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MON, 12 MAR 2001 00:42:10 GMT

The Presevo Crisis Harder than the Kosovo One Was

AIM Tirana, February 26, 2001

None of the Tirana officials have ever thought that the crisis in the Presevo Valley would become such a hard problem for the Albanian politics and its relations with countries of the region. This crisis will be a hot potato for Albania at the Summit of Presidents of States and Governments which is to be held in Skopje on February 23 within cooperation process in South-East Europe - SEECP. During the visit of Foreign Minister Mrs. Mihajlov to Athens, Foreign Ministers of Greece and Bulgaria have informed the public that this problem would be included in the Summit debate, although it was not envisaged by the official agenda of the meeting proposed by Macedonia as the SEECP Presiding in office and the host country. The Romanian Foreign Minister, Geoana, the OSCE Chairman in Office, who visited Tirana on February 12, supported this Greek-Bulgarian plan.

Macedonian Foreign Minister S. Kerin also supported the Greek-Bulgarian initiative and said that he would include the Presevo crisis on the Summit agenda. Bearing in mind the fact that Serbia has a leading role in the diplomatic activities pursued in connection with the Presevo crisis, it seems that this will be a Balkan endeavour to organise the discussion on this issue.

Recently, one after another: EU, NATO and OSCE have issued special releases on the Presevo Valley crisis expressing their support for the plan of Serbian Vice-Premier Covic aimed at resolving this crisis. All this seems to have made Tirana's position even harder.

Already at the beginning of the conflict in the Presevo Valley, the Albanian Government condemned violent acts and demanded its peaceful and political resolution. It is a fact that Tirana did not render its support to units of the so called Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (LAPMB), in contrast to the way the official Albanian politics treated KLA during the war in Kosovo. In its release on developments in the Presevo Valley, the Albanian Foreign Ministry condemned "the extreme and provocative acts which compromise all efforts for realistic solution of the problem". Not a single Albanian high official has in his speech or statement mentioned LAPMB and there are no signs that the armed Albanian units from Presevo might get any assistance from Albania.

However, it seems that neither has the distancing of the Albanian Government from the acts of armed elements or groups, nor its ready siding with the Western stands on this problem, made the situation any easier for Tirana. During his visit to Tirana on February 8, the EU High Representative for Security, Xavier Solana also asked the Albanian politicians to use their influence for restraining acts and radical demands of Albanians in the Presevo Valley. But he was not the only one to ask that. Every high Western visitor thought it necessary to ask Tirana for help and its intervention in helping place the Albanian armed groups under control.

However, although Tirana's influence is truly great in Kosovo it is rather insignificant in the Presevo Valley which is mostly populated by the Albanians in which, actually, no previous Government in Tirana showed any interest. Until now, the major problem of Kosovo crisis overshadowed the situation in the Presevo Valley. It surfaced after the end of war in Kosovo when Serbian military and police forces were withdrawn from Kosovo and deployed in Presevo and when the pressure of the Serbian administration on the Albanian families increased forcing them to leave Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja. From June 1999 till now over 20 thousand Albanians fled, mostly to Kosovo and Macedonia.

Tirana made it clear that for it the problem of Presevo differed from the Kosovo problem. If Tirana sees independence as the final status for Kosovo (after long-term international protectorate), it has never made its stand clear regarding the Albanians in the Presevo Valley. One of the demands of the armed LAPMB groups is uniting with Kosovo on the basis of a referendum organised in this region in early March 1992 by local Albanians who declared their wish to be united with Kosovo. Tirana considers this demand as unrealistic, even dangerous for Kosovo.

In connection with the Presevo crisis it would be interesting to point out that even the Albanian opposition kept silent and neither expressed its support for the LAPMB nor criticised the Government in this respect.

It is evident that there is a distance between Tirana and the organisation called LAPMB. How true this is was best illustrated in early February when something unthinkable happened. Several dozens of citizens organised a rally in front of the Albanian Mission in Pristina protesting against the arrest of a young Albanian citizen, allegedly a LAPMB member, in Tirana. This was the first time that Albanian protests have been organised in Pristina in front of the Albanian Mission which is a clear sign of differences which exist in regard to this issue. But, this is also an indicator of the so-called sandwich position in which the Tirana politics has been caught, i.e. between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, it is faced with the pressure of international factors which, aware of Tirana's influence on Pristina, are convinced that it also has influence in Presevo and demand its assistance in restraining the LAPMB. On the other hand, it is under the pressure of Albanian radical circles in Presevo and Pristina to give its support to the problem of Eastern Kosovo, as the Albanians call the zone of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac.

Surprisingly enough the crisis in Presevo has placed Tirana in a much harder position than the Kosovo crisis. During the Kosovo crisis several reasons made the situation much easier for Tirana. In Kosovo Milosevic's regime was pursuing the policy of ethnic cleansing, Belgrade had a President who was on the international wanted list for war crimes while EU, NATO, OSCE and OUN gave their unreserved support to the Kosovo Albanians. Even the stands of Kosovo political factors were united regarding the opposition to Milosevic's regime. Consequently, it was much easier for official Tirana to act in the diplomatic arena and international fora in defence of the Kosovo issue.

In case of the Presevo crisis all major factors and allies are now against the Albanian acts and demands in this zone. But, the Kosovo political factors are also opposed. It thus happened that in the last few days major Kosovo political parties, such as Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic Alliance of Kosovo, Hashim Thaqi's Democratic Party of Kosovo and Ramush Hajradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo have simultaneously supported the demand that LAPMB should be considered major political factor there. That means that the problem of the Presevo Valley can provoke a crisis in relations between Tirana and Pristina which have already been undermined by the Agreement signed between Albanian and FRY on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

What makes Albania's position even harder and what high political officials here openly state is a tendency of certain Balkan circles towards the re-opening of a kind of anti-Albanian climate and satanisation of the Albanians in general, based on the Kosovo and Presevo events. It is generally believed in the capital of Albania that fear that Presevo might become a threat to the Stability Pact in the region is exaggerated. Tirana is worried that the Presevo crisis will not be so short, not because of problems with finding a solution, but rather because it might provoke a chain diplomatic reaction. And the greatest fear is that that reaction could again spread the crisis and war in Kosovo if Djindjic's Cabinet decides to also do something regarding Kosovo encouraged by its diplomatic success achieved in the case of Presevo.

AIM Tirana

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