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

Presevo Clerics Break with Kosovo

Albanians in Presevo snub new Islamic association because of its links with Belgrade.
By Skender Latifi

A rift between rival groups of Muslim clerics has emerged in southern Serbia following the controversial establishment of a new Belgrade-registered Islamic association for the region.

The Islamic community association for the towns of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, was set up to take over from a Kosovo-based body which currently has the authority in this region.

But the imams who established the new organisation - registering it in the Serbian capital in March - did so against the wishes of many of their colleagues in the region and have failed to win the backing of local Albanians.

The latter suspect that the new body was formed at the insistence of the Serbian government, which they have long distrusted.

For much of 2000, the Presevo valley, home to 70, 000 ethnic Albanians, was the scene of armed clashes between militant members of the community, the UCPBM, and Serbian security forces. The conflict ended in May 2001 after an internationally brokered peace agreement. Under the accord, guerrilla fighters agreed to lay down their weapons in exchange for an improvement in the civil rights of Albanian residents.

After the fighting was brought to an end, local elections took place with Albanian parties gaining a majority in Presevo and Bujanovac.

But the community appears to be unwilling to countenance further political integration. A boycott of December's presidential elections reflected locals' continued antipathy towards Belgrade and suggested that they have not given up on unification with Kosovo.

In March 1992, 90 per cent of people in the region voted for political and territorial autonomy with the right to join Kosovo, in a referendum dismissed by the Serbian authorities as illegal.

So it came as no surprise when most locals refused to back the new organisation. Its biggest critics are the heads of the one it is intent on replacing. Abdulah Abdiu and Ragmi Destani, the chairmen of the Kosovo Islamic community association, which has branches in Presevo and Bujanovac, described it as a betrayal of Albanian interests.

"We have been part of the Islamic community of Kosovo since 1971, and we don't see why anyone should tell the Albanians of this region to work together with Belgrade as they all see their future within Kosovo, especially knowing what Belgrade has offered to Albanians over the past ten years," they said in a joint statement.

Imam Nedzmedin Sacipi, president of the newly formed Islamic association, said it had been established because the predominantly Albanian region now had clear political powers and was beginning to set up its own autonomous and independent institutions

Plans for forming a local Muslim community group have been around since 1990, but the founding imams say it was only possible to seriously consider setting up the body after the local elections last year.

Sacipi, who claims he has the support of the main local Albanian political parties, says the region needs its own religious organisation to better represent the needs and views of its population. He says he doesn't want the Islamic community association of Belgrade to speak on their behalf because its leaders "sided with Milosevic's government".

Some support the new body because they feel its Kosovo counterpart has long exploited Presevo Albanians.

One local, who preferred not to named, said much of the money traditionally collected at Ramadan went straight to the Kosovo association and that its officials were paid far more than their local representatives in the Presevo region.

While Sacipi claims to have widespread local political support, many politicians here have been cautious in their official statements, apparently fearful of alienating their own supporters who perceive the new body as being closely linked to Belgrade.

They are especially nervous because the issue of Kosovo's final status is far from resolved, and many suspect the West will prevent the Presevo region from merging with Kosovo.

One middle-aged local Albanian said, "We understand that the faithful need to be organised into new associations, but to turn to Belgrade at this moment when Kosovo status has not been resolved in unacceptable."

And an Albanian youngster was more forthright, "It is an insult to slain UCPBM soldiers, and it invalidates the results of the referendum on joining Kosovo."

Skender Latifi is an Albanian journalist based in Kosovo.

More IWPR's Global Voices