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Kosovo Worries Behind South Serbia Army Changes

As final status talks on Kosovo approach, Belgrade is reinforcing its presence in the volatile border region.
By Pedja Obradovic

Fears of a potential crisis over negotiations on Kosovo's status in 2005 and the need to reform the army to meet NATO's standards lie behind controversial plans to restructure the Serbia and Montenegro Army, VSCG, in southern Serbia.


Under the plan, the VSCG intends to combine the Nis and Pristina corps to form a “Joint Command of Land Forces” in the area by mid-2005.


What has caused most controversy is the plan to house the joint force in a large new compound covering 52 hectares between the mostly Albanian towns of Bujanovac and Presevo.


The construction of the compound, to be finished by the end of 2005, has outraged local Albanians who say it will worsen tension between their community and the security forces.


The formation of the joint command means the Pristina corps will cease to exist. The corps lost its zone of responsibility after it was forced to withdraw from Kosovo in 1999 with the arrival of KFOR, the international peacekeeping force.


The Supreme Defence Council, the civilian body in charge of the army, resolved to form the joint command in south and east Serbia, covering one-third of Serbian territory, late in 2004.


Alongside the amalgamation of units, the plan involves replacing army conscripts in the border zone near Macedonia and Kosovo with professional soldiers, owing to the perceived risk of leaving conscripts to deal with a possible security crisis.


The reported outrage of the local Albanian population has fed speculation in the Belgrade media of a “hot spring” of conflict between Albanian rebels and Serbian forces in 2005.


For all their anger over the planned new compound, local Albanian politicians downplay talk of unrest. Naser Aziri, vice-chairman of the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, said, “We are not interested in causing any unrest in the region in the spring, as some people claim.


“Only if Serbia itself harbours such intentions, then people will rise up, to defend their families.”


A NATO official in Brussels told IWPR that the alliance was aware of Serbia's plans and had no objections. “Every effort to apply NATO standards [to the VSCG] is welcome,” he said.


“These measures... are good measures,” the official added. “The restructuring of the defence forces should be completed as one of the important conditions to join Partnership for Peace agreement.”


Serbia and Montenegro has expressed a strong interest in joining the Partnership for Peace, PfP, programme, which NATO established for future candidate states.


While welcoming this interest, NATO has said it will not invite Serbia and Montenegro to join the PfP until it sees more evidence of Belgrade's closer cooperation with the Hague tribunal.


Army experts say the planned reorganisation of the military in southern Serbia is only a part of an overall strategy aimed at cutting troop numbers and simplifying command, placing all army units in this sensitive region under one operative command.


Serbia and Montenegro's defence minister, Prvoslav Davinic, said that the reorganisation of the armed forces in south Serbia was not a preparation for war but a preventive security measure.


“We want only to send a message ... that we are capable of responding to any security challenges,” he told the Belgrade media.


“This sends a clear message to all those thinking of jeopardising the security of the citizens of south Serbia.”


The decision to replace conscripts in the region with professionals is linked to the same security concerns that underpin the general reorganisation of the military in south Serbia, defence experts say.


Zoran Dragisic, professor of the Civil Defence Faculty of Belgrade University, said police units were not equipped to deal with the kind of security problems that might arise on the Kosovo border in the future.


“If there is an armed uprising or infiltration of terrorist groups from Kosovo, the police would not be able to respond,” he told IWPR.


General Ninoslav Krstic, former commander of the Joint Security Forces that entered the buffer zone between Serbia and Kosovo in 2001, after the end of the armed uprising in south Serbia, said changes to the length of military service gave the VSCG no choice but to replace soldiers in the border zone with professionals.


“This has come to the fore now, as the length of recruits' military training has been shortened from 12 to nine months. You cannot train soldiers sufficiently in nine months,” he said.


Another reason for the changeover to a purely professional force, Krstic added, were more frequent fatal incidents involving young recruits.


