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Balkan Report: September 28, 2001

28 September 2001, Volume 5, Number 68

The next issue of the "Balkan Report" will appear on 23 October.

TELLING A BIG ONE. The late Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels is credited with the observation that "if you're going to tell a lie, tell a big one." It seems that there are now those who are applying this maxim in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the U.S. -- in order to offset the results of years, if not decades, of their failed policies in the Balkans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 September 2001, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 March, 31 July, and 18 September 2001).

Moderate Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova said in Prishtina on 25 September that unspecified reports from Belgrade and elsewhere about alleged links between Osama bin Laden and Kosova are "propaganda against Kosova." He said that such reports are "Serbian propaganda, which is at least 100 and certainly 10 years old" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13, 19, and 21 September 2001).

The next day, Rugova's press spokesman Skender Hyseni told RFE/RL's Kosova Unit that a story by ITAR-TASS from Rome on 25 September is "completely false" and aimed at disrupting the 17 November elections in Kosova. The Russian news agency reported that Rugova's Rome bureau issued a statement in which he allegedly said that unspecified UCK men from Kosova "are ready to organize acts of terrorism for the purpose of supporting Osama bin Laden." The purported statement quoted Rugova as calling the National Liberation Army (UCK) "terrorist."

Hyseni said that Rugova does not even have an office in Rome, and that the entire ITAR-TASS story is disinformation. The story was nonetheless reported as front-page headline news in the Serbian diaspora daily "Vesti" on 27 September.

Already on 21 September, ITAR-TASS had run another dubious story, this time from Prishtina: "Extremist groups of Osama bin Laden are preparing terrorist attacks on Russian and American servicemen in the Balkans, a source in the KFOR staff told ITAR-TASS on Friday. They may use suicide extremists, vehicles stuffed with explosives, and small-size bombs, the source said. About 10 extremists, supposedly from Algeria, Yemen, and Palestine, are preparing for the attacks on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he noted. Chechen rebels may also take part in the terrorist acts."

Apparently not to be outdone, Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic said in Belgrade on 26 September that his government has "irrefutable evidence" that there are "persons linked" to bin Laden in Kosova and Macedonia. He added that the government has similar "irrefutable evidence" that "in the course of the war in Bosnia, there were 10,000 Talibans and mujahedin of Osama bin Laden in the army of Alija Izetbegovic. After the war ended, 3,000 [of them] went to Kosmet [editor's note: this is the Serbian nationalist term for Kosova] and then to Macedonia."

Since the present democratic Serbian leadership was not in power during most of the years in question, one can only guess at the source of the "irrefutable evidence." In any event, the BBC's Serbian Service on 20 September quoted Yugoslav Defense Minister Slobodan Krapovic as saying that he knows of no activities by bin Laden anywhere in the former Yugoslavia. (Patrick Moore)

MACEDONIA OPENS RESTITUTION QUESTION WITH BULGARIA. The creation of nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries led to massive population movements in the Balkans. The biggest of these population "transfers" took place after the end of the war between Greece and Turkey in 1923, but there is no Balkan state that has not been affected by this problem. After the fall of the Ottoman empire, millions of Turks left the peninsula for Turkey; the last wave of them was expelled from Bulgaria in 1989. Bulgarians left Turkey, Greece, and Yugoslavia. Macedonians departed Bulgaria, Albania, and Greece -- just to name some of the movements.

When Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski visited Sofia on 19 September, he held talks with Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Sakskoburggotski as well as with President Petar Stoyanov and the speaker of the Bulgarian parliament, Ognyan Gerdzhikov.

After discussing the issue of international terrorism with Sakskoburggotski and Stoyanov, Georgievski used a press conference to complain once again about the "international community's double standards regarding terrorism in Macedonia. During the past eight months, we have not seen any serious effort or firm decision [by the international community] to fight Albanian terrorism in Macedonia," the Skopje daily "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 20 September.

But Georgievski did not discuss only security issues with leading Bulgarian officials. In his talks with Gerdzhikov, he also talked about a very sensitive issue in the relations between most Balkan states -- that of compensation for or restitution of forcibly nationalized property of former citizens who fled the country (see also "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 July 2001). While Georgievski said after the meeting that restitution of Bulgarian citizens' property in Macedonia is not possible according under Macedonian law, he added that groups of experts will be formed to review the issue.

Bulgarian media quickly hailed this announcement, but Macedonian newspapers were more critical about the prospect of Bulgarians coming to Macedonia to seek the restitution of their property.

The Skopje daily "Dnevnik" describes Georgievski's move as an attempt to clear up matters that Macedonia "inherited" after the break-up of Yugoslavia. According to the newspaper, it might also be interpreted as a reciprocal move for the property given back to Macedonian citizens in Bulgaria.

In a discussion of the legal aspects of the restitution of expropriated property, Violeta Cvetkovska in "Utrinski vesnik" of 21 September cites experts who argue that there are two ways to fulfill Georgievski's promise. Either the current law on denationalization has to be changed or the issue can be regulated by a bilateral agreement between the two countries.

The experts believe that the Macedonian law on denationalization is extremely liberal. Thus, any change to it -- such as to make it applicable to foreign citizens -- must be carefully considered in order to obtain some form of reciprocity from those deriving benefits from the changes. Given the fact that former citizens of Macedonia live not only in Bulgaria, but also in Greece, Turkey, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, this has the potential for widespread ramifications. As Viktor Cvetanoski put it in a polemical commentary for "Utrinski vesnik" on 21 September: "Would this not set a precedent if the property of Bulgarian citizens were restituted -- but not that of Serbian or Greek citizens, or even that of erstwhile Turkish begs and agas? And will property be restored to Bulgarians who stole it during the [Bulgarian] occupation [in World War II]?"

If the question of restitution or compensation for former citizens is to be dealt with seriously in the Balkans, it has to include all the Balkan states. If one looks at the bilateral relations of Macedonia, it seems highly unlikely that accounts with all neighboring states can be settled on a reciprocal basis. While there are almost no Albanian claims for property in Macedonia, the (Macedonian) Orthodox Church had large land holdings on the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid. As for Greece, it has not wanted to discuss the issue in the past, and it is highly unlikely that it will modify its position in the future.

If there are so many open questions and so many problems involved, why did Georgievski raise the issue at all? And why did he visit Sofia at a moment when domestic problems seemed to be far more important?

Cvetanoski offers a possible explanation. According to him, Georgievski's visit came as a sign of support for the Bulgarian president, who will run for a second term soon. As the fate of Macedonia and Bulgarian-Macedonian relations are highly emotional issues for large parts of the Bulgarian population, Georgievski's visit and his expressions of thanks for Stoyanov's support for Skopje in recent months could be easily regarded as support for Stoyanov's re-election campaign. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz,

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "It's up to the parliament of this country to turn people's hopes into reality." -- NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson. Quoted by Reuters in Erebino, Macedonia, on 25 September.

"I bring a message of hope and reassurance that NATO will not leave this country alone." -- Ibid.

"Others enter the world via the market, but we go via Interpol." -- Aphorism of the day in the Belgrade daily "Danas," 27 October 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September 2001).