Accessibility links

Balkan Report: October 20, 2000

20 October 2000, Volume 4, Number 78

Greek-Albanian Tensions Rise. Harsh words were exchanged on both sides of the Greek-Albanian border in the runup to last Sunday's regional run-off vote. It remains to be seen whether any political side-effects will be lasting.

A Greek government spokesman on 14 October charged Albanian authorities with trying to prevent Albanian citizens working in Greece from participating in the election run off in Albania the next day, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported. He called on the government to "lift the obstacles for Albanians living in Greece who want to return to Albania to vote."

The spokesman made the remarks as Albanian border police blocked several busses carrying about 700 voters from Greece to the southern Albanian coastal town of Himara. Officials said that the bus drivers lacked necessary documents. These obstacles did not prevent the migrant workers from voting, however, since the travelers--some but not all of them ethnic Greeks-- changed vehicles at the border and continued their journey. In the days before and after the elections, Albania's navy announced military maneuvers along the southern Albanian coast and closed the port of Himara for civilian ships, thus blocking a regular ferry connection with Corfu.

The Albanian government nonetheless issued a statement dismissing the Greek claims as unfounded. It added that it "guarantees to the international community and all partners security and cooperation in the entire region and will continue to respect and accept all democratic principles of free elections."

Tensions between the ethnic Greek Human Rights Union Party (PBDNJ) and ethnic Albanian political parties have been on the rise for several weeks in Himara. This began after the PBDNJ invited Greek legislators to speak at election rallies there. Albania's electoral code prohibits the participation of foreign citizens in election campaigns.

Another factor that added to the tensions and had previously stirred up jealousy among Albanians were pension payments by the Greek government to some local people. These individuals are ethnic Greek citizens of Albania who never worked in Greece. Many Albanians regard the payments as unjustified, since they create disparities between ethnic Greeks and Albanians. On the other hand, many of the pensioners are grateful for and dependant on Athens' support, since Albanian pensions are only around $30 per month.

Himara is one of Albania's most scenic seaside towns and has around 4,000 registered inhabitants, most of whom are ethnic Albanians. Many young people do not live there, however, but work as migrants in Greece. During most of the year the actual population does not reach more than 2,000, and most of those who stay behind are pensioners. Only during the summer holidays in August does the population significantly increase. The high degree of media attention to the tensions in Himara suggests that many Albanians fear that the extensive migration, combined with what is perceived as increasing Greek economic influence, may be slowly changing the character of the town to become increasingly Greek.

In essence, the ethnic Albanian parties have accused the PBDNJ of trying to buy votes and spread Greek influence in the region by suggesting that Greek investments would flow into the area if the PBDNJ won. The PBDNJ denied the charge, arguing that it is trying to broaden its ethnic base and bring development to the region, many of whose inhabitants work in Greece, anyway.

Prime Minister Ilir Meta chose Himara for his last election rally before the run-off between Viktor Mato of his Socialist Party (PS) and Vasil Bollano from the PBDNJ. The previous mayor of the city, Anesti Thimojani, is from the Democratic Party (PD). That party is traditionally a bitter rival of the PS, which formed a coalition with the PBDNJ in the 1996 elections.

Only the PS and PBDNJ qualified for this year's run-off, however. Meta turned the election in Himara into a question of national unity against a perceived threat by appealing to the supporters of the PD to vote for the PS. And Thimojani supported Meta's appeal and participated in Meta's election rally. Such coalitions are highly unusual, considering the confrontational relationship between the PD and PS (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 26 September 2000).

Meta, moreover, used conciliatory language towards the PD. He stressed that "when I had contacts with people from Himara, I never looked at their political coloring. Anesti Thimojani has done a decent job as mayor over the last four years. We have been friends and still are, independently of his being from the PD." But in an olive branch to the Greeks, Meta also stressed the importance of boosting tourism and developing good neighborly relations with Greece.

