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Balkan Report: September 18, 2007

Kosovo: Serbia Sends Mixed Messages On Possible Use Of Force

Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic has ruled out the use of force, but is his the last word? (file photo)

September 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In recent days, Serbian officials have offered mixed messages about how Serbia would react if Kosovo declared independence.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told London's "Financial Times" that Serbia would not threaten military action, although he said a declaration of independence by Kosovo would open a "Pandora's box" in the region.

Jeremic said that Serbia would not "contribute to the destabilization of the province by physical, military, or security means."

But in comments published the same day in the "International Herald Tribune," Serbia's state secretary for Kosovo, Dusan Prorokovic, said that Serbia is ready to use force -- and would also consider closing the borders and a trade embargo.

Avni Arifi, an adviser to Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku, said such comments were just rhetoric.

"The Kosovar government does not take such statements seriously, but then again, such a statement proves a lot of things," he said. "First of all, it proves that in Serbia, unfortunately, there have been no democratic changes since the era of the previous regime. The changes are fewer than originally thought. It is simply the rhetoric of a regime that has caused so much suffering and violence in the region. At the same time, it proves that the platform, or the basis upon which Serbia's government intends to build the future of the Balkans and security in the region."

And Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovic said that Prorokovic's comments did not reflect the government's position.

"I cannot understand politicians who are ready to send troops at any time and I believe that the time when we using other people's kids to [fight] wars is long gone. I don't think that Mr. Prorokovic is representing the Serbian government with his statements," Sutanovic said.

"I believe that it may be his party's policy and that it is not a statement based on government policy. On the other hand, it is hard to predict what will be our political response in case of the unilateral recognition of Kosovo, but I do not expect that Serbia on its own is likely to consider any military solution."

RFE/RL Balkan analyst Patrick Moore says the disconnect could be due to differing factions within the Serbian government.

Negotiations Continue

The next round of talks between Kosovar and Serbian leaders, overseen by Russia, the EU, and the United States, is expected to begin on September 18.

The UN has imposed a deadline of December 10 for the completion of the talks.

Moore says that the recent comments by Serbian officials are likely just bluster.

"I see a lot of this as part of a very elaborate bargaining exercise," he says. "Serbia's writ has not run in Kosovo since 1999. Most of their politicians know, quite frankly, that they've lost it [Kosovo] -- that it's not theirs to lose anymore, in fact. So what we're seeing is a huge theater being played out."

Many observers and officials involved in the talks have said an agreement is unlikely. Earlier this year, a plan authored by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari proposed "internationally supervised independence" for Kosovo.

But Russian opposition to that plan prompted a fresh round of negotiations.

Empty Threats?

Some Western leaders have expressed fears that a declaration of independence -- or the threat of Serbian force -- could lead to fresh bloodshed in the region.

Around 17,000 NATO troops are currently based in Kosovo. NATO troops forced the Serbian military to withdraw from Kosovo in 1999 after a 78-day bombing campaign. Since then, the UN has administered the province, which has a majority ethnic-Albanian population.

Analyst Moore believes the Serbs are unlikely to use force.

"They would be stark raving mad if they tried it and I think that they know this," he says. "There are NATO troops there that are armed to the hilt, some of the best fighting forces in the world, and they were able to put paid to [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's troops in 1999 and they could certainly make short work of this present military."

Serbia is no doubt aware of such a possibility. But with the pressure likely to increase in the run-up to the December deadline, more bellicose rhetoric from both sides is to be expected.

EU Ministers Vow To Forge Unity On Kosovo

EU envoy for Kosovo Wolfgang Ischinger

September 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers have pledged to maintain a common position on the future of the UN-administered Serbian province of Kosovo. At talks in Portugal, the ministers said unity on Kosovo is "key to the credibility of EU's foreign policy."

Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, the host of the meeting, said the European Union must seize the initiative on a key problem in its own backyard.

"I cannot conceive that we can, at the end of this process, have a situation where you have a strong position of Russia, a strong position of the United States and the European Union simply doesn't exist," Amado told a a news conference in Viana do Castelo, northern Portugal.

The ministers heard a report from Wolfgang Ischinger, the EU representative who is working with officials from the United States and Russia to resolve the Kosovo issue.

