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Balkan Report: February 18, 2005


18 February 2005, Volume 9, Number 7

SERBIAN PRESIDENT PAYS CONTROVERSIAL VISIT TO KOSOVA. Serbian President Boris Tadic paid a two-day visit to Serbian enclaves in Kosova on 13-14 February, seeking to show solidarity with the Serbian minority there and improve his political fortunes in what is likely to be an election year. Whether the trip will contribute to an early or peaceful resolution of the Kosova question is another matter.

Tadic told hundreds of local Serbs in the enclaves of Hoca e Madhe, Shillova, and Shterpce on 13 February that "this is Serbia" and that independence for the 90-percent ethnic Albanian province is "unacceptable" to Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 10 February 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 7 and 28 January, and 11 February 2005). He said to his audiences that he does not "have a magic wand to fix all the problems [but will] do everything possible to make sure that you have the right to live and survive here." He stressed that "we as Serbs have the same rights" as everyone else.

The phrase "this is Serbia" might have been upsetting to local Albanians, because that was a slogan scrawled on countless walls in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosova by Serbian paramilitaries and other nationalists during former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's wars of the 1990s. RFE/RL's Albanian-language broadcasters noted that even Milosevic avoided using that phrase when visiting the province.

Tadic's visit was ostensibly aimed at showing support for the Serbs in the enclaves while calling for a peaceful resolution of the problems facing them. About 180,000 Serbs fled Kosova in the late spring of 1999 with Milosevic's forces, many fearing retribution from their ethnic Albanian neighbors, who often regard local Serbs as a fifth column that aided Milosevic's "ethnic-cleansing" policies. Those who remained or returned enjoy little, if any, freedom of movement outside their enclaves, where they live in fear of a further outbreak of interethnic violence like that of March 2004 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 26 March, 2 and 16 April, and 17 December 2004). Speaking in Prishtina, Tadic argued that "we have a history of hate and destruction in the Balkans, including Kosovo, and it must stop once and for all."

He concluded his two-day tour of the enclaves on 14 February with stops in Rahovec, Decan, and Gracanica. As on the previous day, he presented each enclave with a Serbian flag and called on the inhabitants not to leave. When one Serb in Decan told him, "Thanks for coming," Tadic replied, "Thanks for staying."

Tadic told Serbs in Rahovec that "the Serbian people in Kosovo and Metohija are in the most difficult position of all European peoples," Metohija being a term favored by many Serbs because it alludes to former ownership of land by Serbian Orthodox monks. He used the term throughout his trip. Tadic also spoke out about what he called the Serbian minority's lack of basic human rights, sharply criticizing the international community for not doing more to protect the Serbs.

No major violence was reported amid heavy security, only isolated incidents of protesters throwing garbage, snowballs, or the occasional stone. One Serbian policeman told Reuters that it was "the biggest security operation in Kosovo I have ever seen," adding that "the Albanian reaction was not as bad as we had feared." One Kosovar daily described the visit as "rotten eggs and stale rhetoric."

Tadic did not meet any of Kosova's elected ethnic Albanian leaders, perhaps because neither side was ready to take the plunge. President Ibrahim Rugova nonetheless said that no statement by anyone from Belgrade will affect Kosova's future. Parliamentary speaker Nexhat Daci stressed that Serbia lost Kosova as a result of the 1998-99 conflict and will not regain it. Government spokesman Arben Qirezi argued that "regardless of what the Serbian president says, the only thing that is certain is that Kosova will never be a part of Serbia." Enver Hoxhaj of the Democratic Party of Kosova called the visit "a provocation" aimed at destabilizing the province.

The gap between the two sides was most noticeable in the case of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, a commander in the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) whom official Belgrade regards as a war criminal. He was on a visit to Austria when Tadic was in Kosova. In Decan, Tadic answered a reporter's question regarding the Kosovar prime minister: "Belgrade does not conduct political talks with those suspected of war crimes. I can't do that in Prishtina or in any other city. This means that I will meet with the legitimate representatives of the Albanian people when international institutions have passed judgment" on the guilt or innocence of those involved.

Tadic is the first Serbian head of state to travel to Kosova since Milosevic in 1997. Kosovar Albanian and some Western media alike drew parallels between Tadic's trip and the visits of Milosevic, which were aimed at bolstering his political ratings throughout Serbia as well as among local Serbs. On 7 January, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica marked Serbian Orthodox Christmas together with Patriarch Pavle in the western Kosovar town of Peja. Tadic and Kostunica are rivals who are sparring in anticipation of elections widely expected later in 2005.

