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Balkan Report: February 4, 2005


4 February 2005, Volume 9, Number 5

JOBS, RESPONSIBILITY, AND WALKS: KOSOVA'S SERBIAN CABINET MEMBER CHALLENGES HIS CRITICS. Kosova's Minister for Returns Slavisa Petkovic is the only Serb in Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj's cabinet. While it is too early to tell if he will make a difference in Kosova's polarized political landscape, he has already said some things not usually heard from local Serbian politicians.

Petkovic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in Prishtina on 27 January that Serbian politicians who criticize him for joining the cabinet have themselves dodged their responsibility to Kosova's Serbian population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25, 26, and 27 January 2005). Petkovic argued that the most important issue facing the local Serbs is the safe return of up to 250,000 displaced Serbs and providing jobs for them. He charged that Serbian politicians who served in Kosova's parliament "for the past three years did nothing" to solve this problem and hence failed in meeting their responsibility to their own people.

That is his response to criticism from politicians from the establishment Serbian List for Kosovo and Metohija, who call him an opportunist without any political legitimacy. Turning the tables, Petkovic argued that his critics seem to think that legitimacy is based on the extent to which they promote "the interests of the current government in Belgrade and not the interest of their own people in Kosovo and Metohija. [If that is what they consider legitimacy,] then I don't need that kind of legitimacy."

Petkovic stressed that those Serbs who served in the last parliament "have shown what they know, and in reality have shown that they don't know anything. Let them leave me alone. I am now officially a minister. Let's see what I can do."

He argued that it is the duty of politicians to help their people and that is why he joined the cabinet. He stressed that jobs are the key to the future because Kosova's problems are "99 percent economic...and only 1 percent political." Petkovic did not elaborate as to how he would go about creating jobs but stressed that it is crucial that every returnee who wants a job can have one and hence "a normal life."

But it was for Belgrade that Petkovic had some of his strongest words. He charged that politicians there are interested only in manipulating the Serbs of Kosova and not in helping them. He added that many Belgrade politicians "went ballistic over some of my views because they are used only to Serbs from Kosovo who always do what Belgrade tells them to do, even if it is to the detriment [of the Serbs in Kosovo]."

In response to the criticism from Belgrade, Petkovic said that he will soon "write an open letter to [Serbian] President [Boris] Tadic, Prime Minster [Vojislav] Kostunica, and President of the Coordination Center [for Kosovo and southern Serbia Nebojsa] Covic, in which I will ask them to actively take part in promoting returns, because their constitutional duty is to protect the interests of their people."

This duty, the minister stressed, is above politics and political parties, but the Belgrade politicians tend to make everything a partisan issue. "And as long as they think that all questions of national importance are partisan ones, then I surely won't have any contact with them."

As to the leaders of the ethnic Albanian majority, Petkovic, who speaks some Albanian, argued that there is so little democracy in Kosova that one cannot speak "even of the 'd' in democracy" existing. He said that he has told the Albanian leaders that they need to tell their own people "every day...that the Serbs must return to their [homes], because we have lived in Kosovo for centuries." That means that the Albanians cannot claim to be the "hosts" and consider the Serbs to be merely guests. "We must live together," Petkovic stressed.

The minister argued that it is unacceptable that Serbs are afraid to go out of their homes and that when they do, they must be very careful. "But we live in the 21st century and not in the 13th. I wouldn't care to make any promises...but I think that the possibilities for change are best where that issue is concerned."

Petkovic called on Albanians as individuals to show their responsibility as the majority population and help Serbs overcome their fear by "taking a walk through town with a Serbian neighbor" and show that people can again live "together, like we once did.... People need to see that there is nothing strange in this. The war has come and gone. Every war brings its share of evil, but we can't live in the past."

The minister had some sharp words for the recent well-publicized report of the NGO International Crisis Group (ICG) on Kosova, which called for steps to resolve the status question by moving forward on independence (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 January 2005). "For whom is that the best solution? They say it is best, but...for whom?"

Petkovic added that he does not understand why so much attention is paid to the ICG. "It is [just] one informal group that writes such reports...as is its right, but it has no right to sow chaos in Kosovo." The minister believes that the report has led to a renewal in Kosova of the kind of "talk that started in 1997-98 and culminated in the 1999 war. That kind of talk will only take us backward. I don't know who needs this and why the [ICG] is so significant that everyone on the political stage, both in Serbia and in Kosovo, is concerning themselves with a report that [in reality] means nothing. To me it is just one more pamphlet and nothing more."