In the end, the elections proved that some Albanians' apprehension about what they saw as a pending takeover by Greeks was not justified. Out of around 3,100 voters, only about 700 voted for the PBDNJ (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2000). It now remains to be seen whether the acrimony of the campaign will have any lasting effect on relations between the two capitals--and on the political and economic climate in Himara. (Fabian Schmidt)

Sharing Power With War Criminals. The Serbian power-sharing agreement signed by supporters of the new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and the remnants of Milosevic's regime raises major moral questions as well as reasonable doubt about the future of democracy in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2000). Impoverished by wars and the effects of 13 years of nationalistic neo-communist rule, the country starts out on the road to democracy with the decision by the new leadership to share power with war criminals.

Power-sharing not only creates a credibility question for President Kostunica and the 18 parties in his coalition: it is an approach that may have devastating consequences for the democratic process in Serbia. By entering a coalition with the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), Kostunica is in effect legitimizing Milosevic's organization in the eyes of the public and the international community. He is giving this party a chance to mutate into another form of post-totalitarian communist formation (with or without Milosevic) that will continue playing a destructive role in Serbian society.

Why is Kostunica willing to do such a favor for his rivals, who forged the election results and ordered the use of force against Serbian protestors? Certainly not because he is a supporter of Milosevic. Kostunica is regarded as a constitutionalist, who believes in the rule of law and seeks legality in any governmental changes. He wants to prevent any unrest or bloodshed, and this is the likely reason for his cautiousness.

Milosevic and his people obviously understand the new president's preferences and problems, and they will attempt to entangle him in a web of constitutional and legal obstacles. This is evident in the stress on the constitutional dependence of Serbia on pro-Milosevic politicians in forming the new Yugoslav cabinet, despite the fact that over 75 percent of the Montenegrins boycotted the elections. It is also evident in the demand of General Nebojsa Pavkovic that any changes in the army leadership should not be made on a political basis. But the question remains--who created these procedures?

Two weeks ago it appeared that not only was Milosevic finished, but that his regime had come to an end. The protestors on the streets of Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia insisted on his arrest and stormed the parliament and other government buildings. In other words, they were denying authority not only to Milosevic, but to the entire Socialist edifice.

The protesting crowds were much more radical than the opposition leadership and were ready to take responsibility in eliminating once and for all the power of Milosevic and his supporters (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 October 2000). But Kostunica failed to arrest Milosevic. He also repeated his previous refusal to turn Milosevic in to The Hague, which he has called "an American and not an international court." He then began making deals with Milosevic's close associates, some of whom are also indicted war criminals, such as Serbian President Milan Milutinovic.

In fact, two weeks after the "revolution," Serbia is still the only country in the world to be led by a president who has been indicted by an international tribunal for war crimes--because nobody has overturned or challenged the authority of Milutinovic. In the meantime, Milosevic continues giving instructions to his party faithful on how to retain as much power as possible. And they appear to be managing this task quite successfully both on the Serbian and Yugoslav levels, despite some calls from within the SPS for Milosevic to quit as party leader.

Some observers may argue that Kostunica's steps are only temporary measures aimed at a peaceful and smooth transition until the Serbian elections in December. Such observers might add that he has few alternative legal options, given the power relationships within the current Serbian parliament.

However, one should not repeat the mistaken assumptions in many countries in the early 1990s that all the communist parties in Eastern Europe can truly become democratic players and contribute to society the way the Polish, Slovenian, or Hungarian ex-ruling parties did.

After all, there are also communist parties that simply did not transform themselves into genuine builders of democracy. Moreover, ten years ago Eastern Europe had not yet experienced the wholesale criminalization of the economy and the political system that became a central feature of the Serbian regime.