During his visit, Tadic repeatedly called for Serbia to conduct an "active policy" and "diplomatic offensive" lest Kosova "slide towards independence." He has already presented Serbia's case on visits to the United States and European countries, starting with a trip to Washington in July 2004 shortly after his election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2004).

For their parts, some Serbian politicians and their supporters abroad have argued in recent months that independence for Kosova could "destabilize" the Balkans through a "domino effect" involving at least Bosnia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Several experts have noted, however, as the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" pointed out on 15 February, that each of these issues has its own dynamic regardless of what happens elsewhere in the Balkans. Consequently, changes in one place are unlikely to cause a direct knock-on effect elsewhere (see "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 16 December 2004, and 13 and 20 January 2005).

Another argument put forward by some Serbian writers against independence for Kosova based on self-determination and majority rule is that this could somehow encourage "separatists" in Russia, China, Turkey, or Spain and thus be unacceptable to the governments in those countries, two of which have a veto in the UN Security Council. Proponents of this theory sometimes add that France, which also has a veto, is a traditional ally of Serbia and will not sell Belgrade's interests out.

One assumption behind most of the various Serbian arguments is that by delaying a final decision on Kosova's status, time works to Belgrade's advantage; only the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic called for early status talks (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 31 January 2003). Another reason for building up Serbia's case for Kosova is to create a bargaining chip that might help Serbia obtain better terms involving partitioning the province or obtaining "compensation" for it elsewhere. It remains to be seen how accurate either or both of these assumptions will prove.

And for those fond of Balkan conspiracy theories, the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" of 10 February quoted an unnamed but supposedly "well-informed representative of a EU country stationed in Prishtina." This individual "sees in the Kosovo question, which is ultimately based on the historically unsatisfied territorial claims of Albanian nationalism, an instrument of the Americans to stop the economic and political success of the EU" by supporting Washington's Kosovar friends in their quest for independence. (Patrick Moore)

ITALIAN FILM PROVES POLITICAL HOT POTATO FOR SLOVENIA. "Il cuore nel pozzo" (The Heart in the Shaft) is an Italian-language movie filmed in Montenegro, featuring Serbian actor Dragan Bjelogrlic and Slovak actress Antonia Liskova as Slovenes, and has fostered heated debate in Slovenia. The film was broadcast on Italian television on 6 and 7 February, on the eve of Italy's first observance of its new 10 February holiday commemorating the expulsion of the ethnic Italian population from Istria at the end of World War II.

The political hot potato in the film is its focus on the execution of several thousand ethnic Italians in Istria by communist Yugoslav Partisan forces after Fascist Italy's capitulation in September 1943. Many of the bodies were tossed into karst sinkholes -- the movie's eponymous "shaft" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 February 2004).

The film itself is a simple fictionalized retelling of events in Istria in 1944 from the perspective of a boy whose parents perished in a sinkhole. A sadistic Partisan commander (Bjelogrlic), an Italian priest shepherding a group of orphaned children to Italy, their Slovenian helper (Liskova), and a deserter from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's army embellish the plot. A synopsis and clips of the film are available at http://www.ilcuorenelpozzo.rai.it.

Many Italians charge that the Italians of Istria were victims of a forgotten ethnic-cleansing campaign at the end of World War II. Italian commentators explain the delay in raising the issue as a result of self-censorship in previous decades. Rightist Italian parties preferred to ignore the killings lest questions be raised about Mussolini's often brutal Italianization campaigns in Istria and Dalmatia between the two world wars. The left -- especially the once mighty Italian Communist Party -- did not want to embarrass its friends among the Yugoslav Partisans by describing them as murderers. And parties across the spectrum sought to avoid tensions with Tito's Yugoslavia, which had become a partner of sorts during most of the Cold War. But for their part, most Slovenian commentators are more skeptical, saying that Italy's current rightist government would like to use the issue to force additional reparations from Slovenia. (Slovenia has already paid Italy $57 million as its share of Yugoslav compensation under the 1983 Rome Treaty.)

