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The Great Unfinished Business of Southeastern Europe
The Great Unfinished Business of Southeastern Europe
Preševo’s grievances and the Kosovo-Serbia talks
Preševo’s grievances and the Kosovo-Serbia talks

The Great Unfinished Business of Southeastern Europe

Originally published in International New York Times

Last Sunday's election in Montenegro leaves the rump Yugoslavia in limbo. With the electorate so evenly divided for and against independence, the Serbia-Montenegro union will live to limp on a little longer, but the relationship between the two remaining Yugoslav republics stays unviable and perhaps unreformable.

Slobodan Milosevic's demise has not solved the underlying structural problem in Yugoslavia. The constitution he imposed in 1992 cannot meet the needs of any modern, democratic state. More starkly, it cannot accommodate the legitimate aspirations of 2 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which is still part of Serbia al-though administered now as a United Nations protectorate.

Resolving the status and interrelationship of Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro is the great unfinished business of southeastern Europe. Until it happens, politics will remain plagued by extremist nationalism. Ownership and other basic legal rights will remain clouded, and foreign investors will certainly be deterred.

Nor has life after Mr. Milosevic meant the end of crises elsewhere in the Balkans. With Bosnian Croats in open revolt, and Bosnian Serbs pinning their hopes on new nationalist leaders in Belgrade, the future of Bosnia remains wide open. Even Macedonia, for so long the dog that didn't bark, lurched close to civil war last month, with the army in action against ethnic Albanian rebels.

These crises feed on a perceived loss of international nerve and stamina. In Bosnia, the talk is of troop drawdown. There is, unhappily, a growing sentiment in some key Western capitals in favor of partition, on the basis that the multiethnic poultice invented at Dayton has not healed Bosnia's wounds and can never do so.

For Kosovo, viability must mean formalizing, in some principled way, the break with Serbia. But the sheer difficulty of achieving this has paralyzed the international community. Unless there is an accelerated move to genuine self-government, with this in turn laying the foundation for serious final status discussions, the UN-led mission will find itself more and more dangerously at odds with the ethnic Albanian majority - and just as unable to protect Serbian and Roma minorities as it is now.

All these issues are addressed in a book-length report from the International Crisis Group, "After Milosevic: A Practical Agenda for Lasting Peace in the Balkans," being launched this Thursday in Brussels. It argues that lasting peace depends crucially on institutional change, that future and final status issues have to be addressed sooner rather than later, that each country situation has its own unique dynamics, and that international policy cannot continue to drift, nervous and unfocused. Hopes that Yugoslavia can somehow be reconstituted as a loose federation or confederation, with next to no central authority, are popular in Belgrade and Western capitals but painfully detached from political realities. Both Montenegro and Serbia are reluctant to enter any revised federal arrangement, while Kosovo wants nothing to do with Belgrade at all.

There are multiple constitutional models available for Montenegro and Serbia to find some common ground. The two have to sort out monetary policy, and tax and environmental policy, and find ways of cooperating over pensions, health care and education.

The international community should be helping them reach a settlement - and should be totally relaxed if that involves independence.

Fears that Montenegrin independence moves would generate civil war in Montenegro, unstoppable domino effects elsewhere in the region, political instability in Belgrade and an adverse impact on the authority of the civil administrator in Kosovo have all been greatly overstated.

Kosovo is a much bigger challenge. As long as Albanians fear, and Serbs hope, that Belgrade's rule might return, each side will be preparing both psychologically and practically for the next war, deflecting attention from other political, economic and social problems. Three steps forward should now be taken. The first is quickly to establish, on the basis of elections held this past autumn, a full system of democratic and autonomous self-government, as promised in Security Council Resolution 1244. The second is to establish a focal point for the "political process to determine Kosovo's final status" envisaged by 1244. The most obvious candidate here is an international meeting of the kind that the Rambouillet negotiators wanted for 2002, with the Group of Eight or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe taking the lead.

The third is serious consultations on principles for a final settlement. Border adjustments should not be ruled out if they are peacefully agreed upon. (There would be no relevant parallels with ethnic-cleansing-based demands for partition in Bosnia.) The most appropriate status for Kosovo would be "conditional independence," which could involve a period of international trusteeship and some permanent limits on sovereign action.

In Bosnia and Macedonia, the critical needs are to preserve territorial integrity and the principle of multiethnicity.

The challenge of building up state institutions, and systematically destroying the power bases of extremist nationals, has at last been faced in Bosnia, but international commitment is more than ever needed now to see this through. Here as elsewhere in the Balkans, lasting peace won't come by default.

Preševo’s grievances and the Kosovo-Serbia talks

Over the past few weeks, tensions have been growing in southern Serbia’s Albanian-majority Preševo Valley, spilling over the border into Serb majority communities in Kosovo and putting at risk the EU mediated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, which looks poised to make a historical breakthrough. Urgent action is needed.

In the aftermath of the Kosovo war of 1999, some Serbian forces relocated from Kosovo to southern Serbia, increasing repression against the local Albanian population. A new group, the “Liberation Army of Preševo, Medvedja and Bujanovac” (UÇPMB), formed and attacked Serbian forces in the Valley until a NATO-brokered ceasefire in May 2001. Life over the past two decades largely returned to normal, and the Valley became a rare conflict resolution success story in the former Yugoslavia, though dissatisfaction remained over security, jobs and services. More recently, Albanian leaders have been watching the high-level dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, worrying about how it might affect them.

