Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic travels to Brussels tomorrow (Thursday) to meet with NATO leaders for talks on Serbian proposals for resolving the conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the Presevo Valley. The Serbian plan calls for integrating the area's 70,000 ethnic Albanians into the republic's political and social life. It also would guarantee Albanians' civil rights and hold out the promise of economic development. But the plan rules out autonomy or any special status for the area, which until after World War II was a part of Kosovo and is still called "Eastern Kosovo" by Albanians.
Several people on both sides have died in sporadic violence in the area since the end of NATO air strikes in 1999. The NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, KFOR, patrols the Kosovo side of the border, but does not have a mandate for intervening to stop violence in Serbia proper. NATO's acting spokesman, Mark Laity, spoke with RFE/RL's South Slavic Service about Covic's visit.
Prague, 14 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO spokesman Mark Laity tells RFE/RL that the alliance has not yet seen Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic's plan in full and does not intend to respond in detail immediately. Laity says NATO generally welcomes the plan but wants to look at it very carefully.
"Yes, we do welcome the tenor and the tone of the Covic plan. It contains a lot of the kind of elements we've been looking for: confidence-building measures, a desire to involve all ethnic groups in local government and so on, an emphasis on a peaceful solution to a difficult problem."
Laity points out that some of the Albanian insurgents -- though not all -- have rejected the Serbian plan, in large part because they want the disputed area to be re-annexed to Kosovo, from which it was separated during an administrative reform after the end of the war.
Serb leaders say they will not negotiate with what they call terrorists. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said yesterday that the failed peace talks two years ago at "Rambouillet and [Kosovar Albanian insurgent leader Hashim] Thaci taught us that promoting terrorists into diplomats and politicians can come back as a boomerang and hit you on the head." Kostunica added: "We are not talking to terrorists. [They] might blackmail their own people [but] they are not the true representatives of the Albanians."
Laity says "NATO does not support extremist elements," adding that the alliance is looking for an end to the violence in the Presevo Valley. As he puts it, "the only way you're going to get an end to violence is when people talk -- and Mr. Covic's plan is very clearly worth talking about."
"The Covic plan is very clearly a good basis for discussion and we note that there has been an array of reactions to it. Some people -- Albanian groups -- have rejected it outright. Others, who have been involved in conflict with the Serbian authorities, have actually given it a welcome. So I think that we shouldn't just look at the small groups who said 'no.'"
But Laity says that NATO has no mandate to do anything in the Presevo Valley. So far the international community's activity in the area has been limited to deploying European Union monitors.
"Remember that our job is safeguarding the security of Kosovo, not southern Serbia. The international community may consider [that] -- and it's not for me to say -- but the international community may well consider that it has a role here. If it does -- if it does, then that's fine. But NATO is just one small part of the international community."
Laity says the insurgents are amorphous, fighting within a number of diverse groups that have been operating in the area. He says some are associated with political parties, while others are much more smaller and splintered. He says although it is evident that these groups are interlinked, their actions suggest that they do not constitute what he calls "one monolithic whole."
"So I think that to expect them to speak with one voice would go against the experience of most people who've seen anything going on in that area. And often some of the loyalties are intensely local to families, to particular villages, and so on. So there's an array of groups who seem to be operating in that area, and so the fact that there seem to be different responses coming out as regards the Covic plan is not surprising."
Laity says KFOR is aware that the insurgents are receiving considerable backing from supporters in Kosovo. He says KFOR has increased efforts to minimize the flow of arms from Kosovo to the Presevo Valley. As a result, he says "there is now a very large number of people in jail, in detention in Camp Bondsteel," the headquarters of the U.S.-led, Multinational Brigade South.
Covic's responsibilities as deputy prime minister include coordinating the Yugoslav and Serbian governments' polices in southern Serbia. In Brussels, he is expected to reiterate Belgrade's desire to reduce the size of the five-kilometer ground security zone along the boundary with Kosovo. The Yugoslav army is barred from the zone, as are heavy weapons. Lightly armed Serbian police, however, can patrol the zone, but eight of them lost their lives while on duty last year.
Laity does not expect NATO to take any quick decision to diminish the size of the zone despite the Kostunica government's professed desire to find a political solution.
"The ground safety zone was indeed set up to act as some kind of buffer zone if we faced some kind of hostile action from the Serbs. Clearly, the likelihood of that happening has declined very much. But, equally, these actions have all happened fairly recently and one thing we have to be careful of is not to precipitate actions."
Nevertheless, Laity says the ground safety zone is one of the issues NATO is reviewing all the time. He said: "if changes are needed, they'll come in their own good time." He says NATO does not expect Covic to come armed with an ultimatum, but rather with information.
(Branka Trivic of RFE/RL's South Slavic Service conducted the interview with Laity.)