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Balkan Report: February 9, 2001

9 February 2001, Volume 5, Number 11

SERBIA'S PLAN FOR PRESEVO. The tense situation in southernmost Serbia's Presevo valley persists as ethnic Albanian insurgents and Serb security forces jockey for position (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 February 2001). But as RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, the Serbian government is offering a peace proposal that appears to have a chance of gaining Albanian support. Here is his account:

The Serbian peace proposal calls for integrating the Presevo valley's 70,000 ethnic Albanian residents into mainstream Serbian political and social life. It also offers civil rights guarantees and promises of economic development.

The plan does not envision autonomy for the area nor does it allow for the possibility of annexing the ethnically mixed area to nearby Kosova, as the insurgents would like. Instead, the plan, developed by Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, envisages decentralizing power to local authorities.

The Covic plan also calls for demilitarizing the Presevo valley, starting with the speedy, internationally supervised demilitarization of two ethnic Albanian villages that have been in insurgent hands since December: Veliki Trnovac and Lucane, both near Bujanovac.

The Bujanovac district, which is between 50 percent and 60 percent ethnic Albanian, and Presevo, which is nearly 90 percent ethnic Albanian, are of strategic importance because they are bisected by Yugoslavia's sole rail and highway link with Macedonia and Greece.

Covic concedes it is likely to be an uphill battle to win Albanian support for his plan, but he remains optimistic. "If you ask me now whether moderate Albanians would agree to participate in local government, I'd say I don't know. I hope so. If you ask me when the Albanians will speak in the republic and federal parliaments, I'd respond that I don't know. I hope soon. If you ask me whether in southern Serbia we have multi-cultural ties and relations, I'd say definitely, without a doubt. If you ask me if in southern Serbia there are any multi-ethnic ties, I'd say yes, but they are in the mafia and with criminal characters and [criminal] acts."

The Covic plan is aimed at putting an end to inter-ethnic fighting that has flared sporadically since the end of NATO's campaign for Kosova in June 1999 (see below). Ethnic Albanians say that Serbian forces entered the Presevo area after the loss of Kosova and began treating the local Albanians in a heavy-handed manner. It was allegedly in response to this development that the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (UCPMB) was formed. The guerrillas say that local Albanians feel unsafe without their own fighters nearby.

Serbian police call the UCPMB "terrorists" and say that 17 people were killed in attacks in the Presevo valley over the past year. In addition, 41 people were wounded. Police also say there have been 15 abductions over the past year and that five people, including an Albanian, are still missing.

These statistics do not include this year's casualties. The Yugoslav army earlier reported that one soldier died last month of wounds received the day before in a clash with the rebels near Bujanovac. But Serb police have not confirmed the insurgents' claims to have killed three policemen near Gornja Susaja on 19 January.

The ethnic Albanian mayor of Presevo, Riza Halimi, has welcomed the Covic plan. But in contrast to Covic and other Serbian leaders, Halimi says the insurgents must be included in any negotiations.

A group calling itself the Political Council for Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, which is believed to be functioning as the political representative of the insurgent movement, has also welcomed Covic's plan as a starting point for talks. Tahir Dalipi, a leading member of the council, spoke by telephone with RFE/RL's Kosova unit.

"This initiative represents an important change toward solving the problem here. But we have not yet seen the full proposal. [What we have seen] has some positive elements. But it is still far from being a good basis for negotiations for a good solution."

Dalipi nonetheless describes as "positive" Covic's pledge for a peaceful solution. In his words: "We believe this is not just a Serbian oral promise. They recognize that Albanians have not been treated as equal to Serbs."

Asked whether a full demilitarization of Serb forces and the insurgents in the Presevo valley is possible, Dalipi responds: "Everything is possible, but only so long as someone will guarantee the security of the Albanians living in this area. There must be international control because the sides in the conflict do not trust each other."

Covic presented the plan last week to EU representatives. And Serbia's new Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic presented the plan to Secretary of State Colin Powell on a visit to Washington. Djindjic later told reporters that Powell "supported our strategy to solve these problems by political means and not by violence."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. and its allies will carefully review the Covic plan. Boucher said the plan "provides a basis for starting a peaceful process to end the conflict."

