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Balkan Report: January 9, 2001

9 January 2001, Volume 5, Number 2

'Balkan Syndrome': Fact Or Fiction? EU Commission President Romano Prodi said in Rome on 4 January that he wants an investigation into claims that NATO's use of depleted uranium in armor-piercing artillery shells has led to deaths and illnesses among some soldiers who took part in the 1999 Kosova campaign, Reuters reported. Prodi also called for "immediate contacts with the governments of Bosnia and Serbia to discuss pollution and the problems linked to depleted uranium."

His statement came after claims by an Italian NGO umbrella organization that six Italian Balkan veterans have since died of leukemia. Belgium, Portugal, France, and some additional NATO or Partnership for Peace member countries are also looking into the matter.

It is not clear what the normal, peacetime incidence of leukemia in European armies is.

Italian Deputy Defense Minister Marco Miniti said on 4 January that there is no link between the six deaths and depleted uranium, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The Serbian diaspora daily "Vesti" wrote on 5 January that it has received confirmation from the Yugoslav Defense Ministry that there "has not been a single case" of death or illness from the so-called "Balkan syndrome" among Serbian forces. The Polish and Bulgarian defense ministers subsequently said that they have found no evidence to back up the "Balkan syndrome" thesis.

Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported that the Bundeswehr announced that no German soldiers have fallen ill due to contact with depleted uranium. German experts added that the incidence of radiation exposure from the munitions is "practically nil," and that it is only one-third of what average citizens are exposed to from natural sources. The experts added that any problem stemming from the depleted uranium comes from the fact that it is a heavy metal, and that this aspect should be studied.

Nor does there seem to be any clear sign of a "Balkan syndrome" among civilians. Dr. Slobodan Cikaric, who heads the Belgrade Oncological Clinic, said on 5 January that there has been no recent rise in the incidence of leukemia or other cancer-related illnesses in Yugoslavia, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. He added that it usually takes between two and five years for leukemia to develop, and that the illness can last for a decade.

In Prishtina on 6 January, the WHO said in a statement that an "initial survey showed that the incidence of leukemia in Kosovo has not increased. In fact, there was a slight decrease in leukemia in the year 2000 as compared with 1997 and 1998. After consultations with nuclear and health experts, international health professionals in Kosovo determined the potential public health hazards related to depleted uranium exposure were not high. They decided to devote their major efforts to rebuilding the Kosovo health system, launching a vaccination program," Reuters reported.

During and after the 1999 Kosova campaign, the Milosevic regime staged a disinformation campaign to link all manner of illnesses in Serbia to "NATO bombs" and other weapons. The aim of the campaign was to distract attention from the Serbian atrocities that led to NATO intervention and somehow imply that NATO was the real evildoer in the Balkans.

Moderate Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova senses that the current campaign is a continuation of the old one. He said in Prishtina on 5 January that he and Miniti "agreed that research should be carried out to prove this propaganda wrong, because this might be propaganda against Kosova by those who opposed NATO intervention. Among our population there haven't been cases of uranium-related diseases. We will look into this situation, and there will certainly be scientific explanations which will be made public," Reuters reported.

A Kuwaiti expert, Yasin Ravashde, shares Rugova's thesis on the possible political origins of the current scare. He told the Sarajevo daily "Avaz" of 8 January that the campaign is aimed at prompting Western countries to withdraw their troops from the Balkans. Ravashde added that, on the basis of Kuwaiti experiences in the Gulf War, it is also possible that some uranium has entered the Balkan landscape from Russian weapons used by the Yugoslav Army or Serbian paramilitaries.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Sergei Shishkarev, who is a member of the pro-Kremlin People's Deputy group and deputy chairman of the State Duma committee for international affairs, told ITAR-TASS on 5 January that "it is a veritable tragedy that real or spurious reasons that prompted NATO to launch an armed aggression against sovereign Yugoslavia will soon be forgotten, while its catastrophic consequences, also of an ecological nature, will continue harming the health of succeeding generations of local people." (Patrick Moore)

Jashari Chief Tries To Unite Kosovar Leaders. Rifat Jashari, the head of an influential extended family in Drenica, has invited the three most important Kosova Albanian political leaders --Ibrahim Rugova, Hashim Thaci, and Ramush Haradinaj -- for a traditional-style meeting in his home. Adem Jashari, a legendary former chief of the large family, was among the founders of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). Serbian forces killed him in a massacre in 1998 along with another 52 members of the family, including children. The attack with tanks and helicopters on the family compound marked the beginning of the mass expulsions that triggered the Kosova war.

