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Serbia And Montenegro: Report Says Kosovo Refugee Returns Still A Trickle

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have issued a joint assessment of the situation of ethnic minorities in Kosovo. As RFE/RL reports, returns of displaced persons and refugees continue to be negligible.

Prague, 12 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- First, the good news: Ethnically motivated crimes, particularly violent crimes, continue to decline in Kosovo, nearly four years after Serbian security forces withdrew from the province and a United Nations-led international protectorate was installed.

As tensions have declined, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, has been able to reduce the number of personnel assigned to such tasks as manning checkpoints and guarding Serbian Orthodox churches.

The bad news? The return of displaced minorities continues at a trickle, just 2,741 all of last year, compared with 1,906 in 2000.

That leaves at least 100,000 displaced Kosovo Serbs, as well as large numbers of Roma, Bosniaks, and Gorans, living in exile, mainly in Serbia and Montenegro but also in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. Some have settled permanently elsewhere, such as most Kosovo Croats and Circassians, as well as those Serbs with jobs and property, in Serbia or Montenegro. But many others remain in refugee camps or are unemployed, dependent on handouts, or are living in cramped conditions with relatives.

These findings and others were released in a joint report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released on 10 March.

The chief of the UNHCR's mission in Kosovo, Walter Irvine, said Kosovo is still a fragile environment in which conditions for the return of internally displaced persons and refugees need to be carefully cultivated. "Security and freedom of movement, I think, still remain the key influential factors on how the minority-returns process progresses," Irvine said.

As Irvine put it, "Priority must be placed on the quality and the sustainability of returns." He said, "Intercommunity dialogue, confidence building, committed involvement of the local authorities and a bottom-up [grassroots] approach represent key elements for improving the conditions of Kosovo's minorities and to guarantee the return process occurs in safety and dignity."

The joint UNHCR and OSCE report on the situation of minorities in Kosovo notes that those Serbs who do return generally are those returning to mono-ethnic areas, due to security concerns. Harassment and violence, including verbal assaults, threats, gunfire, and, occasionally, killings, persist in many ethnically mixed areas, all but barring returns. As a result, many Serbs are selling their property and leaving the province permanently.

Nenad Radosavljevic advises Michael Steiner, the chief of the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), on the return of displaced persons. "Many [Serbian] people, for justifiable reasons, are selling their property. For a long time, they have been living in very difficult conditions that so many Serbs face. Many of them need cash. So that's why so many apartments in urban settlements are for sale. On the other hand, plenty of real estate is being usurped rather than sold," Radosavljevic said.

Radosavljevic said it is up to UNMIK to prevent real-estate sales or deals that are made under pressure.

Some former Serbian residents of Kosovo were "colonists," whom the authorities in Belgrade resettled in several waves in the 1930s, '50s, and '80s from poor parts of Serbia and Montenegro, or else they were refugees from the 1991-95 wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Belgrade authorities granted these newcomers property that had, in many cases, been confiscated from Albanian inhabitants.

Radosavljevic said: "These are displaced persons who came by their property very easily, not through hard work but, rather, practically for free. So for them, it is [psychologically] easy to sell or transfer. They don't consider it as their own. However, a large number of inhabitants who were displaced are originally from this area. Their forebears left them property, which it is very difficult for them to part with. That's why there are so many people who do want to return. There is something that binds them to this region."

The UNHCR/OSCE report concludes that confidence-building measures and interethnic dialogue must be a priority "in order to create minimum levels of stability before returns take place." It says, "In the absence of such dialogue, the security conditions and freedom of movement remain problematic."

The OSCE's head of mission in Kosovo, Pascal Fieschi, said Kosovo's government institutions "have a fundamental role to play in providing protection for minorities from discrimination." He said they must be "actively involved and take ownership over the dynamics of return, sending visible signs of tolerance to their communities."

Fieschi urges passage by the Kosovar Assembly of an antidiscrimination bill drafted by the OSCE. "[I'd like] to appeal to the government and to the Kosovo Assembly to approve this law. It will surely strengthen protection against discrimination, and it will surely improve the standing of Kosovo in Europe," Fieschi said.

UNMIK is hoping the situation in Kosovo will be sufficiently stable to enable a marked increase in returns this year. However, the security situation remains fragile and in some areas -- most notably, the southeast, along the border with southern Serbia's Presevo Valley -- it has recently deteriorated.

Meanwhile, Steiner's recently announced plan to open direct talks between Belgrade and Pristina on very short notice -- preferably starting this week -- is facing opposition from both parties.

Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi said talks with Belgrade will not begin this week, noting that Kosovo's institutions are not yet sufficiently prepared to take part in a dialogue with Serbian leaders. "We are going to prepare carefully in order to decide what is in Kosovo's interest and whether they [the talks] are in its interest," Rexhepi said.

Branko Radujko, an adviser to the Serbian government on refugee issues, said there is likely to be a delay in the start of direct talks. Radujko said the delay is due to Serbian opposition to Steiner's ongoing transfer of authority from UNMIK to Kosovo's Albanian-dominated provisional government. Many Serbs perceive this transfer of authority to Kosovo's Albanian majority as a clear move toward de facto independence for the province.

"The atmosphere is such that one can hardly say it is conducive to [holding talks]," Radujko said.

He predicted that Belgrade will have no choice but to turn to the UN Security Council to intervene in opposing Steiner's proposal for dialogue.