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Presevo Looks to Unifying Council

Disillusionment with local politicians and a desire for union with Kosovo prompts creation of new representative body.
By Skender Latifi

South Serbia’s Albanian population is to form its own national council to solve local problems and influence Kosovo’s final status discussions, IWPR has learned.


The National Council of Albanians, which should harmonise the political interests of local Albanians, will be formed sometime this month, before the beginning of the long-awaited dialogue between Kosovar representatives and the Serbian authorities, local sources say.


People here see the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue as an opportunity to push for southern Serbia, which they regard as Eastern Kosovo, to become part of Kosovo.


The predominantly Albanian population of the Presevo region has long wanted to split from Belgrade. As far back as 1992, it held an unofficial referendum in which 95 per cent of participants voted in favour of union with Kosovo.


If there is an exchange of territories, locals hope the Presevo region would be annexed to Kosovo, while the mainly Serbian areas of northern Kosovo would link up with Serbia.


Some 70,000 ethnic Albanians live in the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja - the site of a conflict between local militants, the UCPBM, and Serbian security forces from November 2000 to May 2001, when the former agreed to a truce.


In return, the local population received guarantees of greater human rights and better representation in the local government and police structures.


While they’ve yet to respond to news of the national council, the authorities in Belgrade are likely to take a dim view of the body – which is intended to galvanise local politicians into tackling current problems such as education, health care and other social issues and place the Albanian community on an equal footing with Serbs in northern Kosovo, who have a similar body which presses for the area to remain part of Serbia.


The creation of the new body - technically permissible under a law on national minorities - has been welcomed by many local Albanians. Jeton, from Bujanovac, told IWPR that young people are crying out for education and jobs, and that the local parties seemed unable or unwilling to help. Abdulah, from Presevo, said that he saw no other way out of the current political and economic difficulties, saying, "A pan-Albanian body has to be formed – and our fate is in its hands.”


Ragmi Mustafa, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, the second largest ethnic Albanian party in the area, first mooted the idea of a national council. "Political parties cannot solve the problems of the population in this area,” he said.


And Orhan Rexhepi, a former UCPBM commander who is now a high-ranking official in the Party for Democratic Progress, PDP official, said, “The National Council of Albanians has to be formed as soon as possible regardless of what Belgrade says. We did not ask their permission before we started our war against the Milosevic regime in the winter of 2000.”


The only political faction to have expressed reservations about the new body is the biggest ethnic Albanian party in the region, the Party for Democratic Action, PDD, which many believe has failed to resolve the area’s social and economic problems.


The party, headed by once-popular Presevo mayor Riza Halimi, played an important role in the peace talks between Belgrade and the international community in 2001, but the local population subsequently began to accuse it of not being able to protect their interests.


Indeed, it’s now being criticised by its own members, with prominent official Skender Destani saying this week that the PDD has created few jobs in the region, and that most of those have gone to its cronies.


And one of the PDD’s founding members, Xhemaludin Salihu, recently accused party leaders Riza Halimi and Behljulj Nasufi in an open letter in the local media of behaving like "sultans in the Turkish empire".


Skender Latifi is an IWPR correspondent in Presevo.


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