Kosovo: Radical Fillip for Serbs

Electoral success of Serbian ultra-nationalists bolsters hopes of Kosovo’s beleaguered Serbs.

Kosovo: Radical Fillip for Serbs

Electoral success of Serbian ultra-nationalists bolsters hopes of Kosovo’s beleaguered Serbs.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Some ten kilometres of muddy roads link Pristina with Preoce, a village on the outskirts of one of central Kosovo’s ethnic minority enclaves, where support for the extreme right-wing Serbian Radical Party, SRS, that came out top in Serbia’s recent parliamentary election has been enormous.


The population of Preoce is made up mainly of Serbs and Roma, half of whom are refugees from Pristina, Obilic and other nearby towns.


When IWPR journalists arrived, a day after the Orthodox Christmas celebrations, the village was experiencing a 15-hour power cut due to an electricity shortage, and the streets were dark.


Life in Preoce centres around a local shop, where men come to sit at two tables - lit by a single candle and surrounded by empty shelves - have a few drinks and discuss their problems.


“Ever since 1999, when Kosovo became an international protectorate, our life here has resembled prison,” said 22-year-old Serb Mihajlo. “Our movement is limited to three villages. The children in our village have forgotten what a town looks like. It seems the Radical party is the only party in Serbia with a serious intention to help us return to what we had.”


“We are locked up in this village and I’m sure the Radicals are the only ones who can help us regain all the freedoms we lost after 1999,” agreed Simbad, a 21-year-old Roma who IWPR journalists found sitting by a wooden stove in another tiny, smoky shop in the village centre.


According to official figures, the SRS won almost 50 per cent of the 97,000 votes cast by ethnic minorities in Kosovo, most of whom are Serbs and Roma living in United Nations-protected enclaves.


Kosovo Serbs - who are unable to use their own languages freely, restricted in their movement, subjected to frequent attacks by extreme Albanian groups and denied equal access to institutions - believe the SRS will stand up for them.


They say their living conditions have not substantially improved in the four years since the arrival of international forces and the establishment of Kosovo as an international protectorate.


“Animals have a better life than us. No water, no electricity, no freedom of movement. It simply cannot get any worse. People are voting with the hope of finally having someone who could help at least a bit,” Milovan, a displaced resident of Obilic who now lives in Preoce and earns a living by smuggling, told IWPR.


Some observers warn that Kosovo Serbs’ support for the SRS could backfire on them, by inflaming tensions in the region.


During the Nineties, when Milosevic ruled Serbia in coalition with the Radicals, Serbs in Kosovo were given the full support of the government, while local Albanians were expelled from state jobs and denied the right to an education in their own language.


In response to this oppression, the Albanian population formed its own parallel state system.


Towards the end of the decade, this passive resistance exploded into armed conflict between guerrilla groups and the Serb army. The ensuing conflict resulted in NATO intervention in the spring of 1999.


The tables have since turned and many Serbs in Kosovo, finding themselves in a similar position to the Albanians under Milosevic, now look towards the SRS in the hope that the party might help restore the privileges they enjoyed under the previous system.


In the run-up to the latest Serbian parliamentary elections, when no other party had a clear policy on Kosovo, the SRS promised to restore Serbia’s authority in the region. And it was also the only party, beside Nebojsa Covic’s Democratic Alternative, to hold election rallies in Kosovo itself.


At one rally in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, Tomislav Nikolic, deputy president of the SRS, said the idea of the region breaking away from Serbia proper is unacceptable. He also said his party would insist on the return of the Serbian army and police force to Kosovo, and promised significant economic support for Serbs and other ethnic minorities there.


Such promises find a ready audience among Kosovo Serbs – like the men in the Preoce shop, warming themselves with sips of alcohol during the daily power cut – who are disheartened by the political alternatives.


But there is a risk that support for the SRS could cause tensions in the region to boil over once again.


Ethnic relations in Kosovo are poor, and the views of 22-year-old waiter Ivan, found sitting in an almost empty café in the centre of Preoce, are not unusual. “I would never want to live with Albanians,” he told IWPR, “only Serbs.”


Kosovo Serb support for the SRS is likely to increase such tensions and fuel anti-Serb feeling amongst the region’s Albanians.


And Albanian architect Veton, 37, told IWPR that there is a danger the current situation could disadvantage Kosovo Serbs by empowering Albanian radical groups.


Most Albanian officials here agree that local Serb support for the SRS is a step backwards for the region. Kosovo prime minister Bajram Rexhepi has expressed his deep regret that the majority of the protectorate’s Serbs voted for the ultra-national option in the recent elections.


“It is disappointing, since that is exactly the option which caused war in Kosovo [during the Nineties]. And the victims of that option were, and still are, Serbian people here,” read a press release issued by the prime minister’s office the day after the results were announced.


Still, many Serbs say their situation cannot get any worse, and are determined to do all they can to see Kosovo back under full Serbian control. “Kosovo was 500 years under the Turks and became Serbian again even after that,” said Ivan, who himself joined the SRS last year. “I expect the Radical party to solve the issue of Kosovo in a year, at the latest.”


Tatjana Matic is IWPR project coordinator in Kosovo.


Serbia, Kosovo
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