Accessibility links

Breaking News

Balkan Report: February 15, 2001

15 February 2001, Volume 5, Number 13

WHAT'S IN A NAME? SOME BACKGROUND ON PRESEVO. For more than a year, ethnic Albanian insurgents have been fighting with Serbian police units in southernmost Serbia. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that the trouble spot commonly called the "Presevo Valley" actually goes by a variety of names. Here is his report:

Journalists commonly refer to the site of recent Serb-ethnic Albanian tension in southernmost Serbia as the "Presevo Valley," but this, in fact, is inaccurate shorthand.

The Presevo Valley is actually the valleys of the Moravica and Binacka Morava rivers, which merge at Bujanovac to form the northward flowing Juzna Morava.

Serbian authorities often refer to the area as "Southern Serbia." While this is geographically accurate, it unfortunately recalls a term used between the two world wars to refer to Macedonia, during a time that Belgrade denied the existence of a Macedonian nation. A very few liberal Belgrade publications refer to the Presevo Valley area by its older name "Moravsko Kosovo."

Ethnic Albanians generally refer to the area as "Eastern Kosova," since it was part of Kosova proper until an administrative reform carried out after World War II. At the time, Belgrade authorities sought to reduce the Albanian share of Kosova's population by detaching the region and annexing it to Serbia. In exchange, the overwhelmingly ethnically Serb municipalities of Leposaviq and Zubin Potok became part of Kosova.

Regardless of its name, this fertile series of valleys just north of Serbia's border with Macedonia is of key strategic importance. It is bisected by the sole rail and highway route linking Serbia and Central and Western Europe with Macedonia and Greece.

The town of Presevo, at the southern end of the region, is 90 percent Albanian and has an Albanian mayor. The town has retained the character and atmosphere of a traditional Balkan market settlement and appears to have escaped significant recent investment from Belgrade.

Presevo Mayor Riza Halimi says ethnic Albanians in the area want "a certain level" of autonomy for the region to protect their rights.

Bujanovac, a significant town to the north, looks not unlike other Serbian towns its size. Bujanovac's modern square and new office buildings and apartments reveal some of the showy investment in civic works projects that took place under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Ethnic Albanians make up 50 to 60 percent of the population in Bujanovac. But the municipal council has barred Albanians from holding more than one-third of the seats. The head of the town council is a member of the Party of the Yugoslav Left (JUL) of Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic. The visible presence of thousands of police, Interior Ministry special forces, and soldiers -- and the absence of many civilian residents who have fled -- give this town a tense appearance.

Two large villages near Bujanovac -- Lucane, six kilometers to the west, and Veliki Trnovac, four kilometers to the northwest -- are now in the hands of the ethnic Albanian insurgents. Neither appears to be poor or rundown. Both have undergone a recent building boom -- just as in Kosova -- fueled largely by remittances from residents working abroad, mainly in Switzerland and Germany.

In late November, Serbian Interior Ministry special forces known as the "Red Berets" surrounded Veliki Trnovac, home to some 10,000 ethnic Albanians. The berets barred residents from shopping in Bujanovac and threatened to kill them. The special forces withdrew in December, but fire-fights continue between the insurgents in and around Veliki Trnovac and the police and army in Bujanovac.

There have been virtually no reports of unrest in a third area, Medvedja, which Albanian insurgents seek to annex to Kosova. The area is 60 kilometers north of Bujanovac, beyond the sparsely populated 1,100 meter-high Goljak range. Albanians make up about one-third of Medvedja's population. (Jolyon Naegele)

OUTLINE EMERGES OF SERBIAN PLAN FOR PRESEVO. Differing versions of Serbia's peace plan for the Presevo Valley have been circulating in recent days (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 and 9 February 2001). The plan has been widely dubbed the "Covic plan," after Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, who is the government's point man for the region.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica helped to clear up some of the confusion in a press conference on 13 February in Belgrade and a letter to the editors of "Politika," which published what they said was a version of the plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 February 2001).

Kostunica said the final version calls on the international community not to mediate in peace talks between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, but only to support the overall peace process. The international community should help the ethnic Albanian side choose a negotiating team that will represent what he said were the best interests of Albanians and Serbs: "The international community is here to help, especially the Albanian national community in southern Serbia, to help prepare the negotiators who represent in the best way the interests -- in fact -- the future coexistence of Serbs and Albanians and not the interests of terrorists or the spread of terrorism and violence in the south of Serbia."

He said the international community would also be allowed to verify progress in establishing peace in the five-kilometer-wide ground safety zone in the Presevo Valley along Serbia's boundary with Kosova.

Kostunica, in his letter to the editors of "Politika," said he expects the international community to be actively involved in the economic development of the Presevo Valley, which he describes as "extremely poor."

