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Balkan Report: February 13, 2001

13 February 2001, Volume 5, Number 12

PLUS CA CHANGE... The French have a famous saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That proverb seems to be relevant to today's Serbia.

Crowds swept Slobodan Milosevic and his entourage from power early last October amid vocal calls for change. Most of Milosevic's entourage is now gone from power, while the new group is settling in and making promises and plans for reform (including a "reform" of the previous privatization process). The new leaders themselves have outlined their priorities for democratization and transparency, and it will not be too difficult to gauge their progress over the coming months according to their own benchmarks.

But not everybody is waiting for concrete proof that Serbia has truly turned a page and not simply replaced Milosevic with Not-Milosevic (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 1 December 2000). EU Commission President Romano Prodi said in Belgrade in January that he has "full confidence" in Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and that EU aid to his government has "no conditions" attached. That includes even conditions about cooperating with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal.

Indeed, there has been a steady stream of admiring West European visitors to Belgrade, as well as of invitations to Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic to come to Western European capitals and gatherings. But for Montenegro -- which long ago signaled its willingness to cooperate with The Hague as well as to normalize relations with Albania, Bosnia, and Croatia -- the EU has only warnings that the small republic had best behave itself. It seems that Brussels has an overwhelming aversion to the appearance of new states as a point of policy in itself. It also appears that the EU does not accept the possibility that old Yugoslavia simply continues to unravel (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 November 2000 and 19 January 2001, and "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2001). And what holds true of Brussels' policy toward Montenegro certainly applies to its views on Kosova.

But the much-courted Belgrade government has, in many ways, behaved a bit like its predecessor in at least three important areas: cooperation with The Hague; policy toward Montenegro, Kosova, and the internal Albanian minority; and coming to grips with the nationalist political culture and outlook that fueled and sustained the rise of Milosevic, and eventually led to four lost wars (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 February 2001).

In this respect, two recent developments are worth noting. First, a British journalist and the ethnic Albanian mayor of Presevo have both suggested that Serbian forces are behaving in some ways in Presevo as they did in Kosova in the past. (In Kosova Belgrade referred and in Presevo it refers to "separatists and terrorists.") The journalist wrote of the shelling of villages, while the mayor spoke of using ethnic Albanian civilians as human shields (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 February 2001, and "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2001). It might be recalled that the head of the Yugoslav General Staff is General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who was Milosevic's commander in Kosova.

The second recent point is the establishment of customs posts along the borders between Serbia and Montenegro and between Serbia and Kosova. The Belgrade authorities cited the need to "block illegal traffic in goods." The Milosevic regime also set up customs checks on the border with Montenegro, which the Montenegrin authorities regarded as a form of economic blockade against their republic. But as dpa pointed out, officials from the EU, its Balkan Stability Pact, and the European Parliament said in Belgrade in recent days that they support Yugoslavia's efforts to control its borders and thwart crime. (Patrick Moore)

WASHINGTON CONFERENCE ON MONTENEGRO. Secretary of State Colin Powell did not receive Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic after the recent prayer breakfast in Washington but met instead with the newly-appointed Serbian Prime Minister Djindjic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 5 February 2001). This decision created the impression among many that the U.S. administration opposes Montenegro's case for independence from Serbia. However, Powell's refusal to see Djukanovic only seemed to raise his profile among some congressmen, Balkan experts, and journalists. As a result, major news organizations such as "The New York Times," the "Washington Post", National Public Radio, and CNN carried stories about Montenegro.

In the 3 February issue of the "Washington Post," Ambassador Morton Abramowitz sharply criticized the Bush administration for treating some of America's friends poorly. He stressed that Djukanovic has tried to run a democratic state, saved a lot of Albanian lives during the war over Kosova, treated his republic's various ethnic groups in an inclusive manner, and stayed out of Milosevic's grip.

At a press conference in Washington, Djukanovic said that support for independence among Montenegro's citizens has grown to between 55 and 60 percent during the last decade. Podgorica's initiative to redefine its relationship with Belgrade and transform the Yugoslav federation into a union of two independent states met with a mixed response in Washington. Djukanovic claimed that representatives of Congress and the non-governmental sector expressed a positive attitude by recognizing the right to self-determination as essential. At the same time, the State Department held to its more reserved position, similar to that of the previous administration.