In closing, Petkovic said that he has not taken his job to help meet the international community's standards and will not support the "politicization" of returns by Prime Minister Haradinaj or anyone else. "What interests me is that people can go home.... I am doing my job and have taken on the ministerial post to see if I can enable people to finally go back to their homes and their property, 5 1/2 years [after the war]." (Patrick Moore)

SLOVENIAN AND CROATIAN LEADERS BREAK THE ICE ON BILATERAL ISSUES. Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader did not need to travel far for his first official meeting with his new Slovenian counterpart, Janez Jansa. The venue of the 21 January meeting, Slovenia's Mokrice Castle, lies only 35 kilometers from Zagreb. Although the two men had already met at the Central European Initiative's 25 November summit in Portoroz, while Jansa was still prime minister-elect, the working lunch at Mokrice provided an opportunity to discuss the issues that have bedeviled bilateral relations since independence in June 1991 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 October and 3 December 2004).

Four topics stood out in the talks between the two leaders: the maritime border in the Bay of Piran, Croatian investors' frozen hard-currency deposits in the Ljubljanska Banka, developments in the border incident involving political gadfly Janez Podobnik of the Slovenian People's Party (SLS), and the founding of a Slovenian-Croatian historical commission.

Regarding the dispute over fishing rights and the border in the Bay of Piran, Jansa and Sanader agreed that arbitration is a possibility if bilateral negotiations fail. This is a step forward from the stance of Slovenia's previous government, which opposed arbitration.

However, this could become complex. The SLS, which belongs to the governing coalition, took a tough position by announcing that it will accept arbitration of the Slovenian-Croatian border if this also addresses where the land border in Istria should be established between the Dragonja and Mirna rivers, "Delo" reported on 31 December. The latter is deep inside Croatian territory, and the SLS statement is tantamount to relaunching the claim that Croatia gained territory after World War II at Slovenia's expense (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 31 May 2002). At the same time, Jansa and Sanader predicted that an agreement on avoiding incidents in the bay will be adopted soon.

No common viewpoint was reached concerning Croatian citizens' hard-currency deposits in the former Ljubljanska Banka (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 July 2004), although the leaders agreed on the need for continued dialogue. Zagreb maintains that the deposits were private transactions between the bank and investors, and should be refunded by the bank's successor -- Nova Ljubljanska Banka -- or the Slovenian government, whereas Ljubljana insists that the matter is part of unresolved succession issues and hence subject to bargaining.

Four months after the arrest of Janez Podobnik and 11 colleagues for allegedly crossing the border illegally into Croatia in September (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 September 2004), a Croatian court in Umag levied a $3,280 fine against the men. Podobnik has refused to pay. It is unclear what effect this will have on a proposed joint Slovenian-Croatian government session to be held in Croatia in the first half of 2005, because if Podobnik attends he risks being arrested. Responding to the press, Jansa said that the Podobnik issue is not of "strategic importance," 24ur.com reported on 21 January.

The proposal for a Slovenian-Croatian historical commission offers additional opportunities for dialogue. A 24 January "Delo" article points out a number of open historical issues, from the 1943 Slovenian-Serbian discussions on partitioning Croatia to the communist-era influence of the Slovenian politician Edvard Kardelj (1910-79) on Croatian political life under Josip Broz Tito, who himself was of mixed Croatian and Slovenian origin.

Slovenian media blame Croatia's alleged unwillingness to engage in dialogue for encumbering relations, pointing to unilateral moves such as Croatia's declaration of an exclusive Adriatic fishing and ecological zone (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2003). One of the more bizarre proposals to come from Croatia recently has been Zagreb architect Branko Kincl's proposal to build a tunnel under the Bay of Piran to link Croatia with Italy, bypassing Slovenia.

However, Slovenia has been accused of making difficulties by launching questionable proposals of its own. In late 2004, Croatia's HINA news agency reported that Slovenia's new government was considering sending soldiers to the Croatian border because of a lack of police to staff the border under the new Schengen regime. The shortfall arose after Slovenia's EU entry on 1 May 2004, when only 161 of an expected 500 redundant customs officers transferred to the police. State Secretary Vinko Gorenak at the Interior Ministry emphatically denied that Slovenia has any such intentions, "Delo" reported on 21 January. "The European Union does not have troops on its borders. I do not know of any government official considering this," Gorenak said. Instead, some soldiers will be temporarily employed as police after additional training.

In early 2004, Croatian President Stipe Mesic used the same argument to urge the withdrawal of Slovenian troops from a military facility at the peak known as Trdinov Vrh (or Sveta Gera in Croatian) on the Croatian border. "It is also important for Slovenia that it not have troops stationed on its border. This can no longer remain an open question," Mesic said at a press conference in Rijeka on 30 April. Croatia claims the strategic point outright and Croatian media characterize the Slovenian presence as an occupation. (Donald F. Reindl, donald.reindl@guest.arnes.si)

NEW POWERS AND POSSIBILITIES FOR MACEDONIA'S LOCAL GOVERNMENT. The local elections in Macedonia slated for 13 March are the first to take place since the number of administrative districts was slashed in late 2004. The elections, which were originally planned for fall 2004, were postponed because opponents of a government program to streamline the state administration had organized a referendum. The program foresaw cutting the number of administrative districts from 123 to 80 by merging several districts. Only after the referendum failed in November did the new Law on Local-Self Government came into force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 July and 12 November 2004).