United Nations Security Council members on 13 February expressed support for the Covic plan, saying it deserves serious consideration. And they praised the restraint shown by Yugoslav leaders in dealing with the tensions in the Presevo Valley. U.S. envoy to the UN Howard Stoffer said:

"We applaud the Yugoslav government's restraint and its assurances that it will continue to respect the military-technical agreement. The council has expressed itself very clearly in this regard. There is no acceptable military solution to the problems in the Presevo Valley."

But Yugoslavia representative Vladislav Mladenovic warned the Security Council that time is running out for a peaceful solution: "The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Serbia cannot exercise indefinite patience since keeping the situation as it is or the status quo is totally unacceptable."

Covic's "Plan for Resolving the Crisis in Southern Serbia" emphasizes integrating the region's 70,000 Albanians into Serbia's state and social system, and respecting their human rights in keeping with European standards.

Some of the specifics of the plan include:

Harmonizing the ethnic make-up of those employed in state services, business, and social activities with the ethnic make-up of the population. In other words, the plan calls for integrating Serbs and ethnic Albanians instead of separating them.

Albanians would be guaranteed an "appropriate level of representation" in municipal councils and assemblies, as well as Serbia's government and parliament.

Police operations would be ethnically mixed. Patrols would have "one Serb and one Albanian."

The plan also said the insurgents, whom it refers to as "Albanian terrorists," must be told their acts will not receive international support.

But insurgents told RFE/RL's Kosova broadcasting unit this week there can be no discussion as long as the Serbian side refers to them as "terrorists." The insurgents are far from united over how to respond to the plan. However, some ethnic Albanian leaders, in consultation with insurgents, are preparing their own plan, which they expect to have ready on 19 February.

Presevo Mayor Riza Halimi said on 14 February that ethnic Albanians in the region want "a certain level" of autonomy to protect their rights. He told reporters the nine-member Albanian negotiating team will insist on the full demilitarization of the area and will demand a halt to all hostilities in the municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac. The Albanians also insist on international mediation, as they did during the Kosova crisis.

But Halimi said the Albanian negotiators will not demand a change to any borders -- an apparent concession as some insurgents have called for annexing the area with Kosova.

The Covic plan stipulates that Serbia and Yugoslavia reject as "unacceptable" any kind of autonomy, special status, or change in the borders of Serbia and Yugoslavia.

Belgrade also called for a peaceful and diplomatic solution through direct negotiations between Serbia and Yugoslavia on the one side -- including a representative each of Presevo Valley Serbs, Kosovar Serbs, and the Serbian Orthodox Church -- and a negotiating team of "the Albanian national community" on the other side, with the inclusion of a representative of the Islamic community.

The plan warned that if efforts at a peaceful settlement fail and all other means are exhausted, Serbia and Yugoslavia will be forced to protect their constitutional order by "counterterrorist operations," as the only means left for settling the crisis, provided there is international support for such operations.

The Covic plan said that for police to be able to protect citizens, the five kilometer-wide ground safety zone must be narrowed or phased out and that KFOR should allow what the plan calls "appropriate police and army units" into the zone. (Kostunica has also suggested possible joint KFOR-Serbian patrols, which would operate in Kosova as well. See "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2001.)

The Covic plan also calls for the demilitarization of two large villages outside of the zone but currently in the hands of the insurgents: Lucane and Veliki Trnovac, both near Bujanovac. Under this plan, the insurgents and the Serbian special police units now in the area would have to leave and local police patrols would enter the two villages. The army would withdraw its tanks and heavy artillery from the Veliki Trnovac-Lucane line and from the area around Bujanovac and Presevo. This would then serve as a model for demilitarizing the rest of the region.

The Covic plan also calls for economic development, particularly in agriculture and timber processing, as well as the repair of 527 Serbian homes to accommodate 2,300 displaced Serbs from Kosova. In addition, it provides for the repair of all Albanian houses to accommodate displaced Albanians who wish to return to the area.

Against this overall background, the plan envisions peace unfolding in three phases. The first would be KFOR's reduction or abolition of the five-kilometer buffer zone. The second phase calls for a complete and permanent halt to "terrorist acts," the disarming of the insurgents, and the destruction of fortified installations.

It also foresees the withdrawal of military and police forces, while regular, mixed local police and regular military formations would remain. Insurgents would be amnestied and "reintegrated" into civilian life.

A third phase is intended to promote the "prosperous development of a multiethnic and multifaith community on democratic principles." This includes the complete integration of Albanians into the socio-political system and the withdrawal of special military and police forces from the region. Displaced persons would be returned to their restored homes.

The plan envisages demilitarization beginning immediately after the agreement is signed, with complete implementation achieved in four months. (Jolyon Naegele)

NATO'S FIRST REACTIONS TO COVIC'S PRESEVO PLAN... Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic arrived at NATO headquarters in Brussels on 15 February with details of the plan to remove the sources of tensions in the Presevo Valley (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 and 9 February 2001).