"Koha Ditore" noted on 4 January that the politicians will hardly be able to refuse the invitation of Rifat Jashari to "sit down with their legs discuss joint interests for the future of Kosova." The paper pointed out that the Jashari family has become a "symbol of resistance and the fight for freedom by sacrificing their lives."

The daily also reported that unnamed high-ranking officials from the Kosova Protection Corps (TMK) have welcomed the Jashari initiative. Most TMK members are former UCK fighters. The invitation, moreover, is in line with traditional Albanian ways of finding compromises on general political strategies between politicians and leaders of influential extended families outside the framework of public institutions.

Since the end of the 1999 war, the Jashari home has become a meeting place for Kosovars who fought in the war and others who did not fight, and for people of different political points of view. Against this background, the daily suggested that "the initiative of a man [Rifat Jashari], who said that he has lost 53 family members but that he has won another 7 million [an Albanian estimate of all Albanians living throughout the world], will bring peace to the divided political scene of Kosova."

International representatives and some Kosovar leaders have repeatedly urged the Kosovar politicians to find a basic consensus on general policies and then to speak with one voice. But rivalries among the parties remain strong, and informal multi-party meetings have been rare.

Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) recently invited Rugova's Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) for an informal meeting of party leaders, but has not yet received an answer. The LDK won most of the votes in the local elections on 28 October. Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) already requested a meeting of top party officials with Rugova before the local elections, but also received no reply.

"Koha Ditore" stressed, however, that the meeting is very likely to come soon: "Rifat will never be able to leave behind the pain for the loss of his family members... But he is the one person who can convince the political leaders that their rivalries hurt Kosova and the ideal [of independence], for which his family members died and many other Kosovars after them." (Fabian Schmidt)

Nearly 700 Kosovar Prisoners In Serbian Jails. "Koha Ditore" reported on 3 January that 693 Kosovar Albanians who were arrested in Kosova during the repression of 1998 and 1999 are still being held in Serbian jails.

The daily stressed that the government changes in Yugoslavia and Serbia have not yet resulted in the passage of an amnesty law for those arrested in the framework of the Kosova conflict. According to a draft amnesty law, currently in preparation, ethnic Albanians accused of "terrorism" will be excluded from the amnesty. Most ethnic Albanians in Serbian jails face "terrorism" charges, however.

At the same time, the daily notes, three or four ethnic Albanians leave prisons every week, but "it was not the new President [Vojislav Kostunica] who ordered their release. They have continued a practice of buying their freedom for astronomic prices." The daily claims that most released prisoners had to bribe court and jail officials for their release "in just the same way as when Milosevic was in power."

The international community did not make the release of the prisoners a precondition for readmitting Yugoslavia to the UN or the OSCE (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 January 2001). With the end of the Kosova war, the Serbian police transferred 2,029 ethnic Albanian prisoners to Serbia proper. The police released 1,336 of them as of 28 December 2000. The fate of about 3,000 additional missing Kosovars remains a mystery. (Fabian Schmidt)

Banja Luka: The 'Heart Of Darkness' Revisited. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele recently revisited the city of Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnian Serb entity, in search of signs of change in the five years since Dayton. He found the city -- and the attitudes of its inhabitants -- much the same as in the immediate aftermath of the war. Here is his report.

In contrast to elsewhere in Bosnia -- particularly in the Muslim-Croat Federation, where much of the material damage from the 1992-95 fighting has been repaired -- the most visible change in Banja Luka is the reduced presence of the NATO-led peacekeeping force SFOR and the UN civilian police. A few pizzerias, cafes, gasoline stations, and a rebuilt hotel have opened up, but little else.

Banja Luka's sidewalks are still largely populated by suspicious-looking young men with little more to do than stand around with their hands in their pockets, eyeing passersby.

The town's open-air market is depressingly unchanged. Large numbers of peasants stand around hoping to sell their produce, smoked meats, eggs, cheeses, and homemade plum brandy in staggering quantities that far exceed the demand of the largely impoverished populace.

One of the liveliest places in the city is outside the town hall, where newlyweds emerge every few minutes to be met by Roma bands rushing up the stairs, greeting them with drums and fanfare.

Across the street, construction work on a new Serbian Orthodox church appears to have made minimal progress since our reporter's last visit four years ago.

Compared to other parts of Bosnia, there was relatively little destruction in Banja Luka during the war -- beyond the razing by Serb forces of all 17 of the city's mosques, including the three-century-old Ferhadija mosque. There has been no visible attempt to rebuild the mosques, and the Islamic community declined an RFE/RL request for an interview because its leaders say there is nothing new to report.