The United States has warned that it would unilaterally recognize Kosovo's independence in case the region's leaders decide to proclaim it, while Russia has firmly backed Serbia's opposition to Kosovo's independence.

EU: Different Interests, Different Opinions

"Slovakia and Romania are concerned that this [Ahtisaari plan] sets a precedent for some of their ethnic Hungarians. Spain has similar concerns regarding the Basques or Catalans." -- Patrick Moore

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner underlined that Kosovo is "a European problem, not an American problem, not a Russian problem" but he acknowledged that EU unity was not yet assured.

"For some of the countries involved, there are some very different interests on the table," says RFE/RL Balkan analyst Patrick Moore. "For example, you have a tendency in some countries, such as Britain, and in some elements of the German government, to agree with the United States that the plan of [UN mediator] Martti Ahtisaari has to be moved forward, and that means conditional, supervised independence."

Kosovo officially remains a Serbian province, but since a NATO bombing campaign drove Serb forces from the region in 1999 it has remained under UN administration. Ahtisaari's attempts to get Serbia and Kosovo Albanians to agree on a supervised independence have failed.

The government of Kosovo, where the vast majority of the population are ethnic Albanians, has stated it will declare independence if negotiations fail. Those negotiations are due to end on December 10. Serbia has repeatedly said it would not accept an independent Kosovo and Belgrade is supported in this view by UN Security Council member Russia.

EU envoy Ischinger has said the Ahtisaari plan to set Kosovo on the road to independence with security guarantees for the provinces minority Serbs remained on the table.

Hidden Fears Prevent Common Stance

RFE/RL's Moore said Serbia has support from some EU countries who fear Kosovo's independence would set a precedent for ethnic minorities in their own countries.

"Slovakia and Romania are concerned that this [Ahtisaari plan] sets a precedent for some of their ethnic Hungarians," Moore explains. "Spain has similar concerns regarding the Basques or Catalans. And then you have a blackmail factor in that Hungary is concerned about the fate of the large Hungarian minority in Serbia, and Romania traditionally has very good relations with Serbia. Serbia also has traditional allies in Greece and among the Greeks of Cyprus. So it won't be too easy to form a consensus."

Officials from Serbia and Kosovo are scheduled to meet again on September 28, but international mediators have already been meeting with both sides and report little or no progress in the discussions.

Hasty Compromise Harmful

In the meantime, it was unclear and even doubtful that EU ministers meeting in Portugal would reach any solution to the Kosovo problem that would be acceptable to all parties involved.

RFE/RL's Moore said that could lead to some sort of hastily arranged compromise, but he noted that could be the worst solution of all. "There is a tendency in the EU culture to go for fudges or to allow drift to take place, and as a result, nothing really gets done. A number of key figures on the international stage have warned precisely against drift. Ahtisaari himself said recently that doing nothing is not an option. Unless the political situation is clarified, there is going to be continuing instability, and that's what the whole Ahtisaari plan is aimed at preventing," Moore concluded.

The EU ministers today did agree to resume direct financial aid to the Palestinian government of President Mahmud Abbas, but did not even include the topic of Iran's nuclear development program due to the large number of issues already on the agenda for this weekend's meeting.

Kosovo: Trouble At The Border

By Gezim Baxhaku and Radovan Borovic

Many ethnic Albanians are exchanging their UNMIK passports for Serbian travel documents

PRISTINA, September 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Getting across the border from Kosovo into Serbia isn't easy these days.

It's something that Fluta, a bank clerk from Kosovo, knows only too well.

"Some of my friends wanted to go to Serbia, as they needed some medical treatment, [but] they couldn't go there as the only documents they had were the UNMIK documents," Fluta says.

In recent months, there has been a rise in the number of Kosovar Albanians applying for Serbian travel documents.

But authorities in Serbia do not recognize travel documents, identity cards, and other personal documents currently issued by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

"UNMIK has no right to introduce any kind of travel document."

"It is a well-known fact that Serbia does not recognize UNMIK documents, which they do not consider valid," Veton Elshani, a spokesman for the Kosovo police force, told RFE/RL.

To cross the administrative border, each traveler must carry a valid document issued by the former Yugoslavia or Serbia.