Kostunica evidently did not look closely at the experience of some of Serbia's neighbors. He failed to estimate how compromises with old communist establishments can become dangerous, even in cases where no war crimes are involved. When ten years ago the Bulgarian opposition agreed to participate in a round table with the Communist Party, the move was perceived as a great democratic achievement. Several years later, however, some of the opposition leaders admitted that it was one of the biggest mistakes of the democratic forces.

First, it gave the Communists the status of a legitimate participant in the democratic process, even though the party had not come to terms with its own role in decades of terror, atrocities, political repression, and forced ethnic assimilation.

Second, the round table agreements gave an impetus for the revitalization of the hundred year-old Bulgarian Communist Party, which included not only changing its name to "Socialist," but also propelling it to occupy the social democratic space in the political system and in public perceptions. Five months later, the Socialists defeated the democrats in the general elections and continued to rule the country.

The other part of the "back to power" strategy of the Bulgarian Socialists consisted of carefully constructing mechanisms to divide the opposition and of undermining the credibility of opposition leaders. This led to a long period of Socialist domination in the parliament and a devastating economic catastrophe in 1997. However, on this occasion the opposition did not repeat its previous mistake: the united opposition leaders demanded the immediate resignation of the Socialist cabinet and parliament. They also formed an interim government on their own, even though mass protests supporting the opposition were threatened with a military crackdown.

At a time when Kostunica has the full support of the army and the police, there is no credible reason for making deals with a party responsible for setting off four wars, for launching ethnic cleansing, and for creating a criminal environment throughout the region.

Serbia's new leaders should not dismiss the fact that the guilt for the wars and war crimes lies not only with Milosevic and his cronies, but with the whole Socialist party apparatus and its allied parties, both on a national and local level. If Kostunica does not undertake a policy of "political cleansing," he risks either whitewashing the stains of the regime or helping others assign collective guilt to the Serbian people instead of to the country's real criminals.

Moreover, Serbia faces the prospect of growing public frustration with economic conditions once the euphoria subsides. Clearly, the Socialists will seek to benefit from a potential public backlash and from splits within the DOS coalition in order to launch themselves back into positions of power, with or without Milosevic. The experiences of at least some of Serbia's neighbors should serve as lessons rather than as models. (Margarita Assenova. Her address is

Quotations Of The Week. "Asked by ITAR-TASS whether his country is ready to forgive the NATO crimes, taking into account the fact that the European Union promised to appropriate 200 million euros to Yugoslavia, Kostunica said: 'There are things [that are] unforgettable.' "The Yugoslav leader, who made a stopover at Geneva airport en route to Yugoslavia from the EU summit in Biarritz, explained: 'How can we forget what happened last year? By forgetting such things, we could lose what makes up our national identity.'" -- ITAR-TASS report from Geneva, on 15 October.

"'I want to deny the ubiquitous rumors heard today that the man rising to power after Slobodan Milosevic [must] turn to the West and pursue a pro-American policy, as was done in some neighboring countries. This is an artificial dilemma,' Kostunica said. He added that one desire of Serbia's new democratic administration -- to become part of European integration -- need not mean its desire to sever ties with Russia. The Yugoslav leadership would like to establish 'a necessary balance in Europe, while maintaining good and comprehensive relations and cooperation with the Russian Federation,' he said. Kostunica added that he is convinced that for Yugoslavia and 'for the entire highly sensitive region' in which it lies, it would be very useful to have the presence of Russia -- and not only U.S., Western, and NATO interests. That would be [in keeping with] the interests of both Moscow and Belgrade, he noted. Kostunica said he views Russia's interest in its presence in the region as well justified, but 'the question is how this interest is manifested, that is, on whom Russia relies.'" -- Kostunica, quoted by Russia's Interfax news agency on 17 October.

"The best Europe can hope for is for Yugoslavia to evolve into a country similar to Greece: fiercely independent, with strong links to Russia, yet tied to European economic and political arrangements. Like Greece, Yugoslavia will be a constant headache to deal with. But Europe has plenty of practice dealing with unruly family members." -- "," 18 October 2000.