The decentralization of the state administration was a key provision of the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement that ended the armed conflict between the ethnic Albanian insurgents of the National Liberation Army (UCK) and the state authorities (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 and 21 August 2001). It also reflects a broader pattern of introducing internationally recommended changes aimed at streamlining unwieldy Tito-era structures as part of the postcommunist transformation process.

The new legislation not only reduces the number of districts, but also grants the local administrations much greater powers. But that, some pundits argue, also assumes greater responsibility on the part of the politicians on the local level. Other observers argue that the new legislation will also affect the conduct of election campaigns and the way the political parties choose their candidates.

The transfer of powers will begin in July. By that time, the newly elected district parliaments should have been constituted. In an initial phase, the administrative districts will be granted the right to collect property taxes, which will enable the districts to take over the responsibility for education, Eli Cakar of the Ministry for Local Self-Administration explained to RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters on 29 January. The district administrations will have the right to found, administer, and maintain primary and secondary schools. The directors of the schools will be named by the mayors at the recommendation of the school boards.

At the same time, the local administrations will be granted certain rights regarding sports and culture, the protection of the environment, and the fire departments. What is more important, however, is that the administrations will also be in charge of urban planning as well as local economic development.

The second phase of the transfer of powers will begin in 2007. At that point, the central government will hand over to the local authorities responsibility for those parts of state budget that are earmarked for local administrations. This handover, however, will take place only if the local administrations have shown a certain degree of "maturity" in handling their finances.

With the transfer of powers, the local authorities will also acquire responsibility for some 26,000 officials, most of whom are teachers.

In order to avoid problems related to the transfer of powers, the officials in the local administrations as well as at the state level will undergo special training sponsored by the Ministry for Local Self-Government, the Agency for State Officials, and the United Nations Development Program.

The success of the decentralization efforts will depend on the goodwill of both the local and state authorities, Goran Angelov of the Union of Local Self-Government Units (ZELS) told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters. "If we understand that we must work in a symbiosis, then...there will be no problems at all, the decentralization will be a success, and the quality of life of our citizens will improve," Angelov said.

For Natasa Gaber of the Institute for Political and Legal Studies, the success of the decentralization will also depend on the personality of the mayors, since the mayors will be vested with new powers and responsibilities. But Gaber also sees an opportunity for additional positive changes thanks to decentralization. "The newly elected mayors will have the trailblazing chance to introduce a new quality in administration and communication with the citizens, and based on this experience, a new kind of political culture will develop between the authorities and the citizens," "Utrinski vesnik" on 29 January quoted Gaber as saying. "Provided, of course, that the newly elected personalities have the talent and political sense to do this," Gaber added.

The greater powers also mean that the political parties must overcome their habit of picking mayoral candidates based on party loyalty rather than on merit, according to political scientist Mersel Bilali. Gjorgji Kimov, who heads the Brima-Gallup polling agency, believes that the mayors' new powers will prompt candidates to be more cautious in making campaign promises, lest they be called on to make good on them, Kimov told "Utrinski vesnik." (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, ub@itinerarium.de)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: From the article "Set Kosovo Free" by former General Wesley Clark in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" of 1 February:

"After a decade of Belgrade's oppression capped by war, mass expulsion, and atrocities, Kosovo's 90 percent Albanian majority rejects completely any renewed link with Serbia and will not settle for less than independence. Nearly six years on, Serbs and Albanians still cannot live together. Serbia's avowed aim is to prevent Kosovo from becoming independent. With conflict simmering, Kosovo's Albanian majority regards the Serb minority as a Fifth Column, and neither side is ready for bridge-building. The puzzle of Kosovo is clearly not going to resolve itself.

"Tensions in Kosovo and Serbia are now on the rise again, and a violent collision may occur before year-end if not headed off by a concerted Western effort....

"Some in Serbia's political, security, and media establishment have signally failed to move on from the Milosevic era in their attitudes toward Kosovo, and a territorial carve-up takes higher priority in their maneuvering than the welfare of the Serb minority on the ground.

"They see advantage in further Albanian frustration and violence, and are making a sustained effort to provoke it in order to force a partition solution....

"To head off the nightmare scenario of a Kosovo Albanian rebellion triggering all-out fighting over Mitrovica and a Serbian Army adventure to secure north Kosovo, a vigorous U.S.-led drive to resolve Kosovo's status has to begin now....

"The framework for Kosovo's future should be: no return to Belgrade rule; no partition of its territory; and no future union with Albania or any neighboring territory. The pace at which Kosovo is allowed to progress toward full independence should be made contingent on its treatment of minorities...."

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