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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Balkans > Serbia > Southern Serbia's Fragile Peace

Southern Serbia's Fragile Peace

Europe Report N°152 9 Dec 2003


The Albanian-majority Presevo Valley in southern Serbia is one of the few conflict resolution success stories in the former Yugoslavia. Yet tensions linger, and a series of violent incidents in August and September 2003 demonstrated that the peace can still unravel. Serbia’s stalled reform process is preventing the political and economic changes that are needed to move forward on many critical issues in the area, and there is a general sense among local Albanians that peace has not delivered what it promised: an end to tensions with Serb security forces and prosperity.

In 2001 the international community – NATO, the U.S. and the OSCE in particular – working in close cooperation with Belgrade authorities, successfully negotiated an end to an armed Albanian uprising in the valley. Sporadic incidents still occurred there until March 2003. Then in August 2003 eight separate attacks, many against the army and moderate Albanians, broke five months of relative calm. The following month, Albanian guerrillas a short distance away in neighbouring northern Macedonia – some of whom may have crossed from Presevo – fought two separate actions against Macedonian security forces, while yet another attack was launched against the army inside southern Serbia. Cross-border flows of refugees and possibly also fighters, combined with claims from the shadowy Albanian National Army (AKSH) of responsibility for two of the attacks in Serbia and both incidents in Macedonia, refocused attention on the valley.

The attacks appear to have been carried out by very few people, not all necessarily Albanians. Southern Serbia’s Albanian population as a whole does not seem to support either the AKSH or renewed violence. Several factors have been at work. First was the announcement of initial official talks between Belgrade and the Provisional Institutions of Self Government (PISG) in Kosovo, which got off to a halting start on 14 October 2003. In spite of the fact that official contacts have begun, extremists on both sides are already staking out maximum demands: Serbs for a partition of Kosovo, and Albanians for territorial expansion or “compensation” in the Presevo Valley, called “eastern Kosovo”. A second factor was the Belgrade parliament’s August declaration proclaiming Kosovo an integral part of Serbia. Thirdly, Albanians of the area are deeply unhappy at extremely high levels of unemployment and lack of economic prospects. Finally, certain Albanian political factions within the valley appear interested in weakening the hold Presevo Mayor Riza Halimi has on government and the ensuing patronage.

The attacks gave impetus to the demand of Presevo’s politicians to be included in the Pristina–Belgrade dialogue. They emphasised the region’s continuing problems, as well as failures in implementing specific portions of the understandings that apparently ended the troubles in 2001 (the Konculj Agreement and the Covic Plan). They sent a clear message that both Belgrade and the international community will have to keep paying attention to the valley in order to maintain peace and reduce tensions. Local politics have become more nationalistic, with less room for political manoeuvre and cooperation or compromise with Belgrade available to moderate Albanian politicians such as Halimi.

Significant progress has been achieved in the past two years, including the formation of new multiethnic local governments according to fairer rules, joint Albanian-Serb police patrols, and improvements in the Albanian language media. At the same time, promised education reform and the integration of Albanians into the judiciary and other public organs remain disappointing. The recent violence suggests that former Albanian rebel commanders, some elements in Belgrade’s army and ministry of interior, organised crime figures, and others may retain interests in keeping southern Serbia a crisis zone.

The incomplete peace in southern Serbia is further weakened by the continuing uncertainty over Kosovo’s final status. The international community will need to remain engaged, pressing both Belgrade and Albanian politicians to fulfil all aspects of the Konculj Agreement, while focusing more attention on economic development. The UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the NATO troops there (KFOR) – particularly the U.S. contingent – and the Serbian government all need to reassess their performance.


To the Serbian Government:

1. Reconstruct the Coordination Body for Southern Serbia according to the OSCE’s proposal to include permanent members representing all relevant ministries, members of the community, mayors of the three Presevo Valley municipalities and a president appointed by the Serbian government.

2. Rein in extremist elements in the security forces.

3. Tighten customs controls along the Administrative Boundary with Kosovo, and crack down on MUP employees at border crossings who are assisting organised crime.

4. Crack down on organised crime in the Vranje region.

5. Transfer more security responsibilities from the Gendarmerie (paramilitary police) to the uniformed police.

6. Stop making exaggerated statements about Albanian guerrillas that needlessly frighten the Serbs and alienate the Albanians in southern Serbia.

7. Proceed with economic reform, in particular by removing tax and other unreasonable burdens on small and medium-sized businesses, and make credits available to such businesses.


8. Station KFOR troops and Kosovo Customs and Border Service officers at all crossing points between Kosovo and southern Serbia.

9. Step up its patrols along the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) with southern Serbia and emphasise controlling the cross-border illegal commercial traffic.

To the U.S., EU, Russia and Other Members of the International Community:

10. Explicitly tell Belgrade, Pristina, and all others, including nationalist politicians like Jonuz Musliu in Bujanovac, that changing boundaries by violence is unacceptable under any circumstances, including any suggestion of partition of Kosovo or southern Serbia.

11. Maintain an international donor presence in southern Serbia and ensure that the OSCE office stays in the Presevo Valley.

12. Re-examine assistance efforts in the Presevo Valley with the aim of giving a new emphasis to economic development.

13. Institute guest-worker programs, especially in the EU and Russia, to relieve the pent-up political pressures caused by large numbers of unemployed young men in the Balkans, particularly southern Serbia.

To the Albanian Leadership in Southern Serbia:

14. Publicly disavow and discourage separatism, including by dropping (and persuading Albanian language electronic media in Serbia to drop) references to “eastern Kosovo”, and distance ethnic Albanians from the AKSH.

15. Make the tendering processes associated with disbursal of public funds more transparent and hold annual public reviews of expenditures of public funds in the municipal councils.

To the Kosovo Albanian Leadership:

16. Condemn the AKSH, including its fundraising and extortion, and deter members of the KPC from maintaining links with it.

17. Encourage Presevo Valley Albanians to participate in Serbian institutions and elections and publicly disavow all territorial aspirations in southern Serbia.

Belgrade/Brussels, 9 December 2003

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