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Balkan Report: November 28, 2006

November 28, 2006, Volume 10, Number 11

The next issue of "RFE/RL Balkan Report" will appear on January 23, 2007.

CROATIAN PRESIDENT DISCUSSES BALKAN CONFLICT, KOSOVA STATUS. Croatian President Stjepan Mesic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in Prague on November 14 that the destruction of the Croatian Danube port town of Vukovar 15 years ago was part of then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's plans to establish a Greater Serbia by force. The big losers in Milosevic's wars, Mesic argued, were nonetheless the Serbs themselves.

Mesic argued that Milosevic thought in 1991 that he could "fool the world" into thinking he was determined to preserve the Yugoslav state when, in reality, he was trying to expand Serbia's boundaries into neighboring Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. "His goal was to establish a Greater Serbia," Mesic said.

In doing so, Milosevic tricked Serbian minorities outside Serbia by telling them he would not leave them outside Serbia's frontiers, and he led some of them to believe they would have a privileged status in his new state. In the end, however, all this came to nothing. Even his former allies in Montenegro deserted him and have now formed their own independent state.

Mesic said he is not sure the time is now ripe for him to invite to Vukovar his Serbian counterpart, Boris Tadic, but added that "it would be a good [idea]."

He stressed that what happened in Vukovar was "a big crime, even a crime of genocide." To the extent that people recall what happened in Vukovar and honor the victims, they have taken one more step toward ensuring that something like the destruction of that town "will never happen again," he said.

Mesic said the time has come to resolve the question of Kosova's status because the current "status quo cannot remain in the long run." It also seems to Mesic unreasonable to expect the issue to be resolved by direct talks between Prishtina and Belgrade, since Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority wants only independence, to which the Serbs will never agree. Consequently, Mesic told RFE/RL, "the international community has to help."

Like many observers, Mesic argues that the most likely outcome is that Kosova will become independent, but on the condition that it observes "those standards [of conduct] that apply in Europe." He identifies these principles as respect for "civil rights, multiparty political pluralism, protection of national minorities, freedom of the media, functioning [state] institutions, the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and protection for religious and historical monuments."

He added that the Kosovars will also probably be asked to guarantee that they will not seek to form a "Greater Albania," which, however, is not seriously sought by any leading Kosovar or Albanian political party.

Mesic cautioned against hasty judgments regarding Zeljko Komsic, the new Croatian representative on the Bosnian tripartite Presidency. Mesic noted that many Croats have suggested that Komsic might not "defend Croatian interests" because he does not belong to a nationalist party -- he is a social democrat -- and because he fought in the mainly Muslim Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina rather than in the mainly Herzegovinian Croatian Defense Council (HVO) during the 1992-95 conflict.

"What do people expect?" Mesic asked rhetorically. "That he should have served in the Army of the Republika Srpska? It is quite normal that one should have fought for Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Mesic argued, moreover, that Bosnia's problem is that it needs to form a functioning state and get away from a tendency of its two constituent entities to behave as though they were states. "They're not," he said starkly.

Mesic is one of the best-known figures on the political stage of former Yugoslavia and has been prominent in Croatian politics for most of the time since at least 1990, when he became prime minister. It was the move in May 1991 by Milosevic and his allies in the eight-member collective Yugoslav Presidency to block Mesic's assumption of the rotating chair of that body -- a move that would have been routine under normal circumstances -- that triggered the decisions of Croatia and Slovenia to declare independence in June.

Mesic returned to Croatia, where he was a member of President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). In 1994 he broke with Tudjman and the HDZ over the conduct of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and eventually found his political home in the smaller Croatian People's Party (HNS).

When Tudjman died in office at the end of 1999, most Croats were clearly eager to break with a style of rule that was widely seen as paternalistic, pompous, and rooted in the 1991-95 war. Mesic was first elected to the presidency in early 2000 and quickly established himself as Croatia's most respected politician. He adopted a more folksy style than that of his predecessor, whose stiffness was often the butt of jokes.

Mesic also worked to break the power of the "Herzegovinian lobby" in Croatian politics, and there is still little love lost between him and the HDZ in Herzegovina. He has also been at odds with organized war veterans groups, who regard him as insufficiently nationalistic. Mesic and most Croatian political leaders since 2000 have made it clear that they want to put the war era behind them and concentrate on raising the standard of living and on joining the EU and NATO.

In the early years of his presidency, Mesic used the more informal version of his first name, Stipe, although in recent years he has usually gone by Stjepan. In a marked contrast with Tudjman's aloof style, Mesic traveled to the Dalmatian islands with a regularly scheduled ferry rather than with a presidential yacht and drank wine on the docks with fellow passengers.

