Over the past few weeks, tensions have been growing in southern Serbia’s Albanian-majority Preševo Valley, spilling over the border into Serb majority communities in Kosovo and putting at risk the EU mediated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, which looks poised to make a historical breakthrough. Urgent action is needed.
In the aftermath of the Kosovo war of 1999, some Serbian forces relocated from Kosovo to southern Serbia, increasing repression against the local Albanian population. A new group, the “Liberation Army of Preševo, Medvedja and Bujanovac” (UÇPMB), formed and attacked Serbian forces in the Valley until a NATO-brokered ceasefire in May 2001. Life over the past two decades largely returned to normal, and the Valley became a rare conflict resolution success story in the former Yugoslavia, though dissatisfaction remained over security, jobs and services. More recently, Albanian leaders have been watching the high-level dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, worrying about how it might affect them.
On 20 January, events took a new turn. Serbian forces removed a controversial monument, which had been built illegally in December 2012 to commemorate 27 fallen UÇPMB fighters, raising tensions to a new, dangerous level. There is no question the structure, which had stood in front of the Preševo municipal government building, was provocative: the UÇPMB had killed 24 Serbian soldiers and police and 10 civilians. Serbia had put up a commemorative monument to some of those losses in an Albanian-populated village nearby in Bujanovac municipality, and the Preševo structure was among other things a local Albanian response. Conflict over monuments is nothing new in the Balkans (in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a monument to fallen Bosniak soldiers was blown up in January), as former warring parties still disagree over recent history, and whether the dead were separatists, terrorists, or alternatively, freedom fighters; of course, whatever they were, they were also brothers, fathers and sons.
Yet the new monument controversy is just the latest spark, neither the kindling nor the flame. The Albanian population in this,Serbia’s poorest region, has many grievances. Though the conflict ended more than a decade ago, there is a heavy police and military presence in the area, contributing to a pervasive climate of fear. The feelings of being discriminated and isolated are deep. It is hard for families divided between Kosovo and Preševo to visit one another. For years, Serbia refused to recognise marriages performed or children born across the border in Kosovo even when the parents were Preševo residents. Promises of fair hiring by the state — by far the largest employer in the region — have not been kept. Education — even teaching of the Serbian language — is poor. Belgrade officials seem to make a point of visiting only ethnic Serb officials and residents during their trips to the Valley. State investments go largely to Serb communities. Local leaders have little faith in the Serbian government and instead seek help from Kosovo and Albania.
Though part of Serbia, the Valley is intrinsically linked to Kosovo. And each time Kosovo is urged by Belgradein the EU-facilitated talks to give more autonomy and rights to Serbs living in Kosovo’s Serb majority northern municipalities, Preševo has reacted. The region’s Albanians point out they have far fewer self-governing rights than Kosovo already gives the Serbs. When Serbia’s leaders hint that northern Kosovo should be partitioned off to Serbia, Preševo says it would then seek to join Kosovo [Before Kosovo declared independence, Preševo leaders passed a resolution stating they would agree to remain in Serbia but “in case of … eventual change of Kosovo’s borders the Valley will work toward unification with Kosovo”.]
These demands resonate throughout Kosovo, where the feeling of ill-treatment by Serbia runs deep. Many Kosovars strongly support the notion that any concessions their leaders make to Kosovo Serbs must be matched by Belgrade’s concessions in Preševo. In July 2011, Pristina sent special police to its northern border to impose reciprocal customs restrictions on Serbian goods, setting off months of roadblocks and violence. Now the Kosovo leadership is under pressure to harden its stance toward the northern Kosovo Serbs in reciprocation for Belgrade’s actions in the Valley.
In the days after 20 January, Kosovo Albanian nationalists attacked Serbian cemeteries and monuments. The government reacted quickly to protect its minority, dispatching police reinforcements, disciplining officers who failed in their protection duties, and offering to fund reconstruction. On 26 January, thousands protested peacefully in Pristina under the slogan “Justice for Preševo, no negotiations with Serbia.”
The dispute has also soured Serbia’s relations with Albania, whose government announced a “reconsideration” of ties with Belgrade and cancelled a ministerial visit. Albania’s Prime Minister Sali Berisha went further, claiming the removal of the monument showed, “there is only one way, the unification of the Albanian nation, in order for Albanians to enjoy the freedom they earned by shedding blood”. This provocative language should be condemned by the country’s EU partners.
Preševo leaders want a broad dialogue with Belgrade to resolve their status, and Belgrade should immediately engage to calm tensions. Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić should affirm his government’s commitment to implement the Čović Plan that ended the 2001 uprising. This means ending discrimination by carrying out measures to support employment for ethnic Albanians, increase investment, improve schooling and demilitarise the Valley. Simply implementing what Belgrade promised a decade ago would do much to restore harmony. If they keep being ignored Albanians will move further away from the state and Preševo’s leadership says that it will want to be involved directly in the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue [Crisis Group interviews, Preševo officials, Preševo, January 2013].
Kosovo and Serbia should agree on measures to facilitate travel of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo to Preševo; currently, many trips require police approval and connections. One of the main crossing points between Gjilan and Preševo remains closed to Kosovo citizens. Belgrade should withdraw most of its security forces from the region, and work to empower the ethnically mixed local police that have secured the trust of the community.
Yet if Dačić seriously wants Pristina to accept new rights for Kosovo’s Serbs that go beyond what already exists in the Kosovo’s constitution, he should offer more to Preševo than what is already in Serbian law. He could start by devolving more authority to the municipalities of the Preševo Valle yand to its National Albanian Minority Council, and allow Pristina to provide funds in such areas as education and culture. Generosity toward its Albanian minority can generate good will for Serbia that can pay off in its dialogue with Kosovo.
Preševo is not yet totally alienated from Serbia. Its representative sits in the Serbian Parliament and its local officials participate fully in the Serbian system. Yet locals fear a return to the bad days of arbitrary arrest — most recently on the eve of the May 2012 Serbian elections eight Albanians were detained for war crime charges. The Kosovo government, which has strong influence over Preševo leaders, has done what it can to keep tempers and fears in check. Belgrade should seize this opportunity to show that it can offer the Preševo Albanians the good home they deserve. Otherwise calls in Preševo and Pristina will keep getting louder to match any new rights given to Serbs living in Kosovo with ones for Preševo’s Albanians.