Relations between the Clinton administration and Podgorica became distant when Montenegro's ruling coalition decided to boycott the Yugoslav federal elections in September last year. The boycott was provoked by Milosevic's changes in the federal constitution, which deprived Montenegro of any vestige of equal status with Serbia. Although the elections led to Milosevic's departure from political power, Podgorica refused to be a part of a federation created under his law and launched preparations to hold a referendum on independence. The U.S. administration, concerned that such a move could undermine the new leadership in Belgrade, reacted quite negatively.

The Bush administration took a stand in support of a "democratic Montenegro in a democratic Yugoslavia." This position became a major point of disagreement during a conference on the future of Montenegro organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week. Many political experts present there stressed that Serbia's road to democracy will be long and painful, which will delay significantly the building of any democratic Yugoslavia.

At the CSIS conference, Djukanovic stressed that by rejecting Podgorica's proposal for redefining the federation, Belgrade showed an inability to break with the "Yugoslav illusion" and accept that the old model is dead. The new Yugoslav and Serbian governments continue to cooperate with still-powerful nationalistic circles, which regard Montenegro as a part of Serbia. He also asserted that the tragic idea of a Greater Serbia will be finally buried only when Montenegro and Serbia become two internationally recognized states. Dusan Janjic, the director of the Forum of Ethnic Relations in Serbia, supported Djukanovic's view that the so-called "Yugoslavists" are in reality nationalists who are seeking to block reforms in Serbia.

Participants at the conference from Yugoslavia pointed out that Serbia has not even started the necessary process of "national catharsis" after four lost nationalistic wars. Instead, the new leadership tries to avoid by all means extraditing Milosevic to The Hague. The U.S. Congress conditioned its assistance to Serbia on the country's willingness to cooperate with the International War Crimes Tribunal. However, Djindjic suggested after his return from Washington that Colin Powell might be sympathetic to arguments that Milosevic be tried in Serbia.

While the evasive game between Serbia and the international community continues, Montenegro fully cooperates with The Hague, builds a multiethnic society, and tackles crime and corruption. Professor Steven Hanke -- from John Hopkins University and an advisor to Djukanovic -- noted the significant progress Montenegro has made in financial stabilization, privatization, and market reforms. He said that since Serbia had done nothing in terms of economic transformation, Montenegro might have to halt its market reforms and wait for Serbia to catch up if the republic remains in the Yugoslav federation.

Professor Hanke also countered the argument that as a small state Montenegro is not economically viable. He argued that the nature of government policy and the rule of law are more important for economic success than a country's size. Montenegro's Foreign Minister Branko Lukovac stated that the dependent status of his country presents an obstacle to regional cooperation. For example, Podgorica cannot join the Adriatic cooperation initiative for fighting crime and corruption because of its non-independent status.

Srdjan Darmanovic, the director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights, which conducts and analyzes public opinion polls in Montenegro, stressed that the pro-independence bloc looks set to win the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for April. In turn, their victory is likely to increase the vote for independence in the subsequent June referendum.

Montenegro's statehood will not be a threat to regional stability and will not have the domino-like effect on Kosova that some fear, John Fox from the Open Society Institute in Washington argued. On the contrary, not allowing Montenegro to achieve independence would lead to a radicalization of Kosova's society, Fox suggested. The dismissal of Montenegro's right to independence could send a signal to Kosova that Serbia's administration is chauvinistic and the international community is unjust.

The fate of Montenegro should matter to the United States, because it provides an immediate and practical test of how the new administration will shape the American role in the Balkans, said James Hooper from the Public International Law and Policy Group. Unfortunately, both the United States and the Europeans are allowing Belgrade to define the Western agenda in the Balkans, he argued. Hooper also said that the EU completely ignores the criteria it established in 1991 for the recognition of new states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. EU representatives were reticent in answering these charges and restrained in making their position on Montenegro clear.

According to Robert Hand, who is a staffer with the U.S. Congress Helsinki Commission, the legislature remains neutral on the question of Montenegrin independence. However, there is a measure of sympathy for Podgorica's position and gratitude for its opposition to Belgrade over the past three years. The will of the Montenegrin people in the upcoming ballots will be respected. Conference participants concurred that Montenegro looks set to move toward independence regardless of the current EU or U.S. position. The key question is to preserve security and stability during this process.