While the film calls attention to events that should not be forgotten, it also leaves a number of questionable or historically incorrect impressions. It grossly inflates the number of those exiled and killed (historians estimate approximately 250,000 and 5,000 victims, respectively) and gives the impression that Istria was ethnically Italian from time immemorial. The film does not mention that, in addition to having an indigenous Italian population, the area was colonized and increasingly Italianized only after Italy's occupation of what is now western Slovenia and Croatia under the 1920 Treaty of Rapallo.

The black-and-white portrayal of Slavic communists terrorizing unarmed Italians is also a simplification. Italian Fascists (including those loyal to the Salo Republic, which Hitler set up under Mussolini after the Rome government had surrendered) continued to fight in Istria. Many Slavs fled to Italy, while some ethnic Italians joined the Partisans. The sinkholes' victims included Italian and German soldiers, Slovenian and Croatian anticommunist fighters, and civilians of various nationalities liquidated by the communists for any number of reasons.

The Slovenian press has been awash with grim figures of its own: thousands of Slovenes and Croatians killed at the Italian concentration camps at Rab, Gonars, and elsewhere, and condemnation of Italy for failing to acknowledge its own aggression in World War II. At the same time, however, such commentators play up the victimization of the Slovenes in order to detract attention from atrocities committed by the Partisans. Objections that the film fails in historical details are trivial: the movie's fictional priest surrounded by flames evokes the real 1952 immolation of Slovenian Bishop Anton Vovk at the Novo Mesto train station at the hands of communist thugs.

Even more importantly, the film is an opportunity for Slovenes to learn part of their own suppressed history: crimes that tarnished the Partisans' image were a taboo topic in communist Yugoslavia. As "Delo" columnist Boris Suligoj pointed out on 11 February, many Slovenes are likely to ask "What are these sinkholes and what's so controversial about them?" The question was answered for them when the film aired on Slovenian television on 15 and 16 February.

Slovenia's leftist politicians have been especially vocal in their criticism of the film. Former Foreign Minister Ivo Vajgl of the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS) party called the movie a "provocation" and a "forgery of history." Janez Stanovnik, president of the Slovenian Partisan Veterans' Association, referred to it as a "criminal act." Breda Pecan, a parliamentarian from Slovenia's United List of Social Democrats (ZLSD), has promised to introduce the film into parliamentary debate. And on the radical right, Zmago Jelincic, head of the Slovenian National Party (SNS), called on Serbia and Montenegro to bar the film's producer from entering the country.

Members of Slovenia's ruling center-right coalition have been more reserved. Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel declined to give an opinion, commenting that it is, after all, "just a film." Former Prime Minister Anton Rop (LDS) simply criticized the Slovenian government for being too passive and failing to "protect Slovenian interests," "Delo" reported on 12 February.

The Italian commemoration was also attended by German expellees from the Sudetenland and saw the signing of a proposal for an EU-wide commemoration of all the victims of World War II. Perhaps such a day -- remembering all of the Italian, Slovenian, and Croatian civilians killed at the hands of each other's armed forces in this region -- might finally lay the issue to rest. (Donald F. Reindl, donald.reindl@guest.arnes.si)

THE TROUBLED STATE OF MACEDONIA'S ALBANIAN-LANGUAGE PRESS. The Albanian-language media in Macedonia suffered a serious setback when two newspapers -- the weekly "Lobi" and the daily "Koha ditore" -- recently announced that they must suspend publication, at least temporarily. As a result, only one Albanian-language daily, "Fakti," remains.

In a 3 February press release, the Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights asked why the state permits this to happen after having signed not only a number of international human rights conventions, but also the 2001 Ohrid peace accord providing for greater rights for ethnic minorities. Since 2001, the human rights watchdog wrote, the number of Albanian-language periodicals has fallen from four to just one in January 2005. In addition to "Fakti," there is only one Albanian-language TV station with a national license and a small number of local radio and TV stations of "very low quality," according to the Helsinki Committee. There is no radio station broadcasting in Albanian throughout the country.

The committee argued that the closure of two Albanian-language periodicals seriously limits the access of the Albanian population to information, especially ahead of the important local elections in March (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 4 and 11 February 2005). This is especially true for many Albanian women, who often do not speak Macedonian. Moreover, the "information blockade" facilitates the spread of disinformation among the Albanian population via the rumor mill. The whole situation adds up to a serious breach of human rights, the Helsinki Committee wrote.

