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Balkan Report: December 18, 2001

18 December 2001, Volume 5, Number 84

This is a special 'Year In Review' issue of RFE/RL Balkan Report.

NATO 'DODGES A BULLET' IN THE BALKANS. In the dead of winter, at two in the morning last 22 January, three assailants armed with a Chinese-made rocket launcher and two Kalashnikov machine guns attacked a Macedonian police station at Tearce, near Tetovo in northwestern Macedonia. They killed one policeman and injured two others.

A previously unknown group calling itself the National Liberation Army, or UCK -- the same Albanian acronym as the disbanded Kosova Liberation Army -- subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attack shattered the relative ethnic peace between the Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority in the only former Yugoslav republic not to have achieved independence through war.

As the ice and snow began to melt in February, the violence spread eastward to Tanusevci, an isolated mountain village near the border with Kosova. The insurgents briefly detained a Macedonian TV crew and then engaged in a running battle with security forces along the border.

Meanwhile, older conflicts persisted in Kosova and the nearby Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, where ethnic Albanians outnumber the Slavic population.

Since the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosova in 1999, anti-Serbian violence had continued unabated in spite of repeated warnings by the international community.

But on 16 February, the violence came to a head when ethnic Albanian militants bombed a bus full of Serbs near the village of Podujevo. The bus had been under NATO escort at the time.

One of the passengers on the bus told RFE/RL what happened: "There was just one detonation. At that moment I went flying! I woke up, looked ahead and there was no bus left!"

Two days after the bus attack, a Serbian police vehicle struck two mines near Bujanovac, killing three policemen.

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic said he sensed a crisis in the making: "It is a classical terrorist act, a hate crime that simply unleashes a spiral [of violence]. It is impossible not to connect this with the [bus bombing] crime committed on the territory of Kosova a few days ago. So it is the terrorists' response -- a provocation to the entire international community."

Covic authored a peace plan calling for integrating the Presevo Valley's 70,000 ethnic Albanian residents into mainstream political and social life with offers of civil rights guarantees and promises of economic development.

The Albanian community in the Presevo Valley was divided over how to respond, with moderates -- who held elected political office -- welcoming the plan, and radicals in the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, or UCPMB, opposed.

The rebels opted for violence, ultimately causing NATO to ally itself with its former enemy: the Yugoslav Army.

NATO decided the only way to crack down on the rebels was to allow Serbian armed forces to re-enter a buffer zone in place around Kosova since the end of the 1999 air strikes. The Serbian army could then prevent the insurgents from slipping back and forth across the boundary or operating unhindered in the zone.

In February, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson announced that NATO would allow the Yugoslav Army and the Serbian Interior Ministry police to gradually re-enter the zone, which he called a "ground safety zone": "It is also unacceptable for the ground safety zone to be used as some kind of safe-haven for extremists, so we are preparing for a phased and conditioned reduction of the ground safety zone."

The operation proved to be a success. UCPMB rebels surrendered to KFOR peacekeepers in Kosova.

In Macedonia, the rebels continued their insurgency. They also published their demands for the first time. They were not looking to establish a breakaway Albanian state, but rather to improve the situation for Macedonia's Albanian minority. They wanted to increase the numbers of ethnic Albanians serving in the police and armed forces and to put the Albanian language on par with Macedonian.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski ruled out considering the Albanians' demands for equal civil and language rights until the UCK was defeated: "After the conclusion of the operations to neutralize the armed groups of extremists, political dialogue should be intensified with all legitimate political parties to open up questions concerning inter-ethnic relations and to find responsible solutions."

In mid-March, an attempt by an Albanian party to stage a peace march in Tetovo went awry as UCK rebels on a nearby hilltop fortress started shooting and were cheered on by young protesters in the center of Tetovo.

Macedonian security forces moved in troops and artillery and launched a battle over the next few days, not only for the fortress but for a string of villages in the nearby Sar mountain range.

Much of the international community declared the rebels "terrorists" and declined to negotiate with them. EU foreign policy and security commissioner Javier Solana made frequent visits to Skopje to advise and consult with Macedonia's political leadership. He made these comments at the time: "I think it is a mistake to negotiate with terrorists in this particular case. It is a mistake to do it and we do not recommend doing it."

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and his nationalist-oriented party, the VMRO-DPMNE, undertook a massive arms build-up, purchasing helicopters and attack aircraft from Ukraine and using ammunition donated from Bulgaria. Anti-UCK sorties with the newly delivered aircraft are alleged to have been flown by Ukrainian and Serbian pilots in the absence of qualified Macedonian pilots.

By the end of March, the Macedonian forces had gained the upper hand and the rebels fled into the Sar mountains and to Kosova. But then on 28 April, the UCK ambushed a Macedonian security unit in the Sar mountains, killing eight servicemen, wounding six others, and shattering a nearly month-old truce.

In May, fighting erupted in the Kumanovo-Lipkovo area, where Macedonian aircraft and artillery pummeled Albanian-inhabited villages day after day. Many civilians declined to flee for fear of being beaten or mistreated by Macedonian security forces.