Outside of town, large four- and five-storey villas are being built, reportedly by local Serbs who got rich smuggling gasoline.

The remarks by local residents are identical to those of five years ago. The atmosphere of an illicit, post-war state -- rife with black-marketeering � Is all-pervasive. There are hardly any Muslim or Croat returnees to this ethnically cleansed city -- in contrast to some other politically hard-line areas of the Republika Srpska.

Even the graffiti remains defiantly nationalistic. "I am proud of myself because I am Serb," someone has emblazoned on a wall just off the main square. Anti-Croat graffiti are scrawled across a wall facing the modern Roman Catholic cathedral.

Father Karlo Visaticki, the spokesman for the diocese, says it is difficult to change anything as long as the government lacks sufficient moral standing. "Banja Luka was and remains a multi-ethnic city regardless of whether [minorities] were one percent of the [total population] in 1999, five percent in 1995 or ten percent in 1990."

Visaticki says there continues to be what he terms "a hostile atmosphere toward minorities, be it toward Muslims or Croat Catholics." He predicts this will prevent a mass return anytime soon. Visaticki puts it this way: "When I walk down the street in my cassock, I can see in the eyes of passersby that they want to kill me."

But Igor Gajic, the deputy editor-in-chief of "Reporter," a successful Banja Luka-based news weekly, dismisses Visaticki's remarks. Gajic asks rhetorically: "What does he expect here if he goes around dressed as a Catholic priest?" Nevertheless, Gajic concedes that the issues of Serb guilt and accountability are far from resolved. "No one is demanding that we love each other, but rather that normal life begins -- doing business, walking about, thinking, and speaking, nothing more."

Gajic blames the politicians for putting Bosnia's Serbs in the predicament they now find themselves in, being ostracized at home and abroad. "Perhaps some politicians began the war in the name of the Serbian nation. But the Serbian nation certainly never demanded of anyone that they establish concentration camps."

Miodrag Zivanovic is a Banja Luka philosophy professor who is an outspoken critic of the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, or SDS, founded by Radovan Karadzic. Once again, it won the largest share of the vote in legislative and presidential elections last month. "At the psychological level, people are still afraid because the SDS again is pushing its well-known thesis of the threat to one nation by a second, and threat to that by a third, and so on. In this way, they are trying to gain power by showing that their policy was productive and good. Of course this is not the way it is, but we really need some distance to be able to evaluate objectively...why people voted the way they did in the last elections."

Zivanovic says Bosnian Serb politics are in the process of what he terms a remake, but that little of substance has changed. The only noticeable difference, he says, is that SDS co-founders Karadzic, who is still at large, and Momcilo Krajisnik, who is awaiting trial at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, have been replaced by Mirko Sarovic, the president of the Republika Srpska, and Vice President Dragan Cavic.

Sarovic, in his inaugural speech on 16 December, pledged to crack down on corruption and to revive the entity's sinking economy.

The SDS and its allied parties say they have enough seats to form a majority government in the Bosnian Serb legislature. But the Clinton administration has warned that if Sarovic appoints SDS members to the new government, the U.S. will withdraw all aid to the Bosnian Serbs. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, recently broached the idea of banning the SDS but was rebuffed by the rest of the international community.

As Zivanovic puts it: "For someone to be guilty, and to be [held] accountable, he has to answer to someone else. Here the problem is that after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the power centers, the decision-making centers, the same people stayed on who ran the war. Consequently, among these [officials], there are a large number of people who committed war crimes. This tendency has not been broken and some of these people even today are to be found in power in Bosnia-Herzegovina and certainly in the Republika Srpska."

Zivanovic says that until new people who are not tainted by war crimes enter the government, there can be no serious attempt to bring officials to justice.

He points out that a large number of war criminals have not yet been brought to justice. He says until that happens, the people of Bosnia will not be able to build international trust or a normal state. But he rejects any suggestion of collective guilt. "Certainly, those who committed war crimes have names and do not constitute collective guilt... Individual people committed these crimes."

Zivanovic says only individual responsibility for specific acts committed in specific places can ensure that the nation as a whole is not held accountable. That is indeed the underlying principle of the international war crimes tribunal. (Jolyon Naegele) (This article was issued on 21 December)

Quotation Of The Week: "There is no danger of radiation unless a person finds himself on the very spot hit with the depleted uranium or holds such ammunition in his bare hands." -- Jovan Djukanovic, a Serbian government spokesman in Bujanovac. Quoted by AP on 7 January.