Reuters reported that the two officials are "expected to press the alliance to let Serbian security forces begin counterinsurgency operations against the rebels, who number several hundred and operate with relative impunity in a buffer zone where Serbian forces are not allowed to pursue them" under the 1999 Kumanovo agreements that ended the Kosova conflict. Some observers suggest that Belgrade is using the Presevo conflict as a first step toward undoing the Kumanovo agreements and gradually re-establishing its position in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2001).

Secretary-General George Robertson told his visitors that NATO is prepared to consider changes regarding the demilitarized zone. He added that Belgrade should not issue any ultimatums to ethnic Albanian fighters and not seek to end the tensions through violence or "so-called anti-terrorist operations." He praised the Covic plan and called on Belgrade to remove the army's Prishtina Corps from the region in order to help build confidence with the Albanians.

Robertson made it clear, however, that patience is required. "The Belgrade proposals are complex and they will require a great deal of study. Nobody should underestimate the difficulties involved, and we must be realistic about how long it will take to reach a solution. The problems caused over 40 years cannot be solved in four months."

Covic replied that Belgrade will work with "moderation, patience, and no ultimatums, but quickly enough because we don't have time" lest Presevo lead to a wider conflict. (Patrick Moore)

...AND BROADER CONSIDERATIONS. NATO's acting spokesman, Mark Laity, spoke with the RFE/RL South Slavic Service's Branka Trivic shortly before the two Serbian leaders' visit to Brussels on 15 February. Correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports.

NATO spokesman Mark Laity told RFE/RL that as of the time of the interview, the alliance had not yet seen Covic's plan in full. In any event, NATO does not intend to respond in detail immediately. Laity says NATO generally welcomes what it knows of the plan but wants to look at it very carefully. "Yes, we do welcome the tenor and the tone of the Covic plan. It contains a lot of the kind of elements we've been looking for: confidence-building measures, a desire to involve all ethnic groups in local government, and so on; an emphasis on a peaceful solution to a difficult problem."

Laity points out that some -- but not all -- of the Albanian insurgents have rejected the Serbian plan, in large part because they want the disputed area to be re-annexed to Kosova, from which it was separated during an administrative reform after the end of World War II.

Serbian leaders say they will not negotiate with what they call terrorists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2001). Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said on 13 February that the failed peace talks two years ago at "Rambouillet and [Kosovar Albanian insurgent leader Hashim] Thaci taught us that promoting terrorists into diplomats and politicians can come back as a boomerang and hit you on the head." Kostunica added: "We are not talking to terrorists. [They] might blackmail their own people, [but] they are not the true representatives of the Albanians."

Spokesman Laity says "NATO does not support extremist elements," adding that the alliance is looking for an end to the violence in the Presevo Valley. As he puts it, "the only way you're going to get an end to violence is when people talk -- and Mr. Covic's plan is very clearly worth talking about." Laity added that "the Covic plan is very clearly a good basis for discussion, and we note that there has been an array of reactions to it. Some people -- Albanian groups -- have rejected it outright. Others, who have been involved in conflict with the Serbian authorities, have actually given it a welcome. So I think that we shouldn't just look at the small groups who said 'no.'"

But Laity says that NATO has no mandate to do anything in the Presevo Valley. So far the international community's activity in the area has been limited to deploying European Union monitors. "Remember that our job is safeguarding the security of Kosovo, not southern Serbia. The international community...may well consider that it has a role here. If it does...then that's fine. But NATO is just one small part of the international community."

Laity says the insurgents are neither united nor do they always coordinate their operations. He says some larger groups are associated with political parties, while other groups are much smaller and splintered. He says although it is evident that these groups are interlinked, their actions suggest that they do not constitute what he calls "one monolithic whole."

He concluded that: "I think that to expect them to speak with one voice would go against the experience of most people who've seen anything going on in that area. And often some of the loyalties are intensely local to families, to particular villages, and so on. So there's an array of groups who seem to be operating in that area, and so the fact that there seem to be different responses coming out as regards the Covic plan is not surprising."

Laity says KFOR is aware that the insurgents are receiving considerable backing from supporters in Kosova. He says KFOR has increased efforts to minimize the flow of arms from that province to the Presevo Valley. As a result, he says "there is now a very large number of people in jail, in detention in Camp Bondsteel," the headquarters of the U.S.-led Multi-National Brigade South.

As for the demilitarized zone, Laity said that "the ground safety zone was indeed set up to act as some kind of buffer zone if we faced some kind of hostile action from the Serbs. Clearly, the likelihood of that happening has declined very much. But, equally, these actions have all happened fairly recently and one thing we have to be careful of is not to have precipitate actions."

Nevertheless, Laity notes the ground safety zone is one of the issues NATO is reviewing all the time. As he puts it, "if changes are needed, they'll come in their own good time." He says NATO does not expect Covic to come armed with an ultimatum, but rather with information. (Jolyon Naegele)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The best alliance that we have at the moment here in Kosovo is between extremists of all factions." -- The NATO commander, General Carlo Cabigiosu, quoted by Reuters in Prishtina on 14 February.