At a keynote address at the CSIS conference on the broader question of trans-Atlantic security, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stressed that Europe still lacks capabilities to defend its own security, and that therefore American involvement in the Balkans is essential to prevent new tensions from rising and old tensions from reappearing. (Margarita Assenova, who is a consultant with the Center for Strategic and International Studies)

HAS ALBANIA'S DRUG MAFIA INSTALLED THE PROSECUTORS' IT SYSTEM? Sokol Kociu, who is a suspended senior police officer from Tirana, told "Shekulli" of 7 February that the brother of a drug smuggler installed the main computer network for Albania's criminal investigators.

Police suspended Kociu from duty after colleagues found him travelling on 2 February in the same car as Arben Berballa, a suspect who has been charged with large-scale drug trafficking by Italian investigators and who was arrested on the spot.

Kociu claims that he did not know of the charges against Berballa, and that he attended a birthday party together with him on the evening that police arrested Berballa. Kociu was not involved in the investigations against his friend, whom he had known for 17 years.

But according to Kociu, Berballa's brother Astrit won a tender some years ago for installing a $1.5 million computer network at the Prosecutor-General's office. The system now contains all the investigative files belonging to the Prosecutor-General's office and it also links the investigators to other western police authorities. Astrit Berballa left Albania for Canada several months ago.

According to "Shekulli," the case is threatening to compromise the credibility of Albania's investigators and will force the authorities to overhaul the computer system against possible unauthorized access. They will also have to find out whether organized criminals had access to sensitive data in the past. (Fabian Schmidt)

ALBANIAN COURT SENTENCES GOLD THIEVES. A Tirana court sentenced three villagers and two police officers to long prison sentences on 6 February over the theft of gold from the state treasury in March and April 1997, "Shekulli" reported. The court found the peasants Ahmet Hyka, Enver Hyka, and Pellumb Dalti guilty of breaking into a tunnel near Krrabe, into which the authorities had placed the gold for safekeeping during the unrest that swept the country early that year (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 February 2001). The court sentenced police officers Arjan Bishqemi and Blerim Haka for violation of duty.

The court put most of the blame on Bishqemi, who was in charge of evacuating the gold from the capital, but only gave him a 20-month sentence out of consideration for his poor health. Bishqemi was also found guilty of failing to maintain regular documentation about the evacuation of the gold. His colleague Haka received three years in prison. The court did take into account the difficult situation in which the police officers found themselves during the period of unrest and anarchy in March 1997. The prosecutors had demanded a seven-year sentence for Bishqemi.

The villagers -- who had broken into the tunnel through a back door and a secret room -- received between three and a half and eight years in prison. They used most of the money to buy real estate. (Fabian Schmidt)

ALBANIA'S NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN. Genc Pollo, who is the secretary of Albania's New Democratic Party (PD e Re), has launched a discussion regarding controversial election legislation (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 February 2001).

Pollo suggested changes to the current election legislation to OSCE Chief of Mission Gert Ahrens on 6 February, "Shekulli" reported. Pollo told Ahrens that "the current law discriminates against opposition parliamentary parties being [sufficiently] represented in electoral commissions." He proposed to introduce mixed verification commissions for voters' lists that also include opposition representatives.

The head of the PD e Re's parliamentary group, Nard Ndoka, had a meeting the same day with his counterpart from the Socialist Party, Arben Malaj, and called on all parties to find a compromise on the drawing of electoral district boundaries.

The newly founded PD e Re includes reform-oriented former members of the Democratic Party (PD) and some other smaller right-wing parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2001). The PD, however, has threatened to boycott the elections unless the coalition changes the composition of the Central Election Commission (KQZ) in favor of opposition representatives. The PD also demands corrections to voters' lists and changes in the electoral district boundaries.

Some Socialist legislators have called on KQZ members to resign in order to be able to break the deadlock, but not all have done so. The PS majority in parliament has voted against a new government-backed law on changes to the electoral boundaries in order to keep the way open for a compromise with the opposition.

But PS leader Fatos Nano made clear the same day that the problems will be addressed "through the institutions." "Shekulli's" commentator Arban Hasani suggested that Nano's statement marks "a step back" in that it appears to rule out roundtable talks outside the legislature. (Fabian Schmidt)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. Moscow "is not going to push anybody out" of the Balkan region, as, in Moscow's opinion, the Balkans "should not be a battlefield for spheres of influence." -- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Quoted by Interfax in Moscow on 7 February.

"Former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana's visit to Yugoslavia is an utterly shameless act," Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said in a statement on Wednesday. "All people's patriotic groups in Russia wholeheartedly support the protest staged by Yugoslav patriots against Solana's visit," the statement says.--Interfax report from Moscow on 7 February.