Four years after NATO’s arrival, Serbs and Albanians are still deeply divided
THE BLOODSHED CONTINUES
Four years after NATO’s arrival, Serbs and Albanians are still deeply divided
During the bloody breakup ofYugoslavia in the early 1990s, Ottawa journalist Scott Taylor travelled repeatedly to the region. Later, during the 1999 conflict in the Serbian province of Kosovo, he spent 26 days in Belgrade and Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. This year, Taylor returned to Kosovo in late May, almost four years after the fighting ended. He says that despite the presence of thousands of NATO troops, and millions of dollars in foreign aid, crime is rampant, while tensions remain between Serbs and ethnic Albanians—who make up the majority in Kosovo. Taylor’s report:
THE CROWD of Serbs gathered outside the charred remains of a small home on the outskirts of Pristina was nervous. Hours earlier, at about 2 a.m. on June 4, someone crept into the house and beat Slobodan Stolic, 80, his wife Radmila, 78, and their son Ljubinko, 53, to death with what police described as a blunt instrument, and then torched the house. The brutal message was not lost on neighbours, who believe the three were murdered by Albanian extremists trying to drive the remaining Serbs out of the village. And it was a stark reminder that Kosovo is still a violent place, one where the soldiers who came to protect ethnic Albanians from Serbs in 1999 now spend their time trying to shield Serbs from Albanians. “Kosovo,” says James Bissett, Canada’s former ambassador to Yugoslavia, “continues to be one of the most dangerous places on earth—with little hope for the future.”
In 1999, to escape Serbian forces sent in to suppress them, nearly one million ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo for refugee camps in neighbouring Albania and Macedonia (Kosovo’s population of 2.2 million was about 90 per cent Albanian). Most of the refugees have since returned; now, thanks to nearly $2.7 billion the West has spent on aid, the country seems to be prospering. But appearances are deceiving. Nearly 18,000 NATO peacekeepers patrol Kosovo, and a UN police force, made up of4,400 of-
fleers from around the world, tries to enforce the law. Some say they are losing the fight. Criminal gangs, operating under the guise of Albanian nationalist militias, traffic in drugs, weapons, and women for the European sex trade. If it wasn’t for the millions of dollars in foreign aid washing through the province there would be little work. All this leaves Bissett wondering what the West has
IN ADDITION to battling ethnic hatred, UN police have to contend with criminal gangs smuggling weapons, drugs and women
accomplished. “The justification for NATO’s intervention was to build a democratic multi-ethnic society,” says Bissett. “But little progress has been made to establish law and order.”
Following the war, over 200,000 Serbs fled the province. The remaining 40,000
live in isolated enclaves along the Serbian border. Nationalist groups, like the Albanian National Army, are using terror tactics in an attempt to drive them out. On May 17, in the village ofVrbovac, 41-year-old Serbian professor Zoran Mirkovic was shot repeatedly in the chest and head. Although UN police are still investigating, the ANA, which is made up of members of the original Kosovo Liberation Army, may have been behind the killing.
The ANA is one of several militant groups that are determined to make Kosovo, which is still part of Serbia, an independent state. Like other militias, they are also involved in organized crime, but still enjoy wide public support for their efforts to drive out the remaining Serbs. Although police have arrested some key Albanian crime bosses, the problem persists, says Derek Chappell, 51, a former constable with the Ottawa Police Service who now works with the UN police as chief of public information in Pristina. He says because the country was oppressed for so long, the line between freedom fighter and criminal is often blurred. And whenever the UN makes high-profile arrests, those apprehended wrap themselves in the flag of Albanian nationalism, and the
streets are suddenly filled with protestors.
Most Western countries had expected democracy, not the mafia, to thrive in Kosovo. And although under the terms of the 1999 ceasefire agreement, Kosovo was to remain Serbian territory—albeit a region with its own parliament—many nations quickly established some measure of diplomatic relations with the province. Canada was one of the first, when then-foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy cut a ceremonial ribbon to open Canada’s offices in Pristina in November 1999. Since then, the Canadian International Development Agency has spent more than $100 million in Kosovo on programs that include teacher training and helping to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure.
The UN had hoped that both Serbs and ethnic Albanians would be fairly represented in the Kosovo Assembly, which was elected under UN supervision in November 2001. But many of the resolutions passed by the Albanian-dominated body have been divisive. On May 15, members approved a resolution to celebrate the contribution that KLA fighters made in the struggle for Kosovo’s liberation. Serbian delegates immediately stormed out, and within hours, Michael Steiner, the UN’s special representative in Kosovo, reminded the assembly that NATO’s intervention was initiated as a result of “fundamental human-rights violations,” not to liberate Albanians from Serbs.
Serbs in Kosovo cannot hope for much help from the Serbian government in Belgrade. There, criminal gangs also run rampant, and are believed responsible for the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic on March 12. Beset by its own problems, Belgrade may be ready to back down on its claim to Kosovo, which was part of medieval Serbia and contains many important Orthodox shrines. According to Slobodan Tejic, a member of the Serbian delegation involved in negotiations with NATO, that may mean abandoning most of the province and absorbing a number of small Serb enclaves located along the Serbian border. “These people,” said Tejic, “cannot continue to live in limbo forever.”
Kosovo Serbs might be willing to go along, but only if it means they do not have to give up even a sliver of their remaining enclaves. That is certainly the view in the northern city of Mitrovica, where Serbs have resisted the movement of Albanians into their region,
which stretches 60 km from the Serbian border into Kosovo. Mitrovica is divided by the Ibar River; there, a group known as the Bridgewatchers, who were backed by Belgrade, often blocked the passage of Albanians. Under the terms of a recent deal with Serbia, the UN has now opened the bridge— and that has raised doubts among local Serbs about their future. But most are determined to stay. “Even if Belgrade chooses to betray us, we will continue to resist,” said Bozovic Miroljub, a 47-year-old shopkeeper. “We are not prepared to give up
our claim to any of the Serbian enclaves.” Until the issue surrounding the Serb enclaves is settled, ethnic tensions will remain. That could mean that NATO and the UN will be bogged down in the province for years. A harsh reality—considering that the West is currently facing a similar problem in Iraq. Problems could be avoided there, says Chappell, if a strong police force were to be created immediately to contain crime and ethnic divisions. It is a lesson the West was slow to learn in Kosovo—and a mistake that maybe in the process of being repeated in Iraq.
Scott Taylor is publisher of Ottawa-based Esprit de Corps magazine.
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