian Resistance Movement, SPOT, and all of these groups have been in conflict with representatives of the old regime.

Until the fall of Milosevic, they continued to wield enormous influence over the Serbs. This was in great measure thanks to their control of funds, which continued to flow from Belgrade to pay salaries and pensions. Ever since Kostunica's victory, officials from Milosevic's former ruling party has been rushing to mend fences with UNMIK.

Now, the main Serbian groups are hoping to find common ground and Bishop Artemije has written to Kostunica asking him to consider organising a meeting of all the Serbian parties in Kosovo.

Of immediate importance is the question of how Serbs should be represented in Kosovo's local councils since they boycotted the October 28 municipal polls. In principle, Serbs will be appointed by UNMIK but exactly who will be appointed and in what proportion in mixed communities remains to be seen.

Significantly, as Ivanovic, Bishop Artemije, Father Sava and Trajkovic were all vocal supporters of Serbia's former opposition before the elections, they now have the ear of the president. Kostunica's backing means they can now be far tougher in negotiations with UNMIK.

For example, although all the groups agree that the Albanian political prisoners remaining in Serbia should be released, they also say that the question should be linked to the fate of what they say are 960 missing, presumed dead, Serbs and others, who disappeared after the departure of Yugoslav forces in June 1999.

The next few months will present the Kosovo Serb leadership, as well as the Kosovo Albanian one, with new challenges.

Father Sava, for example, says the dilemma facing Kosovo Serbs leaders is that while they approve of the idea of province-wide elections they will only actively support it when they judge conditions to be right. "That means," he says with a broad smile, "when I can ride a bicycle from here to Pec."

The electoral triumph of the moderate Ibrahim Rugova in the local elections has been dismissed by Ivanovic as irrelevant, but given a cautious welcome by Father Sava.

As if to pre-empt some of the nightmarishly difficult issues which any future negotiators might face, he said, "If tomorrow Serbs will sit in the Kosovo parliament who will be the Kosovo representatives in the parliament of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?"

It is questions such as these which enrage the province's Albanian leaders, who say they will consider nothing less than full independence and that local Serbs will only have a stake in the future of the territory if they recognise that Kosovo is their country - not Serbia.

"We don't want to be part of institutions that would take our people further away from the FRY," said Father Sava, "yet we also want to take part in institutions to go forward."

Curiously, the mood of optimism has even penetrated the notorious "Yu Project" in Ulpiana in Pristina. Here, some 150 Serbs live grouped together in a grim row of blocks of flats surrounded by hostile Albanians. They are given round-the-clock protection by 15 British Royal Marines Commandos and were recently subjected to a rocket attack.

The Serbs can only survive here because, in every family, there is at least one person who works for UNMIK, K-For or a foreign NGO and therefore earns more money than they could possibly dream of in Serbia proper. "For the moment," said resident Suncica Rakocevic, the Serbs of the "Yu Project" have "chosen money over freedom."

Nebojsa, who lives with his wife and four children in one flat says he and his friends think that the election of Kostunica will "make life better for us". For now none of the family can venture beyond the block's courtyard and his children are bussed, under armed protection, to an outlying Serbian enclave for schooling.

Nebojsa and his family would take their lives in their hands if they were to wander down to the centre of Pristina to visit the great, unfinished Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. There is little doubt that the scene here is one of the most surreal symbols of the post-war Balkans.

Inside the church is a large tent. And inside the tent are three Royal Marines Commandos. If you come at the right time, they will all be sitting on their sofa clutching mugs of hot tea watching EastEnders or other staples of British television. The fourth man in their unit is always on guard outside making sure the church is not razed to the ground by Kosovo's Albanians who see it as a symbol of a hated past and a people they never want to see return here.

As there are only a maximum of 700 Serbs left in Pristina it comes as quite a shock to realise that, if you include thousands of British troops here plus the British contingent in UNMIK headquarters, there are now far more Britons in the capital of the Serbian "Holy Land" than there are Serbs. But that's no reason for Serbs to stop hoping.

Tim Judah is the author of Kosovo: War & Revenge and The Serbs: History, Myth & the Destruction of Yugoslavia both published by Yale University Press.

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