Then on 6 June, after five more security officers -- three of them from Bitola -- were killed in the Sar mountains, a crowd formed in Bitola's bazaar and proceeded to destroy 50 shops and 20 family homes belonging to Albanians and Macedonian Muslims. Fourteen people were wounded.

Witnesses, including a local Albanian-language TV reporter, Qenan Hasani, said the police did nothing for four hours. "All of this happened in the presence of the Macedonian police, who were just spectators."

In early June, after the UCK seized control of the Albanian-majority hillside village of Aracinovo, just 10 kilometers from Skopje, "Hoxha," a local UCK commander, warned that Macedonian forces must cease shelling Albanian-inhabited villages or else face an assault on the capital. "If Ljubco Georgievski does not stop harming our people, we will strike Skopje. He had the weapons before and he used them. Now I've got weapons [within range of Skopje], so why shouldn't I fire at him? We have 120mm artillery pieces, and we have rockets, too. We will fire on the airport, the country's sole oil refinery, the government building, the parliament, and police posts. We will shoot every place where the police are not from Aracinovo, but from positions higher in the mountains."

International airlines temporarily canceled flights to Skopje, and the number of Albanian refugees fleeing Macedonia soared.

On 25 June, several thousand protesters, many displaced from the fighting near Tetovo, gathered in front of parliament and demanded that President Trajkovski resign. But Trajkovski held his ground and subsequently came up with a peace plan which served as a basis for protracted negotiations carried out over the summer in the southern resort of Ohrid.

The talks were nearly scuttled on 12 August when eight Macedonian soldiers were killed in a landmine explosion in the Skopje Crna Gora.

Macedonian Interior Ministry forces responded with a three-day operation against the predominantly ethnic Albanian village of Ljuboten, resulting in the deaths of 10 civilians and the arrests of more than 100 people.

The Macedonian government alleged the UCK was present in the village, an issue subsequently refuted by the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch. That group accuses the police of indiscriminate shelling of Ljuboten, summary executions, and house-burnings. The UN war crimes tribunal chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, has since launched an investigation into the Ljuboten killings.

A framework peace agreement was finally agreed in Ohrid on 13 August. The plan called for the UCK to disarm and disband in exchange for an amnesty for the rebels and for parliament to enact a set of changes to the constitution improving the civil rights of the Albanian minority. It also provided for early elections.

The 11 September terrorist attacks in the U.S. meant that the international community no longer had the time or patience to deal with the Macedonian dispute and wanted it resolved quickly. The attacks also substantially contributed to an end to ethnic violence in Kosova, as Kosovar Albanians sought to dissociate themselves from any hint that they condone or are engaged in terrorism.

The UCK's handover of weapons to NATO in Macedonia went smoothly, although there was grumbling by the Macedonian government that the weapons being handed over were only a fraction of the UCK's arsenal.

In November, the Macedonian parliament -- after repeated delays -- enacted the changes to the constitution. While there have been some snags, the peace seems to be holding.

Meanwhile, on 17 November, the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe organized Kosova's first parliamentary elections since the 1999 NATO air strikes. The elections took place without incident, and in contrast to the previous year's local elections, Serbs and other minorities did not boycott.

The Albanian parties campaigned on a platform of independence for the UN-administered, NATO-occupied province. Ibrahim Rugova's LDK took first place, with nearly 46 percent of the vote, followed by Hashim Thaci's PDK with nearly 26 percent. The Serbian Povratak coalition took third place, with over 11 percent of the vote.

The UN's chief administrator for Kosova, Hans Haekkerup, warned the elections were not about independence but rather a first move toward eventually resolving Kosova's status.

The electoral victors have convened the provisional parliament of Kosova and are trying to form a government. The body will have only limited responsibility, but it marks a first step on what is likely to be a long road to resolving what remains an international protectorate in the heart of the Balkans. (Jolyon Naegele)

2001: THE LAST YEAR OF 'YUGOSLAVIA'? The ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic more than 14 months ago has dampened Montenegro's chances of gaining independence, though prospects remain good for some sort of a redefinition of the relationship between Montenegro and Serbia.

Montenegro, the junior partner in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, is deeply divided between those who want independence and those who want to maintain a common state with the Serbs.

Those favoring a federation tend to have supported Milosevic and Serbian ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, or else are members of Montenegro's Muslim community living near the border with Serbia. They fear independence would divide and weaken their community in the historical province of Sandzak, which is now divided between Serbia and Montenegro.

Montenegro's citizens will likely have a chance to express their opinion in a referendum on independence next year. But it's unclear what effect that vote will have.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has ruled out holding a federation-wide referendum on the Serbian-Montenegrin relationship until Serbia has a new constitution. And he says there can be no new constitution "until it is clear whether Serbia will be an independent state or remain part of the federation with Montenegro."

The international community, which earlier praised Montenegro for its pro-Western stance during the Milosevic regime, has had a change of heart and no longer backs independence (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 December 2001). U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell set the tone earlier this year when he declined to meet with Montenegro's pro-independence president, Milo Djukanovic, in Washington.