On 20 January, events took a new turn. Serbian forces removed a controversial monument, which had been built illegally in December 2012 to commemorate 27 fallen UÇPMB fighters, raising tensions to a new, dangerous level. There is no question the structure, which had stood in front of the Preševo municipal government building, was provocative: the UÇPMB had killed 24 Serbian soldiers and police and 10 civilians. Serbia had put up a commemorative monument to some of those losses in an Albanian-populated village nearby in Bujanovac municipality, and the Preševo structure was among other things a local Albanian response. Conflict over monuments is nothing new in the Balkans (in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a monument to fallen Bosniak soldiers was blown up in January), as former warring parties still disagree over recent history, and whether the dead were separatists, terrorists, or alternatively, freedom fighters; of course, whatever they were, they were also brothers, fathers and sons.

Yet the new monument controversy is just the latest spark, neither the kindling nor the flame. The Albanian population in this,Serbia’s poorest region, has many grievances. Though the conflict ended more than a decade ago, there is a heavy police and military presence in the area, contributing to a pervasive climate of fear. The feelings of being discriminated and isolated are deep. It is hard for families divided between Kosovo and Preševo to visit one another. For years, Serbia refused to recognise marriages performed or children born across the border in Kosovo even when the parents were Preševo residents. Promises of fair hiring by the state — by far the largest employer in the region — have not been kept. Education — even teaching of the Serbian language — is poor. Belgrade officials seem to make a point of visiting only ethnic Serb officials and residents during their trips to the Valley. State investments go largely to Serb communities. Local leaders have little faith in the Serbian government and instead seek help from Kosovo and Albania.

Though part of Serbia, the Valley is intrinsically linked to Kosovo. And each time Kosovo is urged by Belgradein the EU-facilitated talks to give more autonomy and rights to Serbs living in Kosovo’s Serb majority northern municipalities, Preševo has reacted. The region’s Albanians point out they have far fewer self-governing rights than Kosovo already gives the Serbs. When Serbia’s leaders hint that northern Kosovo should be partitioned off to Serbia, Preševo says it would then seek to join Kosovo [Before Kosovo declared independence, Preševo leaders passed a resolution stating they would agree to remain in Serbia but “in case of … eventual change of Kosovo’s borders the Valley will work toward unification with Kosovo”.]

These demands resonate throughout Kosovo, where the feeling of ill-treatment by Serbia runs deep. Many Kosovars strongly support the notion that any concessions their leaders make to Kosovo Serbs must be matched by Belgrade’s concessions in Preševo. In July 2011, Pristina sent special police to its northern border to impose reciprocal customs restrictions on Serbian goods, setting off months of roadblocks and violence. Now the Kosovo leadership is under pressure to harden its stance toward the northern Kosovo Serbs in reciprocation for Belgrade’s actions in the Valley.

In the days after 20 January, Kosovo Albanian nationalists attacked Serbian cemeteries and monuments. The government reacted quickly to protect its minority, dispatching police reinforcements, disciplining officers who failed in their protection duties, and offering to fund reconstruction. On 26 January, thousands protested peacefully in Pristina under the slogan “Justice for Preševo, no negotiations with Serbia.”

The dispute has also soured Serbia’s relations with Albania, whose government announced a “reconsideration” of ties with Belgrade and cancelled a ministerial visit. Albania’s Prime Minister Sali Berisha went further, claiming the removal of the monument showed, “there is only one way, the unification of the Albanian nation, in order for Albanians to enjoy the freedom they earned by shedding blood”. This provocative language should be condemned by the country’s EU partners.

Preševo leaders want a broad dialogue with Belgrade to resolve their status, and Belgrade should immediately engage to calm tensions. Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić should affirm his government’s commitment to implement the Čović Plan that ended the 2001 uprising. This means ending discrimination by carrying out measures to support employment for ethnic Albanians, increase investment, improve schooling and demilitarise the Valley. Simply implementing what Belgrade promised a decade ago would do much to restore harmony. If they keep being ignored Albanians will move further away from the state and  Preševo’s leadership says that it will want to be involved directly in the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue [Crisis Group interviews, Preševo officials, Preševo, January 2013].

Kosovo and Serbia should agree on measures to facilitate travel of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo to Preševo; currently, many trips require police approval and connections. One of the main crossing points between Gjilan and Preševo remains closed to Kosovo citizens. Belgrade should withdraw most of its security forces from the region, and work to empower the ethnically mixed local police that have secured the trust of the community.

Yet if Dačić seriously wants Pristina to accept new rights for Kosovo’s Serbs that go beyond what already exists in the Kosovo’s constitution, he should offer more to Preševo than what is already in Serbian law. He could start by devolving more authority to the municipalities of the Preševo Valle yand to its National Albanian Minority Council, and allow Pristina to provide funds in such areas as education and culture. Generosity toward its Albanian minority can generate good will for Serbia that can pay off in its dialogue with Kosovo.

Preševo is not yet totally alienated from Serbia. Its representative sits in the Serbian Parliament and its local officials participate fully in the Serbian system. Yet locals fear a return to the bad days of arbitrary arrest — most recently on the eve of the May 2012 Serbian elections eight Albanians were detained for war crime charges. The Kosovo government, which has strong influence over Preševo leaders, has done what it can to keep tempers and fears in check. Belgrade should seize this opportunity to show that it can offer the Preševo Albanians the good home they deserve. Otherwise calls in Preševo and Pristina will keep getting louder to match any new rights given to Serbs living in Kosovo with ones for Preševo’s Albanians.