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

Kosovo Union Calls Raise Tensions

After recent local elections handed victory to more militant Albanian parties, talk of border changes is once more in the air.
By Skender Latifi

Sveta, a 58-year-old Serb from Presevo, is already contemplating leaving home in southern Serbia. “I don’t know what we’ll do or where we'll go,” he said. “But the state can’t provide any economic help and here things have gone too far.”


His escape route from the mainly Serbian “Railway Station” section of Presevo is his second home in Smederevo, in northern Serbia. But moving alone may not solve his problems. “What will I do there?” he asks. “I’ve spent my working life here. But the poverty is terrible and there is no security. There is no future for Serbs here.”


Sveta is one of many local Serbs who fear for their prospects in an area that is remote from central government, economically devastated and ethnically torn between Serbs and Albanians – most of whom are clamouring to join neighbouring Kosovo.


Victory in the September 19 local elections by Albanian political parties advocating the area’s inclusion into Kosovo has fuelled Serbian concerns that they may one day find themselves marooned in an independent, Albanian-run Kosovo.


These concerns appear far-fetched. But with negotiations on the final status of Kosovo expected to start next spring - if the international community deems that Pristina has met a set of conditions by then - Serbia is increasingly demanding both a say in the talks, and the revision of the existing border between Serbia and Kosovo.


Ragmi Mustafa, leader of the Democratic Albanian Party, DPA, which triumphed in the poll in Presevo, told IWPR his party sought the union of majority-Albanian areas of south Serbia with Kosovo, if majority-Serb districts of northern Kosovo were allowed to join Serbia.


The biggest one in northern Mitrovica is home to about 16,000 Kosovo Serbs, and under unofficial Belgrade control. The community has its own administration, university and hospital, all supported by the Serbian government.


“This region will unify with Kosovo if any internal border changes occur in Kosovo, which means if northern Kosovo is not returned to the jurisdiction of Kosovo,” said Mustafa.


About 70,000 Albanians live in three border municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, outnumbering the local Serbs. In Presevo, the Serb position is especially precarious, as here they number only 3,000 out of 40,000.


The movement for the three communes to join Kosovo dates back at least 12 years. In March 1992, local Albanian parties organised a regional referendum over the question of “territorial political autonomy with the right to unite this area with Kosovo”.


The vote had no legal or binding force whatever, but helped to shape the political agenda in south Serbia, as well as alarming the local Serbs.


Mustafa’s hard-line talk about new borders clearly played well with Albanian voters in south Serbia.


The DPA took 15 of the 38 seats in Presevo’s local council on September 19, while the more moderate Party for Democratic Action, PDD, headed by Riza Halimi, mayor of Presevo since 1992, dropped from 19 seats to 12.


Of the other parties, the moderate Democratic Union of the Vally, DUD, took six seats and the hard-line Party for Democratic Progress, PDP, five.


Many locals also attribute the decline of the moderates to their failure to address economic issues.


“Corruption is rife in the local power structures,” said one 24-year-old ex-fighter with the Albanian Liberation Army for Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, which took on the Serbian army and police in a short-lived guerrilla war in 2001.


Halimi “was also [Nebojsa] Covic’s servant”, the young man added, referring to the Serbian government’s adviser on Kosovo questions and a hate figure among local Albanians.


The accusation of “selling out” to the Serbs is easy to throw at politicians. However, most analysts believe economics, rather than border questions, were the main reason for Halimi’s defeat. Of 40,000 people in the Presevo municipality, only about 2,500 have regular jobs.


The decay dates back to the Nineties, when most local factories closed and the government of Slobodan Milosevic openly favoured Serbs when it came to employment. With the fall of Milosevic in 2000 and a peace agreement in 2001, ending the short-lived armed conflict around Presevo, local Albanians thought times would change for the better.


But although the international community has aided some projects in the region since then, overall economic prospects have not improved, for which local Albanian parties largely blame the government of Vojislav Kostunica. They claim the government has had no contact with local Albanian power structures since March.


Ragmi Mustafa told IWPR he was right to raise the issue of union with Kosovo in the election campaign. “We cannot erase the result of the [1992] referendum,” he said. “That would mean trampling on the will of the Albanian population here.”


Dismissing the charge of political extremism, he said Halimi had also used the 1992 referendum in his campaign, and “as a trump card”.


There is no doubt that the movement for union with Kosovo enjoys widespread support among Albanians in south Serbia.


Orhan Redzepi, a leader of the PDP, founded by former guerrilla fighters in 2002, told IWPR, “The Albanian problem in the Presevo valley has not been solved.


“The Albanian people here never recognised Serbia as their homeland.”


Moreover, most Albanian parties in south Serbia already operate as extensions of - or as partners to - bigger Albanian parties inside Kosovo.


Halimi’s PDA is linked to the Democratic Alliance of Kosovo, DPK, which is led by Kosovo’s president, Ibrahim Rugova.


The DPA is close to Hasim Taqi’s Democratic Party of Kosovo, DPK, and the PDP to the Alliance for Future of Kosovo, AFK, led by Ramus Haradinaj, Kosovo’s recently appointed prime minister.


Only the small DUD has not established close ties to a party in Kosovo, presenting itself as a moderate option, not affiliated to any of the factions there.


The fact that local Serbs in south Serbia now also have fewer representatives on local councils than before is another matter of concern to the community.


Serb parties lost their majority on the council in Bujanovac, the biggest local town, in 2002. In Presevo, since September, they will have only one representative - an unheard-of situation.


Stojadin Ivanovic, a local leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, says the assent to power of more hard-line Albanian parties was not necessarily bad. “Perhaps they just are more open [than their predecessors] about their objectives,” he told IWPR.


Ivanovic said he did not fear dramatic developments in the region, as local government wielded few competences. “Of course there will be problems for Serbs, but there were before,” he added.


Nenad Manic, head of the local Democratic Party, DS, also counsels calm among the ruffled local Serbs. “I don’t expect a significant radicalisation of the situation,” he said. “We’ll probably move forward… in keeping with what was agreed with the international community.”


A return to armed conflict in the Presevo valley looks a remote prospect. But while peace remains fragile and discontent among local Albanians continues to rise, the fears unsettling the local Serbs about their long-term future in this region are unlikely to go away.


Skender Latifi is a journalist in southern Serbia.


This article is part of a special issue produced by journalists from South Serbia who attended an intensive two-day workshop in Nis, organised by IWPR in October 2004, with financial support from the British Embassy in Belgrade.


The training session is a component of the Serbia Inter Ethnic Media Training Project which aims to bring together local Serbian and Albanian journalists.


The package of articles is intended to shed light on the specific problems of this much neglected region.


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