But the big controversy ensued when the committee indirectly accused the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) of being responsible for the problems of "Lobi" and "Koha ditore:" "If one keeps in mind that both periodicals that suspended their publication in January 2005...were critical of the representatives of the Albanian component in the government,... the signal is clear: whoever dares speak out against those who are in power will be destroyed," the press release said.

The Helsinki Report thus repeated allegations made by "Lobi" itself in January. Iso Rusi, who is the owner and editor in chief of "Lobi," had warned that the print edition of "Lobi" might close down, adding, however, that he hopes that the weekly's Internet edition will continue to appear. Rusi said his newspaper faces massive financial problems because no state-owned company advertises in "Lobi," allegedly because of "Lobi's" critical coverage of the BDI.

In the 7 February Internet edition of "Lobi," Rusi endorsed the Helsinki Committee's assessment, at the same time leveling a number of additional accusations against the BDI. Rusi blamed the BDI for the demise of the Albanian-language daily "Flaka." "Flaka" was part of the Nova Makedonija publishing house, which folded in late 2003 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 31 October 2003 and 12 March 2004). In addition, Rusi argued, the BDI failed to replace the old system of state subsidies for the media with a more modern one, which would especially help the minority-language publications.

BDI spokeswoman Ermira Mehmeti slammed those allegations as "ridiculous," adding that her party has never exerted any pressure on the media.

Interestingly, Nebi Murseli, the editor in chief of "Koha ditore," told "Utrinski vesnik" of 7 February that his publication could not appear for technical reasons. But Murseli, too, said that big Macedonian companies never place ads in the Albanian-language media. Murseli said he was not consulted by the Helsinki Committee prior to the publication of their critical press release. He also denied having problems with the BDI. "We are not in opposition to the BDI," Murseli said. "On the contrary, we have good relations with the party leaders."

Daut Dauti, who is an ethnic Albanian member of the Helsinki Committee's board, also criticized the press release. In an open letter published in "Dnevnik" on 8 February, Dauti distanced himself from the statement, saying he opposes the remarks about the BDI. Dauti said the "destruction" of "Lobi" and "Koha ditore" cannot be ascribed to the government's behavior, but rather to economic factors. Against this background, Dauti recalled the demise of other minority publications such as "Flaka" or the Turkish-language daily "Birlik," which also belonged to the Nova Makedonija publishing house.

The absence of "Lobi" and "Koha ditore" from the newsstands clearly affects media diversity, regardless of whether they suspended publication for political or economic reasons. The field is now left open to "Fakti," which is said to be closely affiliated with the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH). (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, ub@itinerarium.de)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "Macedonia can and will be the country through which the states of the western Balkans may look into the open gates of the European Union." -- Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski, at a Brussels press conference with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn. Quoted by Reuters on 14 February.

"These threats against me and my family are sheer banditry. No legitimate democratic state would stand for it." -- Luka Karadzic, brother of Radovan, about threats against him and his family allegedly made by bounty hunters and individuals demanding that Radovan surrender. Quoted by AP in Belgrade on 15 February.

"Islamic terrorism in the Balkans was encouraged by the wars in Bosnia and a criminal attack on Yugoslavia [in 1999]. Washington has an interest in the destabilization of the Balkans, and the Islamists are a valuable tool [to that end].... To create a new Islamic country out of Kosovo and Metohija would be a horrible blow, first to the Serbs, and also to anti-Atlantic [oriented] Europeans.... Until someone points out the deadly character of the American presence in Europe, until the Europeans see the danger that threatens them through the Islamization of the Balkans, we will watch Islamism poison the region." -- Former French Colonel Pierre-Henri Bunel, who was stationed at NATO's Brussels headquarters in 1999. He subsequently served a brief prison term for giving the Milosevic regime information on NATO's bombing plans. Quoted in the Belgrade paper "Evropa" of 3 February.

"The site for [U.S. Camp] Bondsteel [in Kosovo] was not chosen accidentally. This garrison of the occupying forces is located along the line of a strategic pass between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea, as well as on the southeast-northwest line which is a bit like a diabolic diagonal. If the Americans want to stay in this strategic location, it is necessary to separate Serbia from Montenegro. They also have to put the Europeans to sleep. They are entirely devoted to this task, and we are all targets to the Americans." -- Bunel in ibid.

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