Peace in Presevo: Quick Fix or Long Term Solution?
Peace in Presevo: Quick Fix or Long Term Solution?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 116 / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

Peace in Presevo: Quick Fix or Long Term Solution?

The past decade in the Western Balkans has seen very few peacefully negotiated transfers of territorial control. The most recent example – albeit one not involving any change of sovereignty - was also the only one achieved by NATO’s direct mediation. In May 2001, the Presevo Valley was brought back under Serbian government control, ending an ethnic Albanian insurgency that had lasted some seventeen months.

Executive Summary

The past decade in the Western Balkans has seen very few peacefully negotiated transfers of territorial control. The most recent example – albeit one not involving any change of sovereignty - was also the only one achieved by NATO’s direct mediation. In May 2001, the Presevo Valley was brought back under Serbian government control, ending an ethnic Albanian insurgency that had lasted some seventeen months.

This report traces the political process that achieved this transfer of authority over 1,200 square kilometres of territory, focusing on two issues. First, it considers the reforms that are still needed to achieve lasting peace in the Presevo area. Second, it considers the hopeful claim from some quarters that this transfer of authority, based on unprecedented cooperation between NATO and the new regime in Belgrade, may offer a model for tackling other disputes in the wider neighbourhood.

Ethnic Albanian rebels calling themselves the “Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja” (UCPMB in Albanian) exploited a five kilometre-wide demilitarised strip along the Kosovo border inside Serbia – the Ground Safety Zone (GSZ), established in June 1999 to prevent accidental clashes between NATO forces and the Yugoslav Army.  Operating from the GSZ, the UCPMB attacked police and other state targets with virtual impunity.

After the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, the new government in Belgrade prepared a plan to reintegrate ethnic Albanians into state structures, along with guarantees to demilitarise the region, create a multiethnic police force, and fully respect minority rights.

Persuaded the reintegration plan was viable and keen to break links between ethnic Albanian forces in southern Serbia and northern Macedonia, where violence was building up dangerously, NATO dashed rebel hopes by taking Belgrade’s side. The alliance negotiated a phased reoccupation of the GSZ by FRY forces that occurred between 14 March and 31 May 2001. Contrary to many expectations, the reoccupation went smoothly. However, an estimated 2,000 former fighters remain in the area, along with substantial arms caches.

On the evening of August 3, the most destabilising event since the FRY reoccupation of the GSZ occurred when an unidentified gunmen shot and killed two Serbian policemen and wounded two others. The killings were part of a wider upsurge of incidents that appear to be coordinated and intended to derail the nascent peace process. 

The circumstances of peacemaking in Presevo were unique and cannot be  emulated elsewhere. Recent events, moreover, illustrate that declarations of victory by Western observers remain premature. The insurgency in southern Serbia reflected real and deeply rooted problems, both local and regional. Conditions for reconciliation are in place, but the process itself has hardly begun. The longer term prospects for peaceful reintegration now depend on effective follow through by the Serbian authorities assisted by ethnic Albanian leaders and the international community.

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 10 August 2001

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