Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

KFOR Protect Bishop From Angry Flock

KFOR troops have been drafted in to protect the Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije from a furious Serbian mob demanding he leave the Gracanica monastery.
By IWPR

Bishop Artemije is living in a state of siege after enraged Serbian radicals gathered at his monastery in Gracanica to demand his expulsion from the province.


The angry crowds surrounded the monastery on April 4 following a decision by the Serb National Council (SNV) which Bishop Artemije leads, to take part as observers alongside Albanians in the Provisional Administrative Council of Kosovo (PAVK) sponsored by Bernard Kouchner, head of the UN Mission in Kosovo.


The crowd chanted, "Kosovo is Serbian, Gracanica is ours." Some demonstrators even threatened to tear down the medieval monastery if Bishop Artemije refused to leave.


Never before has the Serbian community in Kosovo been under such pressure and in more need of unity. Kosovo Serbs now live in enclaves under constant attack from Albanian extremists. But a major division is developing between those, like Bishop Artemije, who favour reconciliation, and radicals opposed to giving any ground.


Initially the SNV refused to join PAVK, complaining that Kouchner and the international community were failing in their duty to protect Serbs from Albanian violence.


Now Bishop Artemije and his colleagues have agreed to participate for three months. Involvement beyond this period is dependent on the international community meeting their demands.


The list of demands include the guaranteed safety for all Kosovars, particularly Serbs, an end to violence, a more effective and efficient police and KFOR presence, a resolution of kidnap cases and the completion of a detailed plan for the return of Serb and other refugees to Kosovo.


The SNV's decision provoked vitriolic attacks from Belgrade and splits within the organisation itself.


Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party and the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj have long campaigned against Bishop Artemije. The ruling coalition in Belgrade perceives Artemije as an opposition political leader rather than a priest. Seselj has branded Artemije "the NATO bishop".


Outraged by the SNV's participation in the PAVK, members of the largest Serbian enclave in northern Mitrovica have split from the organisation. Arguing that they represent the majority of Serbs in Kosovo, this group has promised to form an "authentic" Serbian National Council.


The atmosphere is now highly inflammable. In Orahovac, on April 10, Randjel Nojkic, a member the Provisional Administrative Council, was beaten up as he tried to explain the reasons for the SNV decision. And now Bishop Artemije lives under siege, relying on the protection of KFOR troops and surrounded by Serbs hostile to his policies.


Father Sava Janjic, member of the PAVK and a close associate of Bishop Artemije, has frequently pointed out the need for Serbs to be present in those bodies deciding their destiny. He believes only by participating will the voice of the Serbian community be heard.


At the first session attended by Serbs, on April 11, Serbian requests were discussed, including measures to trace missing persons and to speed up the trials of imprisoned Serbs. A plan for the return of Serb refugees from Serbia and Montenegro was also on the agenda.


After the session, Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Albanian Kosovo Democratic League, welcomed the participation of the Serbs and said that posts were open to Serbs on all governing bodies.


Rada Trajkovic, a Serb representative on the PAVK, said she would not leave Pristina and Kosovo but would search for ways to live alongside Albanians. Trajkovic is convinced that a secure environment for all citizens is not far off and that soon she will be able to attend Council sessions without a KFOR escort.


Kouchner, meanwhile, never misses an opportunity to welcome the Serbian representatives on board.


The problem remains, however, that those advocating co-operation with the international administration and Albanians are in a minority and do not represent a significant political force. Bishop Artemije appears to carry more influence with the opposition in Belgrade than he does in Kosovo.


Those aligned against the bishop, however, form a rather motley crew. Oliver Ivanovic leads the Serbs in northern Mitrovice. But just where his allegiances lie remains unclear. Belgrade and Serbian nationalism still exert considerable influence in the enclave. But Ivanovic is closely associated with Marko Jaksic of the Democratic Party of Serbia, the Serbian opposition party led by Vojislav Kostunica.


Milosevic, however, does clearly control other anti-Artemije Serbs in the enclaves of Strpce, Gnjilane, Leposavic, Zvecani, Kosovo Polje, and Zubin Potok.


In these centres pro-Milosevic media outlets have been established and information on Bishop Artemije and his activities suppressed. Pro-Milosevic socialists in Zvecani broadcast weekly on "Novo Jedinstvo" and "Radio S". Pro-Milosevic people control pension and salary payments, verify personal documents and issue passports. Belgrade also funds local health care and education in these communities.


On a superficial level, the divide between Serbs appears to be over co-operation with the UN mission. But that split rests on a much deeper division between those still looking to Belgrade for answers and those, like Bishop Artemije, who recognise times have changed and that answers can only be found in Pristina, through dialogue with the majority Albanian community.


Zvonko Tarle is editor-in-chief of the independent radio station "Contact" in Pristina.