And in order to drive into Serbia across the administrative border in a vehicle registered in Kosovo, it is necessary to obtain temporary license plates and insurance for additional expense. Serbia does not recognize UNMIK driver licenses.

Recognized, But Not In Serbia

UNMIK, which has administered Kosovo since 1999, and other institutions in the province recognize all documents issued in Serbia.

UNMIK travel documents are recognized by 39 European and other countries. Serbia remains the only country in the region that fails to recognize documents issued by the international administration in Kosovo.

To get around the problem, residents of Kosovo intending to travel to Serbia for personal or business reasons often obtain identity cards or passports in Serbia itself.

The problems have been exacerbated with the return of migrant workers from Western Europe through Serbian border crossings.

"The Serbian authorities do not allow our citizens traveling to Kosovo from the direction of Montenegro, Albania, or Macedonia to use the administrative crossings, forcing them instead to pass through at least one state border, which means Macedonia or another state border crossing," Elshani says.

"Of course, these rules do not apply to holders of Yugoslav passports, who are allowed to enter Serbia without problems."

Business across the border has been less affected. Elshani says that the entry and exit of goods to and from Kosovo has been made significantly easier.

The Alliance of Kosovo Businessmen says that economic interests have prompted Serbia to issue the necessary documents to businesspeople.

"One reason is the need to secure a market for their products, and the second is a political reason," says the alliance's president, Agim Shahini.

Shahini says he believes that problems with the nonrecognition of documents have been created above all to prove that Kosovo remains a part of Serbia.

'No Easy Solution'

The problem has been frequently discussed by senior Serbian and UNMIK officials. However, Serbia's stance on the issue has not changed.

Vuko Antonijevic, the president of the Serbian government's Coordination Center for Kosovo, says that the government has every right to refuse to recognize UNMIK documents.

"UNMIK has no right to introduce any kind of travel document. Unfortunately the [Serbian] government was initially caught off guard, given that one set of officials should have remained in Kosovo to issue travel documents," Antonijevic says. "Freedom of movement is certainly a problem, but what can I do?"

Antonijevic says that all Kosovo residents are obliged to pay certain taxes when entering Serbia, primarily related to motor vehicles.

And according to Antonijevic, there is no easy solution.

"We cannot recognize their documents anyway, since they have refused to recognize ours, which they were bound to do until the status of Kosovo is resolved," Antonijevic says.

"They don't have a right to their own passports, nor identity cards and drivers' licenses. They wanted to invalidate Serbian documents in Kosovo, which the government could not accept. Everyone knows who is entitled to issue travel documents, and it is certainly not some sort of temporary mission -- Kosovo is not a state. This is against every convention, and all international rules -- it is perfectly clear who has the authority to issue travel documents."

A number of nongovernmental organizations have petitioned the Serbian government to recognize the UN documents issued in Kosovo.

Andrej Nosov from the Serbian-based Youth Initiative for Human Rights says that Serbian authorities have maintained double standards regarding UN Resolution 1244, which they cite in support of their refusal to recognize UN-issued documents.

"Serbia makes use of UN Resolution 1244 for one thing that is in its interest, while effectively refusing to recognize UNMIK, a UN-authorized body," Nosov says.

"This is not something that affects only people from Kosovo with UNMIK documents, but citizens of all countries who happen to arrive first in Pristina, through Pristina airport, and attempt to enter Serbia afterwards. They are impeded because Serbia does not recognize the UNMIK stamp that travelers receive upon entry into Kosovo," Nosov says.

Macedonia: Fatal Clash May Point To Rising Tensions Over Kosovo

By Jeffrey Donovan

A special Macedonian police unit secures the road into the village of Vaksince, site of a deadly shoot-out on September 10

September 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Violence involving ethnic Albanians in Macedonia has sparked concerns that tensions over the unresolved status of Kosovo are beginning to bubble over.

The most recent incident came on September 10 when a police commander and a gunman were killed in a clash in an ethnic Albanian village near Macedonia's border with Kosovo.

The violence has made headlines and prompted the parliament in Skopje to call emergency sessions to discuss the situation. The latest sitting is taking place today.