But when Djindjic returned to Belgrade on 4 February, he declared that Belgrade has "had carte blanche for 10 days to fix this problem." He did not say who -- if anyone -- had given the Serbian government the green light. But he noted "the United States wants terrorism in southern Serbia to stop." He added that "as far as the situation in southern Serbia is concerned, I told the American administration that the terrorism has to stop, that there can be no bargaining or compromise with armed civilians who are destabilizing this region."

The U.S. commands a multinational NATO brigade in the region of southeastern Kosova that borders the Presevo valley. Most of the insurgents' weapons are believed to be smuggled into southern Serbia across the boundary with Kosova.

Meanwhile, Serbian forces and UCPMB insurgents exchanged fire in near Lucane late on 5 February. Each side said the other shot first, but no independent assessment on the ground is available. The federal minister for minorities, Rasim Ljajic -- himself an ethnic Muslim from Sandzak -- told RFE/RL from Bujanovac the following day: "This was the most severe attack since 21 November. It lasted more than one hour. It came from the direction of the village of Lucane, using recoilless cannons, hand-fired mortars, and heavy machine guns. Fortunately, no one was either killed or wounded. One house was burnt."

Speaking for the UCPMB, Tahir Dalipi charged that the Serbian authorities are seeking a "military solution" after local Albanians agreed among themselves on a common platform for talks with Belgrade, Reuters reported. "The Serbs were always ready to talk, thinking that the Albanians are not united. But now that we are united, they are trying to provoke a military solution," Dalipi added.

Fighting between Veliki Trnovac and Bujanovac on the evening of 4 February knocked out an electricity transformer, blacking out at least six villages in the area but causing no casualties.

Speaking to reporters in Bujanovac on 5 February, Ljajic accused the insurgents of trying to prevent the beginning of political talks for solving the crisis.

Trouble in the area began after Serb forces capitulated to NATO in June 1999 and withdrew from Kosova. Many of the withdrawing units forces re-deployed in the Presevo valley. The Kumanovo agreements that secured their withdrawal barred the Yugoslav army and heavy weaponry from a five-kilometer-wide zone along Serbia's boundary with Kosova. Lightly armed police, however, are allowed into the area.

Ethnic Albanian residents experienced repeated cases of harassment, mainly at road blocks on the edge of the zone, and so began fleeing the area. After the harassment worsened and Serb snipers shot and killed two Albanian brothers on a tractor in a field near the border village of Dobrosin in January of last year, some of the remaining male residents founded the UCPMB. The group initially functioned as a self-protection militia of a few dozen men, based Dobrosin.

But UCPMB commanders were soon saying that they hoped to draw NATO into a conflict with Yugoslavia in southern Serbia and expel Serbian forces from the three Albanian-inhabited districts. NATO and the United States repeatedly rejected that scenario. KFOR responded by a series of attempts to crack down on gun-running between Kosova and the UCPMB.

After the fall of Slobodan Milosevic last October, the insurgents stepped up their campaign in the apparent hope of taking advantage of political flux in Belgrade, and seized control of several ethnic Albanian communities beyond the five-kilometer-wide "ground security zone." Milosevic's successor, Vojislav Kostunica, responded in late November by deploying large numbers of police, special forces, and soldiers in the Presevo valley.

The "Guardian" reported on 2 February that the army continues to shell some ethnic Albanian villages inside the zone. But the insurgents still managed to push Serbian forces out of Lucane and Veliki Trnovac. The international community's insistence on a peaceful solution has so far staved off a violent crackdown. (Jolyon Naegele)

WHAT FUTURE FOR THE YUGOSLAV MILITARY? Dr. Slobodan Krapovic (b. 1948 in Cetinje) is the third civilian to serve as defense minister of the rump Yugoslavia that emerged in 1992. He told "Vreme" of 18 January that civilian control over the military is a principle that must remain in force.

A member of the Socialist People's Party of Montenegro, Krapovic argues that collective security is the order of the day in today's world, and that means Yugoslavia's joining NATO's Partnership for Peace as part of its moves toward European integration (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January 2001). This does not mean breaking with "old friends in the East" but rather expanding the number of friends overall. Krapovic points out that Romania and Greece have already offered to help his country join Partnership for Peace. He notes, furthermore, that Yugoslavia does not have an overall military concept, but that he intends to develop one.

Krapovic does not, however, see any need for a deep break with or examination of the past -- in other words, for the "catharsis" that Croatian President Stipe Mesic feels that Serbia needs before it can become a "normal" country. Krapovic stresses that what Serbia needs is a reorientation of its policies and a ground-up reform.

