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

Serbia: Census Deal Resolves Presevo Crisis

Hardliners among Serbs and Albanians have lost out in southern Serbia, where a remarkable political deal has dampened down the fires of ethnic conflict
By Jim Adams

Moderate ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia have marginalised former guerrilla commanders in the region through an historic decision to switch their allegiance from Kosovo to Belgrade.


In what many see as a political milestone, local Albanian leaders in the Party for Democratic Action, PDD, and Party for Democratic Union, PDU, agreed to take part in Serbia's nationwide census later this month.


The decision appears to mark the end of a decade-long campaign to join the three municipalities of Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja and their 70,000 or so Albanians to Kosovo.


The Albanians in the area, known as the Presevo valley, have boycotted every Serbia census since 1981.


The agreement was hatched in Belgrade earlier this month in OSCE-brokered talks, where the Serbs side showed considerable flexibility.


Belgrade accepted the ethnic Albanian demand for an OSCE role in the census. The Serbs also agreed to admit Albanians who had been displaced from their homes under the Milosevic regime to the headcount. In Bujanovac, 3,200 Albanians still have not returned home.


It is hoped that the census will end a rumbling dispute in Bujanovac over which community is largest. The Albanians insist they form 60 per cent of the 55,000 population while the Serbs say they are only 47 per cent.


Armed struggle erupted in the valley in the winter of 2000, when large numbers of Serbian troops, forced out of Kosovo by NATO's air strikes, deployed in the area.


An Albanian guerrilla group, the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, UCPBM, soon sprouted and grabbed control of the security zone between Kosovo and Serbia, set up under international peacekeepers after the Kosovo conflict.


After Milosevic fell from power in 2000, a radically new approach spearheaded by the new Serbian deputy premier Nebojsa Covic defused the crisis in May 2001.


The local guerrilla forces under Sefqet Musliu agreed to disarm and the international community allowed Serb forces back into the security zone.


Since then, the Serb authorities have tried to bolster the agreement by increasing investment, setting up a multi-ethnic police force and withdrawing the armed forces to barracks.


They also agreed to extraordinary elections in this region to enable ethnic Albanians to join local government in proportion to their numbers. They boycotted the last local elections under Milosevic.


The new approach has paid political dividends for Belgrade, isolating the hardliners in the former UCPBM and creating a new bloc ready to engage with Belgrade and put aside the demand for union with Kosovo.


"After 21 years we have made moves towards having a proper census in this area and we hope displaced people can take part in the forthcoming extraordinary local elections as well," said Riza Halimi, the ethnic Albanian mayor of Presevo on April 2, when the deal was signed.


"We are not totally satisfied," said Naser Aziri, head of the Presevo municipal census committee, "but the new authorities in Serbia are not like the ones under Milosevic."


After years of repression, the new authorities in Belgrade are slowly gaining the trust of local Albanians, though the latter's parties still want to see more of their community to take part in the new police force, for example.


Albanian enthusiasm for the census is not shared by the Serbian community in the Presevo valley. They fear it will reveal that the Albanian population is bigger than they thought and will herald an Albanian take-over in local government.


Serbs protesting in Bujanovac earlier this month denounced the government for setting the local census deadline for April 25, ten days later than the one for Serbia as a whole. They are also condemned the move to include displaced Albanians.


But Belgrade - intent on finishing the census and the local elections in the region - ignored them. Instead, deputy premier Covic accused the protesters of creating new discord between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.


The former UCPBM commanders are, of course, the other main losers in the affair. They have largely lost their old following among the population, which has turned to moderate civilian parties.


For each community there is loss and gain. The Albanians will have to forgo their dream of unification with Kosovo and accept that their future lies in Serbia. The Serbs, for their part, will have to accept the end of their absolute dominance over local ethnic Albanians.


Jim Adams is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist based in Serbia