Few returnees to rough spots in the Balkans

Beating the blistering Balkan heat wave last month, a group of Serbian children were plunging in and out the river Bisrtica – a popular swimming resort near Gorazdevac, a Serb enclave in western Kosovo – when suddenly a spray of bullets from a Kalashnikov machine gun turned their favorite pastime into havoc. Pantelija Dakic, 11, and Ivan Jovovic, 20, never returned home. Four other children were seriously wounded. Not far from there, members of the Albanian National Army, a shadowy terrorist group of ethnic Albanians aspiring to unite all areas inhabited by their ethnic kin, last week threatened to launch a war in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), following a standoff with the Slav-Macedonian police. This, no doubt, is still Europe’s roughest neighborhood. The recent resurgence of violence shows that the ethnic fury that plunged Kosovo and FYROM into an orgy of civil strife is far from a spent force. And the reasons that once made people flee, are still just as strong. The wave of hate killings is a blow to the international community which has tried to keep the various ethnic groups away from each other’s throats and, in a more optimistic tone, to get them to live together again in peace. The timing is not random. The brutalities have coincided with the implementation of a series of returnee projects in the area – in a clear message against peaceful coexistence. Four years after international intervention halted the 1998-1999 civil war in Kosovo and two years after an EU-brokered peace deal between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Slav-Macedonian authorities in FYROM, international pledges for multiethnic and tolerant democracies remain a dead letter. «In Kosovo, ethnic Albanians monopolize the decision-making bodies, while Serbs live in enclaves that are cut off from the capital Pristina and the other Albanian-dominated urban centers,» says Pantelis Sklias, assistant professor at the department of International Economic Relations and Development at Democritus University of Thrace and chairman of the board of European Perspective, a Greek non-governmental organization involved in the returnee process in the region. Kosovo Serbs live in limbo, under the watchful eye of UN peacekeeping troops who provide escort whenever they step out of their prison-like enclaves. Progress is just as slow in FYROM where, two years after the Ohrid agreement, the members of the Slav-Macedonian minority are still unable to return to their pre-war homes in the north and northwest of the country where ethnic Albanians, a third of the total population of 2 million, live. Not enough carrots The so-called «internationals,» NATO, the UN and the EU, have tried to heave Kosovo and FYROM onto a more democratic and tolerant track using carrots and sticks. Kosovo Serbs are not exactly welcome in Serbia, where unemployment hovers at 25 to 30 percent and the country is still trying to find its footing, especially after the March assassination in Belgrade of former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. The West is also is trying to return refugees in order to live up to its much-hyped promises of multiethnic societies. International officials fear that a failure in FYROM or Kosovo could trigger secession in Bosnia, another multiethnic experiment that is barely holding together. The problem is that the return of refugees so far has been all stick and no carrot. «When dealing with the return of displaced persons, we cannot simply talk about housing reconstruction or income-generating projects – these alone are not viable,» Sklias says. More basic requirements have to be met first. It’s the S-word. «As long as the question of security is not resolved, establishing the rule of law remains impossible,» Sklias asserts. But disarmament is not enough. Collecting weapons and ammunition, still scattered across the territories of the former Yugoslavia after a decade of ethnic cleansing, must go hand in hand with interethnic dialogue and confidence-building. Failure to establish security so far does not mean that efforts have not been made. International organizations have found a valuable ally in the non-governmental bodies that have taken root in the region. European Perspective has over the last four years been a leading agent in two returnee projects in Kosovo; projects that are based on promoting dialogue and confidence-building between the two ethnic groups. The activities of the Greek NGO are organized in cooperation with the European Agency for Reconstruction, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNMIK, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. Security for all The international community must reinforce the sense of security not only for the returnees but also for everyone who resides in tense areas. «When Kosovo Albanians hear that a neighboring Serb family is killed and set on fire, they too are shocked,» Sklias said, referring to the brutal assassination of three members of a Serbian family in Obilic in June. Communities do not endorse the isolated acts of a few extremists. But they are not that keen on seeing them return either. «I do not think that the Albanian majority wants them (Kosovo Serbs) back, but that does not mean that they will go as far as to get involved in extremist acts in order to prevent their return,» Sklias says. «Besides, these people feel that they have other, more pressing problems to take care of.» Perhaps. But the vitriol will take a long time to die down. Such terrible events are a message against coexistence, intimidating Serbs from returning to their former homes. Often, the violent acts are driven by a vengeance that chillingly echoes the atrocities inflicted by Serb forces when former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, now standing trial for war crimes in the Hague tribunal, launched a crackdown on the independence-seeking ethnic Albanian rebels. NATO drove Serb forces out of the province which has been a UN protectorate ever since. The UN insists that the «final status» issue will not be decided until democracy and human rights have been firmly established in the province. «People must first feel safe before they can negotiate the status of the province,» says Sklias, expressing his approval of the UN’s «standards before status» principle. To Serbs, Kosovo is a holy land. It is where Prince Lazar and his Christian troops fell heroically to the invading Ottoman army in 1398. Ordinary Serbs, even those who have never visited the place, consider Kosovo as the «Serb Jerusalem.» But it seems highly unlikely that 2 million ethnic Albanians, nine out of 10 people in Kosovo, will be pleased with anything short of sovereignty. In FYROM, fighting seemed to have abated after ethnic Albanian guerrillas sealed an agreement with the government that granted them more civil and political rights, putting an end to a seven-month conflict in 2001. But despite the participation of former rebels in a new coalition government, peace has been fragile as tension runs high, particularly after the emergence of the ANA. Several gunmen were reported dead earlier this week after police launched a crackdown on ANA militants in northern FYROM. The ANA has refused to accept the Ohrid peace pact and has been declared a terrorist organization by the UN. It has claimed responsibility for several attacks in FYROM, Serbia and Kosovo over the past year. So what are the prospects for the two regions? On past odds, its hard to nourish high expectations. The recent surge in violence is proof that the history factory has yet to come to a halt and that ethnic imperialism still grips the Balkan psyche. Others insist that the road to peaceful coexistence passes through economic development. «Promoting Kosovo’s economic development, cutting unemployment from 60 to 10 or 5 percent, stopping its economic dependence on the international community, in short, making Kosovo a viable province: There is no better way of cementing the rule of law,» Sklias maintains. «People won’t care about sovereignty once the rule of law is in place,» he says.

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