Tadic (left) in a heavily Serb-populated village in southern Kosovo on 13 February
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 would affect Kosova's future. Parliamentary speaker Nexhat Daci stressed that Serbia lost Kosova as a result of the 1998-99 conflict and would 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 toward 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.