“This is strongly affecting army morale and its image in society,” he said. “A tragedy is always a tragedy but the public perception is different if a professional soldier, paid for his work, gets killed in an incident.”


Since the armed conflict between Albanian rebels and Serbian forces in the region ended in May 2001, the situation has been quiet, though it has worsened since January 7, when the army shot dead a 16-year-old Albanian, Dasnim Hajrullahu, as he attempted to illegaly cross the border.


About 70,000 Albanians live in the three border municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, outnumbering the local Serbs.


In Presevo, where Albanians make up more than 90 per cent of the population, power passed recently in local elections from Riza Halimi’s more moderate Party for Democratic Action to the more hard line DPA, which governs the municipality in alliance with the Democratic Union of the Valley and the Party of Democratic Progress.


All three parties espouse radical solutions to the region's problems, linking the future of south Serbia to the final solution of Kosovo’s status and demanding broad territorial autonomy for the three municipalities and their ultimate union with Kosovo if Kosovo's northern, mainly Serb, areas at any time join Serbia.


General Krstic told IWPR that Belgrade was justified in reinforcing the VSCG in the region. “This year is very important, as the beginning of talks on the final status of Kosovo have been scheduled for 2005,” he said.


Amid concern in Belgrade that unrest in Kosovo may spread to south Serbia, Veljko Kadijevic, who recently resigned as Davinic's adviser on defence reform, told the media that the talks on Kosovo's status will certainly “be reflected on the terrain” - and will represent a security threat.


Not all Serbian observers believe reorganising the military in south Serbia will improve matters. Duska Anastasijevic, analyst for the think-tank the European Stability Initiative, ESI, told IWPR that the changes will damage already poor ethnic relations in the area. “People in south Serbia need jobs - not more troops,” she said.


The local population is also bitterly divided over the arrival of a new military compound in the border region, with Albanians describing it as a provocation and Serbs generally welcoming the prospect.


Former guerrilla fighter-turned-politician Orhan Rexhepi points out that the 12.5 million euro price tag for the construction of the military and police base - in one of the poorest regions of Serbia - suggests Belgrade intends to strengthen its military presence in the area for a long time.


“We will insist through political channels that the military base is not built in this area,” said Rexhepi. “If it eventually happens – it will not be a good thing for people living here.”


“We cannot work in our fields because of the army,” Vuljnet Neziri, from Miratovac, near the border with Macedonia, told IWPR. “There is harassment and their very presence is enough to cause fear and insecurity.”


“Someone wants to destabilise this region,” Ekrem Ljutfiju, from Presevo, said. “Why on earth do we need a new army barracks?”


But local Serbs take the opposite view. Bojan Markovic, an English teacher from Presevo, said the new complex would re-assure Serbs that they have a future in the area.


“The Serb community will feel safer,” he said. “It is quite clear why - because of instability in the region and previous incidents affecting civilian population. I would say this is also good for Albanians, as it will help reduce the army and police presence in villages, which annoys them.”


Markovic said he believed that the army behaved professionally towards local Albanians.


“If there are incidents affecting [them], they have several ways to protect their interests - many non-governmental organisations, frequent visits of foreign diplomats and considerable media attention,” he said.


Ana, 23, another Serb from Presevo, said the army posed no danger to local Albanians and like many Serbs she feared the ultimate annexation of the area to Kosovo.


“I hope there will be no problems this spring because of the army reinforcements but if problems arise, at least we have some sort of protection,” she said.


General Krstic said the army would need to invest a lot of effort to defend its legitimate right to protect the country's own security against a background of criticism from local Albanians.


“All army members must protect all citizens of the Republic of Serbia in the region, irrespective of their national or religious background,” he said.


Pedja Obradovic works for B-92 radio, Dragana Nikolic-Solomon is IWPR’s Serbia project director and Muhamet Hajrullahu is an IWPR Kosovo journalist. Ivica Stepanovic from TV Presevo contributed to the article.


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