Some analysts suggest the incidents are tied to Kosovo, where demands by the ethnic-Albanian majority for full independence from Serbia have so far been thwarted by Belgrade and its main ally on the UN Security Council, Russia. Whatever the explanation, some six years after an internationally brokered peace deal prevented a civil war from breaking out in Macedonia, the fresh violence is again raising questions about the future of the Balkans, Europe's most volatile region.

"[The violence] may involve matters of smugglers," says Patrick Moore, a regional analyst for RFE/RL. "It may involve some other criminal relations. It could involve family feuds, politics, or any combination of these factors. They all overlap there."

The first incident came in early August, when alleged ethnic Albanians attacked a police station in Gosince, near the border with Kosovo. That area was the base of the ethnic-Albanian insurgency in 2001, when rising tensions with Macedonia's Slavic majority appeared close to exploding into the next Balkan war.

Fresh Clash

Then, on August 31, came reports of a clash between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces near the mountain village of Tanusevci, on the border with Kosovo.

A former member of parliament and leader of a local group of ethnic-Albanian guerrillas during the 2001 separatist conflict, Xhezair Shaqiri, told media that he and his supporters drove back police after they tried to enter the village. Police, however, denied reports that there had been an exchange of gunfire with Shaqiri's men.

One week before that, Shaqiri had announced that Tanusevci was preparing a referendum on seceding from Macedonia and uniting with neighboring Kosovo. An August 24 report in the daily "Fakti" quoted Shaqiri as saying "the government is showing absolutely no interest in this part of the country."

Shaqiri is reportedly wanted by police for the kidnapping of a local mayor during the 2001 conflict. He has denied media speculation that Tanusevci is being used as a hideaway by two ethnic-Albanian militants who escaped from a high-security prison in Kosovo. Whether one of the fugitives took part in the September 10 clash is unclear. Reports suggest he could have been involved, however.

Police Commander Shot Dead

In that incident, a Macedonian police commander, an ethnic Albanian, was shot dead and two police officers were injured in a gunfight in Vaksince, in the predominantly ethnic Albanian area of northeastern Macedonia. Officials said a gunman was also killed, with two others reportedly injured.

Macedonian television reported that the group involved included the brother and two nephews of a convicted terrorist, Xhemail Iseini, who escaped from prison in Macedonia in August and eluded police for almost two weeks before being recaptured.

The question now is, who or what is behind these incidents? The short answer is it's unclear, but crime and politics are the main suspects.

Macedonian Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska, speaking to parliament, denied politics had anything to do with the deadly September 10 shoot-out. "We consider that crime-fighting -- and this is a case of crime -- cannot be put in the context of politics. This is not a security question," he said.

But Radmila Sekerinska, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, believes the incidents reflect a serious political and security risk for Macedonia. "Do you think that this happened by accident, and that there is no security risk for the Republic of Macedonia, when in Kosovo they [last month] seized 90 kilograms of explosives and a serious amount of weapons?" Sekerinska said. "The Kosovar authorities and international officials said these weapons may have arrived in Kosovo from Macedonia."

Concerns About Destabilization

For now, Macedonia's main ethnic-Albanian opposition party, the Democratic Union for Integration, is not commenting on the incidents, apparently out of concerns over destabilizing the situation in Kosovo. Some analysts have warned that if the final status of Kosovo results in a partition between its mainly Serbian north and its ethnic-Albanian parts, then that could set a dangerous separatist precedent for the entire region.

"The main case against partition has always been the precedent that it would set for Macedonia and for Bosnia," says William Montgomery, a former U.S. ambassador to both Croatia and Serbia. "By the way, the Albanians will insist on a part of southern Serbia as well."

Speaking today in Budapest, Bosnian Prime Minister Nikola Spiric appeared to underscore those concerns, suggesting that his country fears a resolution of Kosovo's final status could spark separatist ambitions among its Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim communities.

Tensions have been rising among ethnic Albanians and other ethnic groups in the region over Kosovo's independence demands. The UN has imposed a deadline of December 10 for internationally brokered negotiations between Kosovar and Serbian officials to end. Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999.

But amid opposition by Russia, which threatens to veto any independence plan, Kosovo says it may bypass the UN and set out on its own. Prime Minister Agim Ceku has said Pristina could take such a move as early as November, if talks with Serbia "fail to open a way."

(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)