The thrust of his interview is that the Yugoslav army requires a complete overhaul: "rationalization, modernization, [and]...planned transformation." Krapovic hopes to have new legislation ready by June, including a provision for reducing the length of mandatory military service. He reminds those who are impatient to reform conscription legislation, however, that the issue of the length of service is part of a bigger picture of overall reform, and that he cannot introduce such changes piecemeal.

The changes will not come from behind closed doors, however. Krapovic stresses that he is open to input from outside, including "suggestions by citizens, specialized institutions, NGO's, and other organizations, including those representing young people." (Patrick Moore)

'MODERNITY' COMES TO THE CROATIAN RIGHT. The far-right Croatian Party of [Historic] Rights (HSP) knows that it is in danger of becoming marginalized -- or worse. According to "Jutarnji list" of 25 January, the party leadership under Ante Djapic attributes the source of the problem to a bad image in the voters' minds. Many Croats identify the HSP with the 1990-1995 war (or the 1941-1945 pro-Axis state) and see it as irrelevant to their present social and economic concerns, Djapic concludes.

In response, Djapic intends to polish up the HSP's image. Its traditionalist emblem will be replaced by a "wolf's head, along the lines of the American [sic.] model." Gone will be portraits of World War II-era leader Ante Pavelic and hitherto de rigeur black shirts at rallies.

More importantly, Djapic foresees a renaissance for the HSP by joining coalitions at the local level. He stresses that he does not automatically exclude any potential coalition partner on the left or right. It is not clear who he thinks will rush at the chance to link arms with the largest of a smattering of small far-right parties.

Lest he alienate the HSP's core electorate, Djapic stresses that the party is not deviating in the slightest from its long-standing views based on the political ideas of 19th-century leader Ante Starcevic. The party will also remain true to the ideals of its military wing -- HOS -- which fought throughout the war for independence and always sought to include Muslims in its ranks.

The locally-based strategy may pay off to the extent that the voters come to think of the other parties as incapable of solving the country's social and economic problems. But the HSP will have to show that it is more than a faction-ridden group of cranky war veterans and publicists if it intends to capitalize on any of that discontent. (Patrick Moore)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Our European allies and partners know NATO is at the heart of Europe's defenses. Therefore, to sustain our past success into the future we must first and foremost maintain NATO as the core of Europe's security structures. Actions that could reduce NATO's effectiveness by confusing duplication or by perturbing the trans-Atlantic link would not be positive. Indeed, they run the risk of injecting an instability into an enormously important alliance." -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Munich on 4 February. Reported by RFE/RL.

"No European nation would have agreed to participate in the development of European defense if it meant a weakening of the trans-Atlantic link." -- French Defense Minister Alain Richard, at the same conference.

"A rivalry is emerging between the partners on both sides of the Atlantic in view of political unity in the European Union, the effects of the Europeans' poor showing in Kosovo, and of frequent changes in American foreign policy. In plain words: there is no love lost between Americans and Europeans since they lost their unifying goal with the end of the Cold War...

"Both projects -- missile defense and European defense -- have one thing in common: They are destroying the old consensus in the alliance and giving rise to mistrust. Both feed both parties' separatist and isolationist tendencies, and both can be seen as the first shots in a power struggle. This is because underlying it all is nothing less than a recasting of roles in the alliance, a new balancing of influence between Americans and Europeans.

"If NATO fails to tackle the challenge, it could signal its demise. Veteran strategist Henry Kissinger was irritated that the topic of missile defense provoked the same response from the Europeans as a visit to the dentist's. Conversely, the same could be said of European defense. This time, however, root-canal treatment is definitely in the cards." -- Munich's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," 5 February.

"I think it's an unnecessarily over-politicized argument to say that because of Kosovo, Montenegro cannot gain international recognition. First we had a 6-member Yugoslavia, and a bad Kosovo situation. Then we had a 2-member Yugoslavia, and an even worse Kosovo problem. Therefore, Yugoslavia is not a required framework or a necessary precondition for the resolution of the problems of Kosovo." -- Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic. Quoted by RFE/RL in Washington on 5 February.

"The genie is out of the bottle. It is irrational to shut one's eyes to the totally changed situation in our region." -- Ibid.