Although critics have charged in recent years that he has come to mimic the presidential style of the late Josip Broz Tito and has drifted politically too far to the left, he has generally kept the office free of the taint of corruption and nepotism that blemished Tudjman's rule (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," September 26, 2006). (Patrick Moore)

KOSOVA ENTERS THE HOME STRETCH. The international community has put off settling Kosova's final status until shortly after the Serbian elections slated for January 21, 2007. But the delay seems unlikely to affect the outcome, which will in all probability be a conditional independence.

By late 2005, the leadership of the UN, at the recommendation of special envoy Kai Eide, concluded that leaving Kosova's political status unresolved had become a major source of problems for the province and the region as a whole. The continuing uncertainty had already played a role in the triggering and spread of violence among some of the ethnic Albanian majority in March 2004 and remained a potential source of future unrest. The lack of clarity also discouraged the investment necessary to deal with large-scale unemployment and jump-start the economy among people who have often displayed sharp business acumen when provided with a clear legal framework, as Kosovars have done in countries like Croatia, Switzerland, or Germany (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," December 17, 2004, and June 27, September 26 and October 24, 2006).

The decision on Kosova's final status had been expected by the end of 2006, and many Kosovars became apprehensive when the postponement was announced recently. But the delay seems designed only to minimize the effect of the issue on the Serbian vote and is probably unlikely to impact on the substance of the UN's final statement on status. That would appear to be a form of independence -- which is the only outcome acceptable to the 90 percent Albanian majority -- albeit with a continuing foreign presence to ensure the safety and rights of the minorities, particularly the Serbs, and their cultural institutions. The EU will most likely replace the UN at the heart of the foreign civilian presence, but is expected to have a less powerful mandate than it currently does in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

UN envoy for Kosova Martti Ahtisaari is expected to make his announcement regarding the province's status in February 2007. Numerous media reports have suggested that U.S. and British diplomats have recently reassured Kosovar Albanian leaders that just a little more patience will pay dividends for them and warned them against any hasty moves, such as issuing a widely rumored unilateral declaration of independence if the decision on the final status continues to be delayed. Those media reports indicate that the Kosovars have accepted the assurances of Washington and London.

Lest anyone forget the stakes involved in finalizing Kosova's status, Prime Minister Agim Ceku wrote in "The Wall Street Journal" of November 20 that "expectations in Kosova are high.... It is ready for independence, and now is not the time to stop the clock." He added that "we need to keep the process of statehood on track. Kosova needs clarity to complete reforms and to attract vital international investments, but also so that our own people -- and especially our Serb minority -- can escape the debilitating worries and uncertainty and start to build a future. Their home and future are in Kosova."

Ceku argued that "the biggest problem in the western Balkans is economic malaise.... Belgrade is not interested in investing in the development of Kosova, and Kosova is not interested in a political union with Serbia. But we are interested in developing a productive bilateral partnership with Serbia, just as we're doing with our other neighbors." He believes that "social and economic progress in the region will be the big losers if we don't make the bold step forward to independence. The entire western Balkan region needs a kick start in order to catch the EU train and catch up with the awesome economic growth of our EU-bound neighbors, Romania and Bulgaria."

He noted that "we have a young population and a positive birthrate. Given the shortages in the EU labor market due to negative demographic trends, Kosova can help fill the void. To do so, we need to retrain our work force. Hence we're now investing in education."

Ceku also reminded Brussels that it cannot afford to forget its goal of "a Europe whole and free." He might have added that it is the question of Euro-Atlantic integration, perhaps more so than even the issue of Kosova's final status, that will be the determining factor for the peace and prosperity of the entire region. (Patrick Moore)

NOTABLE QUOTATIONS. "The boys and girls of the [1998-99] war are still alive, they are in Kosova. They are ready to protect the freedom of Kosova. Nobody gave them weapons, they found them themselves, they can find them again. Their blood remains the same." -- Azem Syla, former commander in chief of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). Quoted in "Koha Ditore" of October 26.

"By defending Kosovo we are defending more than our own interest and more that the issue of stability and piece in the region. We are defending international law." -- Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on voter approval of the new Serbian Constitution on October 29. Quoted by RFE/RL. The document explicitly lays claim to Kosova, where Serbian writ has not run since June, 1999.

"Delay [in clarifying Kosova's final status] offers no advantages to any party. Negotiations should be concluded. Delay can only frustrate the hopes of those who live in Kosovo and deny clarity to Serbians as they think about their own future." -- The U.S. representative at the talks on Kosova, Frank Wisner, speaking on October 31 at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade. Quoted by RFE/RL.