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Analysis: Tense Times In Southern Serbia

  • Patrick Moore --> The killing of an ethnic Albanian teenager by a Serbian soldier has led to renewed tensions in southern Serbia's Presevo region. Repercussions are being felt not just in Belgrade but in Prishtina as well.

About 20,000 ethnic Albanians gathered on 9 January in Presevo for the funeral of 16-year-old Dashnim Hajrullahu, who was killed by a Serbian border guard two days earlier as he tried to cross illegally into Macedonia in the border triangle region between southern Serbia, Macedonia, and Kosova. On 8 January, about 1,500 protesters had stormed a government building to demand that local officials talk less and act more in defense of Albanian rights.

About 5,000 ethnic Albanians then demonstrated in Presevo on 10 January to protest Hajrullahu's killing. Some speakers called for international troops to replace Serbian soldiers and police in the region. Presevo Mayor Riza Halimi said that "if it is the desire of the state to defend its integrity and sovereignty by murdering a child, then such a state has no chance of survival."
The minister called the teenager's death a "tragic incident," adding, however, that it did not constitute evidence of military repression of the Albanians.

The teenager had reportedly visited relatives on the Macedonian side of the border and was returning home when he was shot under still unexplained circumstances. Local Albanians were used to visiting relatives and friends throughout the region in Yugoslav times and still often disregard the relatively new frontier boundaries.

The Presevo-Bujanovac-Medvedja region of southern Serbia was the scene of an armed Albanian insurgency in 2000-01 that was ended by a NATO-backed peace plan (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 February and 2 March 2001).

Tensions nonetheless remain as the Albanians suspect Belgrade of seeking to curtail their rights and staging periodic crackdowns in order to intimidate the Albanians. They also note that -- unlike in Kosova, Slovenia, and Croatia -- Serbian law does not provide for guaranteed representation for minorities in the parliament. Local Albanian parties, therefore, do not generally participate in Serbian elections on the grounds that it is impossible for those parties to surmount the nationwide 5 percent hurdle to obtain representation in the legislature. For its part, Belgrade fears that calls for more home rule in the region are a prelude to the secession of an area many Albanians call "eastern Kosova."

Meanwhile, Serbia and Montenegro's defense minister, Prvoslav Davinic, reacted quickly to Hajrullahu's killing, saying on 8 January that the border patrol "acted according to [standard] procedure." The next day, the minister called the teenager's death a "tragic incident," adding, however, that it did not constitute evidence of military repression of the Albanians.

In Prishtina, several Kosovar dailies on 10 January called for international peacekeepers to be sent to the Presevo Valley area in response to the killing. In Podgorica, Nikola Gegaj, who is an ethnic Albanian deputy in the parliament of Serbia and Montenegro for Montenegro's governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service that he was expressing his views and not those of the DPS when he recently said that the killing of the teenager was not accidental. Gegaj argued that the shooting reflects what he called Belgrade's policy of killing Albanians rather than including them in the political system and its institutions.

Davinic again sought to defuse tensions on 11 January. He said in Belgrade that police will soon replace soldiers in the border area of the Presevo region and promised to increase the number of legal border crossing points there. He also told RFE/RL that the authorities will replace border troops with police along all frontiers, not just along the Macedonian border. He stressed that the move will meet one of the criteria required for admission to the EU. Davinic noted that the apparent policy change is linked to Hajrullahu's death but did not say when police will replace the soldiers. Croatia has long called for the removal of Serbian troops along their common border in response to several apparently isolated incidents, and the EU has reportedly urged Serbia to replace border troops with specially trained police in order to cut down trafficking in drugs, goods, and humans headed for EU countries.

But Davinic is not the only Belgrade official involved with the Presevo issue. On 10 January, Serbia and Montenegro's minister for human rights and minority rights, Rasim Ljajic, and Nebojsa Covic, who is Belgrade's point man for southern Serbia and Kosova, paid separate visits to the Presevo region, each warning unnamed people against "misusing" Hajrullahu's death for political purposes.

The following day, top Serbian government and security officials decided that Covic's Coordination Center will deal with the Presevo situation and invited local Albanian political leaders to take part in that body's work. The Albanian response was noncommittal, but RFE/RL's broadcasters noted that Albanian politicians are unlikely to work for an institution that their voters regard as a vehicle to facilitate Belgrade's involvement in the affairs of Kosova. In Prishtina, some media commentators suggested that Belgrade was deliberately stirring up trouble in Presevo in order to destabilize the situation in Kosova and thereby further delay the resolution of the province's final status.

Mayor Halimi told the BBC's Serbian Service on 12 January that the only meaningful role the Coordination Center and other government bodies can play in Presevo is in promoting demilitarization. He added that most of the progress made in establishing equality, as set down in the 2001 agreement, has been thanks to the involvement of international organizations and diplomats and not to Belgrade. He stressed that the key issue is how to find a feasible and realistic way of establishing equality and security without changing borders, as was agreed in 2001.

Meanwhile, in the Serbian capital, President Boris Tadic said that the situation in southern Serbia is "very delicate," adding that "a war must not be allowed to start." Elsewhere, Covic argued that a demilitarization is out of the question. For his part, Ljajic also distanced himself from Davinic's proposal to replace troops with police, calling instead for troops to stay out of Albanian villages and avoid "provocative behavior," Deutsche Welle's Serbian Service reported. On 13 January, Ljajic announced that an official investigation confirmed that the soldier who killed Hajrullahu acted "according to military rules and regulations," RFE/RL noted.