AIM: start



SAT, 28 APR 2001 01:37:07 GMT

Southern Serbia: Patience and Challenges

AIM Belgrade, April 15, 2001

In less than three hours, in the early morning of April 14, Yugoslav Army (VJ) and police units deployed in Sector D of the Ground Security Zone, for the most part situated on the territory of the southern Serbian municipality of Medvedja. In the preceding four weeks, at a rate not even the boldestoptimists could have dreamt of, NATO had gradually approved the return of lightly armed VJ and police units into new portions of the 5 kilometers wide area stretching along the Kosovo-Metohija border, a zone established by the Kumanovo Military-Technical Agreement of 1999 and devised to separate two hostile forces: those of FR Yugoslavia on one hand, NATO troops on the other.

It seems the said decision was speeded up by last monthís (un)expected breakout of conflicts in northern and western parts of Macedonia. Up to that point, the numerous incidents that the Albanian extremists had been systematically provoking in the south of Serbia, mostly in the Presevo and Bujanovac municipalities, civilian casualties and the killings of soldiers and policemen, did not seem to be a strong enough inducement for such a decision to be made.

It turned out that the five-kilometers wide zone of "no manís land" is, in fact, an ideal training range for armed groups who call themselves the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja (LAPBM) and a corridor for smuggling people and arms into Macedonia: it was in the extended vicinity of the Yugoslav-Macedonian border and the Ground Security Zone that the first armed clashes in Macedonia erupted in March.

Thus, a month ago, on March 14, joint VJ and Serbian Interior Ministry police units were first allowed into a limited area five kilometers long and five kilometers wide on the Macedonian border (Sector C- East). Shortly afterwards, they were permitted to enter Sector C-West (a five kilometer strip along the Montenegrin-Albanian border), a while later, they deployed in Sector A, a part of the Ground Security Zone running along the administrative border line between Kosovo and Metohija and Montenegro (from Plav to the east of Rozaje) and, in Serbia, up to the border-line of the Medvedja municipality.

While preparations for the deployment of the Yugoslav security forces in Sector D (situated mainly on the territory of the Medvedja municipality) were being made, on April 3, a policeman was killed and three of his colleagues injured in an explosion of an anti-tank mine. The incident happened outside the Ground Security Zone. Commenting on it, the head of the Yugoslav Coordinating Body for southern Serbia, Nebojsa Covic, stated: "the most recent criminal act of the Albanian terrorists has endangered the continuation of the talks and thrust a shadow of doubt upon the sincerity of the Albanian ethnic community concerning the quest for a peaceful solution to the crisis". Covic called on the representatives of both the international community and the ethnic Albanians to isolate the terrorists and prevent further violence, "since this, mainly, depends on them". He added that "the Yugoslav and Serb side have exhibited a consistent willingness to solve problems peacefully, through dialogue", insisting that the international community "extend unambiguous support for these efforts".

In the past months, the former Milosevic mayor of Belgrade Nebojsa Covic, later on to become the founder of the Democratic Alternative, one of the many " minute " parties forming part of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), has proved to be an exceptionally apt negotiator on the basis of a platform he himself proposed for the solution of the crisis; the said platform, known as "Covicís plan" was first accepted by Washington, then by the international community and, finally, by the Yugoslav authorities. Flexible and energetic in his negotiations with the ethnic Albanian community - notwithstanding the presence of the "political" representatives of the LAPBM - Covic tends to be equally "non-diplomatic" in his dealings with ethnic Albanians as with the representatives of KFOR and NATO.

Following the allegations of the Albanian side that Covic "insults and humiliates" them during the negotiations, it turned out that the former mayor of Belgrade did indeed, on one occasion, blame "the other side" for acting as if they in fact missed Slobodan Milosevic, generously volunteering to "cut some corners" in order to find a place for them in the correctional institution Milosevic is presently at (the Belgrade Central Prison). On the other hand, the envoy of the NATO secretary-general, Peter Faith, found himself in the position to deny Covicís statement concerning guarantees that the three Serb civilian which had been abducted would be set free on April 10, at the latest. The civilians were set free four days later, while the political director of NATO in Belgrade, Sean Sullivan, subsequently supported Covicís statement that the freeing of the two Serb soldiers held as hostages, cannot be stipulated by the freeing of the three convicted terrorists, apprehended with 36 kilograms of explosives in their possession.