As the year draws to a close, the international community has only become more convinced of the need to keep Montenegro and Serbia together in a common state.

The European Union's commissioner for foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, threw cold water on Montenegro's aspirations of independence in November when, during a visit to Podgorica, he said the EU prefers for Montenegro to stay within a "democratic Yugoslavia." Solana said Montenegrins are deluding themselves if they think they will join the EU accession process any faster as an independent state.

Kostunica, for whom a breakup of Yugoslavia would mean the loss of a job, expressed relief at Solana's words: "We have once again been encouraged by the support of Europeans and the European Union for the integrity of Yugoslavia and -- how to say? -- the opposition to any further disintegration of Balkans and southeast region, that means fragmentation into new small states."

Solana's warning was reinforced in December during a visit to Belgrade by French President Jacques Chirac. Chirac was as blunt as Solana: "France and the European Union support a democratic Montenegro in a democratic Yugoslavia." Chirac warned against what he termed the "anachronistic" process of disintegration. Chirac said the EU is not about to foot the bill for the referendum or its consequences or even recognize an independent Montenegro.

Despite the Western stance against independence, Djukanovic is adamant about holding a referendum in the spring. He says he will resign if a majority rejects independence. In the meantime, he says, a dialogue should be opened with Belgrade: "We'll proceed with a dialogue with Serbia about all possible options of our future relations and about the possible consequences of independence for Serbia and Montenegro, as well as the resolution of specific issues which the two independent states would open. We'll launch these discussions [in] the course of December, and I hope to end them with some sort of democratic epilogue so we could reach an agreement in the first months of the new year."

Serbia is keenly interested in preserving a common state for political and economic reasons, as well as on sentimental grounds. Montenegro is Serbia's only remaining outlet to the sea and, though Montenegro's tourism industry remains frozen in time, it has the potential to become a big money-earner. Traditional Greater Serbian ideology views the Orthodox Serbs and Orthodox Montenegrins as part of the same nation. But in addition to this, Montenegrin independence could lead to the final breakup of former Yugoslavia. With Montenegro gone, Belgrade could lose its claim to Kosova. The international community recognizes Kosova as "de jure" a part of Yugoslavia but does not recognize the Serbian annexation of the province.

If Montenegro were to leave Yugoslavia, many in the international community fear that Kosovar Albanian leaders would likely respond with a speedy declaration of independence of their own -- as the majority of Kosovar voters wish.

No discussion of Serbian affairs would be complete without reference to Vojvodina. Under the 1974 constitution, it, like Kosova, enjoyed broad self-rule almost on the level of that of a republic. Milosevic destroyed that autonomy in 1989, and many in the province want it back.

Vojvodina, with large populations of ethnic Hungarians, Croats, Slovaks, and Romanians, became a refuge for Serbs fleeing war zones during the 1990s. Some 200,000 people, or about 10 percent of Vojvodina's 2 million inhabitants, are Serbian refugees.

Their continued presence and the emigration of tens of thousands of Vojvodina Croats and Hungarians have tipped the ethnic scales further in the Serbs' favor, while raising the ire of non-Serbian communities in the province.

The Hungarians, who make up about 15 percent of Vojvodina's population, are among the most vociferous supporters of greater autonomy for the province.

Hungary's ambassador to Yugoslavia, Jozsef Pandur, speaking earlier this month in Pozarevac, said: "There have been big changes since [Milosevic's fall from power on] 5 October of last year in the area of human rights and of the ethnic minority communities in Yugoslavia. A few problems remain -- certain regulations and laws from the previous regime still haven't been changed. But in general, we are satisfied with the situation of Hungarians in Yugoslavia and Vojvodina [in particular]. As far as Vojvodina's transformation, the Hungarians support decentralization of the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia]. Hungarians support an autonomous Vojvodina, just as Hungary supports the return to the province of a substantial part of its autonomy."

Even many indigenous Serbs, viewing themselves historically as part of Central Europe rather than the Balkans, demand substantial autonomy from Belgrade.

In October, the speaker of Vojvodina's assembly and the province's leading advocate of autonomy, Nenad Canak, seized control of the state television facilities in the capital, Novi Sad. Canak tore down the Radio Television Serbia emblem and stomped on it, declaring that TV Novi Sad was founded by and belongs to Vojvodina's assembly and should serve the interest of its citizens. (Jolyon Naegele)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "Western monitors say the overwhelming majority of demobilized rebels and their village faithful support the peace process and believe militant threats will subside if policing proves fair, the reforms are implemented, and amnesty [is] observed." -- Reuters' Mark Heinrich, reporting from Skopje on 13 December.

Dismantling checkpoints is "the most important issue, and only when they are dismantled can we talk about having police back here. There's a lot of distrust. Peace needs to bloom for a while." -- Hasan Imeri, a villager in Dobroste, Macedonia. Quoted by Reuters.

"I hope the dust will settle down soon. [Kosovar political leaders] should find a compromise." -- Blerim Shala, editor of the Kosovar daily "Zeri." Quoted by Reuters from Prishtina on 13 December.