Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Presevo Albanians Spurn Military Draft
There has been a poor response to the south Serbian authorities' attempts to recruit ethnic Albanian youngsters into the armed forces.
Since Yugoslavia's violent dissolution in the early Nineties, Albanians have ignored calls for military service, as they considered the army a tool of the former president and arch-Serbian nationalist, Slobodan Milosevic.
One former Albanian guerrilla commander spoke for many when he told IWPR, "How could I serve in an army I was fighting against?"
Until two or three years ago, Albanians did at least register and undergo medical examinations, but they have been left alone since that time.
However, the authorities' attitude has now changed. "Calls for military service have been sent to youngsters from all ethnic communities - including Albanians," Milovan Coguric, secretary of the defence ministry and member of the coordinating body for southern Serbia, told the media.
Ethnic Albanians in Serbia - excluding Kosovo - are concentrated in the three southern municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja - some 70,000 of them live there together with 40,000 Serbs. It was the centre of an armed conflict between the Yugoslav army and Albanian guerrillas from January 2000 until mid-2001.
Fighting died down after an internationally-brokered deal was reached between the two sides, under which the Albanians disarmed and gave up plans for secession in return for guarantees of greater human rights and representation in local government and police structures.
The agreement opened the way to a process of fuller integration in local administration. But Albanian political leaders in southern Serbia say the planned military draft may inflame the situation once again.
They say Albanians still lack confidence in Serbian institutions - especially the largely unreformed army. "The war has left deep scars and it is impossible to convince Albanian parents to send their sons for military service in Serbia," said Skender Destani, of the Party for Democratic Action, SDA, the biggest Albanian party in the area.
"We are in favour of a democratic Serbia and are not prepared to join an army whose generals are sought for war crimes by The Hague tribunal," said Jonuz Musliu, leader of the Democratic Progress Movement party, which emerged from the ranks of the former guerrillas.
This distrust has been heightened by the recent assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, who was gunned down in Belgrade on March 12.
"These events show that elements of the Milosevic regime were still active in Serbia's military and police structures," Presevo mayor and SDA leader Riza Halimi Sadi last week during a meeting with the republic's deputy president Nebojsa Covic.
Ethnic Albanian leaders argue that their people should not be summoned for military service until matters have visibly improved and confidence had grown.
"We need to talk to the Serbian leadership and the international community and retain the status quo until matters progress," said Shaip Kamberi, chair of the Albanian Council for Human Rights in Bujanovac.
Albanians need to be properly represented in local and regional political structures before the question of military service can arise, the community's leaders argue. "We have not yet seen a real integration in state institutions, and in the meantime they are asking for Albanians to fulfil their military service," Kamberi complained.
But Serbian officials disagree. "There is no reason to ignore calls for the draft," Coguric said. "Anyone in southern Serbia who avoids military service will face legal action."
Serbian officials accuse Albanians in the region of continuing to harbour dreams of joining Kosovo. In March 1992, they held an unofficial referendum, where most voted to secede from former Yugoslavia and unite with the province.
Though Kosovo is formally part of Serbia and Montenegro, it is effectively run as an international protectorate. Talks on its final status have not yet begun.
Belgzim Kamberi is an independent journalist in Presevo.
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