It is also obvious that NATO itself is continuing to heighten its pressure on both the "rebels" and the civilian Albanian population in southern Serbia. During the past month, American ambassador to Belgrade, William Montgomery, signed several contracts on financing the infrastructure, reparation of schools and job-investment in the crisis region, worth over two out of the 20 million US dollars aid granted to the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja. The said "positive" course of action of the international community was followed by the approval of the Yugoslav and Serb side - both represented in the person of Nebojsa Covic - of the presence of European observers in the Ground Security Zone, the confirmation of their willingness for the founding of a multiethnic police force in the zone, as well as their request that the plan for the normalization of life in the region be enacted without much delay.

Therefore, the recent reentrance of the Yugoslav army and police forces into Sector D - a part of the buffer zone 80 kilometers long, spreading over an area of around 400 square kilometers - is, in a sense, a confirmation that things are proceeding as planned. Up to now, no major incidents were registered in the area of the Medvedja municipality where a third of the population is made up of ethnic Albanians. Perhaps precisely because of this, shortly before the deployment of the army and police forces in Sector D, Riza Halimi, the mayor of Presevo, leader of the Party for Democratic Action and formally the chief negotiator of the Albanian community in southern Serbia - attempted to put the emphasis on the banishment of Albanians from the municipality, quoting figures that surpass the actual Albanian population of Medvedja. To this, Nebojsa Covic reacted by extending an invitation to all banished Albanians to return to their homes and by guaranteeing them full security. In addition, he said: "I believe that Mr. Halimi supports a peaceful solution of the crisis and that someone has furnished him with false facts he was unable to verify since the times we live in are turbulent, this region under so much pressure and that there are so many misunderstandings among the Albanian community itself. There is no continuity between the new Belgrade authorities and the old ones - except in the behavior of the Albanians who seem to miss the old authorities."

The Albanian request for the demilitarization of southern Serbia - for, according to Halimi, "the deployment of additional army forces represents a drastic usurpation of the Albanian living space" which would, "if carried out with the consent of KFOR, in fact mean the legalization of ethnic cleansing with the approval of the international community" - Covic also repudiated. While reaching an agreement on the return of Albanians exiled in Kosovo and on their proportional representation in the local administration, the stand of Rexhep Abazi that there would not be any LAPMB if the Yugoslav army and police forces withdrew from Medvedja, Covic commented by stating that "the engagement of these units is a result of the existence of armed extremist groups who represent a threat to the security of all citizens, be they Serb or Albanian. When they demobilize and lay down their arms, a displacement of the extraordinary police and army units, not demilitarization, will follow."

The month long presence of Yugoslav joint army and police forces in the Ground Security Zone has proved to be effective in calming down tensions in the tempestuous region and proved possible their cooperation with NATO troops - an inconceivable feat just a short while ago. Such a course of events - along with the obvious willingness of the new Yugoslav and Serb authorities for resolving interethnic issues through negotiations, including the formation of a local multiethnic police force - has undoubtedly stepped up the approval for the return of the security forces into three of the four sectors of the Ground Security Zone. In the following weeks, rather than days, an agreement on the return of Yugoslav security forces to the remaining part of the buffer zone, Sector B, can be expected.

The said sector includes the "hot spot" of the zone, i.e. the municipalities of Bujanovac and Presevo, where the concentration of LAPMB members is highest. Field reports warn that the fortification of positions and mobilization of the local population are taking place; at the same time, while tightening the control of the border on the Kosovo side, KFOR more and more frequently goes public with the data on the arrests of armed individuals and the confiscation of arms. The diminution of the field of action and political support for the goals of the LAPMB certainly does not contribute to the lessening of tensions among those in southern Serbia who reckon NATO to be their "verified ally".

The political weight of the restraint Yugoslav army and police forces have exhibited concerning provocation in the Ground Security Zone so far is insomuch greater. On the other hand, if the first phase of Covicís plan is carried out successfully as to the "regaining of sovereignty" at the Kosovo - Metohija border, this will mark merely the beginning of things to come, not only in southern Serbia. In the meantime, KFOR and UNMIK have asked of FR Yugoslavia and Serbia to be equally cooperative concerning the preparations for general elections in Kosovo, i.e. their support for the creation of the legal framework of Kosovo and Metohija which, in the eyes of Albanian politicians, is to be the constitution of an independent Kosovo.

In this respect, in months to come, Belgrade will have to take upon itself a much greater and heavier responsibility regarding the future of Kosovo and Metohija, concordant with the views of NATO on the subject, first of all. In view of the gravity of the issues concerned - starting with the issue of the responsibility for the crimes committed, up to the problem of the return of the refugees - it may turn out that the return of the security forces into the Ground Security Zone had, in fact, been the easier part of the job.

ALEKSANDAR CIRIC

( AIM )