2002: A year of uncertainty in the troubled Balkans

Important developments are in store this year for the southwestern Balkans, where the fragile calm could be disturbed at any moment by simmering tension. Montenegro: Secession? International observers have their eyes on Montenegro, where Milo Djukanovic has announced a referendum in the spring concerning secession from Yugoslavia. The result of the referendum may trigger developments throughout the area, if the majority votes in favor of independence for the tiny republic. Should this happen, and it is considered highly likely, Yugoslavia will collapse, setting off a chain reaction. In Belgrade, President Vojislav Kostunica will be out of a job if the federation he leads – at least nominally – ceases to exist. The Kosovars in Pristina are waiting to raise the banner of independence, since the dissolution of the federation would nullify Resolution 1244 which links Kosovo to Yugoslavia; and in Bosnia the secessionist tendency in that fragile federation could gain strength. The international community does not seem to be discouraging Djukanovic from taking the road to secession. Some observers wonder whether, in that case, a Bosnian entity could be established: For instance, Republika Srpska could hold a referendum about whether to become independent or unite with Serbia. But the Belgrade leadership does not seem overly concerned about the possibility that Montenegro might secede and Yugoslavia break up for the third time. Serbia: Showdown Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic have more serious matters to resolve, the first of which is their own coexistence. These two former allies in the operation to overthrow former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic are now being pushed to the political sidelines while the social and economic crisis spreads and their people slip further into poverty and hardship, with no sign of light at the end of the tunnel. As long as their underlying but tough battle for supremacy continues, Belgrade will be a source of instability in the region. Elections for the Serbian presidency must be held this year, and Milosevic’s close colleague, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, has been charged with war crimes by the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Observers expect a full-scale showdown between Kostunica and Djindjic. The former will probably seek election as president of Serbia but parliamentary elections might also be held simultaneously, so as to deal once and for all with an outstanding political issue which dominates Serbian life. FYROM: An unstable peace Further south, in the unstable area of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and southern Serbia, peace hangs in the balance. The Ochrid peace agreement between FYROM’s Albanians and Slav-Macedonians is ailing. Despite the efforts of Western diplomacy, both sides distrust each other, and the dangerous stagnation gives the impression that new clashes might erupt at any moment. The Slav-Macedonian-dominated government is equipping the security forces with the latest Russian weapons, while, on the border, armed Albanian groups have created a de facto regime, preventing police from entering what those groups call free zones. Though former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti and his comrades have exchanged their uniforms for civilian garb, they remain in Sipkovica and other mainly Albanian highland villages, waiting for the government to legalize their amnesty, which it has agreed on but refuses to give legal backing to. It would be naive to believe that these groups have not hidden weapons to use if necessary. Moreover, in Tetovo not one night has passed since the peace agreement was signed without clashes between police and the Albanian groups who actually control the city. The press in FYROM has published stories speculating that armed action will resume in the spring, carried out this time by the «Albanian National Army,» a group formed after the breakup of the Kosovo Liberation Army and which is preparing itself for battle. The situation in FYROM is dangerously unstable, and there are fears that the elections to be held in 2002, probably in June, will increase the political tension, which could prove disastrous for the country, which is already suffering from the aftermath of war. The international community is convinced that the situation in FYROM will not calm down if stability in Kosovo is not consolidated. The messages coming from Pristina do not permit those who have undertaken the task of establishing peace in the Balkans to relax their vigilance. Kosovo: Political vacuum There is a political vacuum in Kosovo, after the resignation of United Nations High Commissioner Hans Haekkerup and the inability of the Kosovo assembly to come to an agreement on a president. Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, won the election, but has failed to win adequate support in the assembly to form a government. Rugova, a moderate, is hostage to the aspirations of the former KLA leader and president of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), the second most powerful party, Hashim Thaqi, who wants to be prime minister in exchange for voting in Rugova as president. «If a replacement for Haekkerup is not found soon and a government formed, there is a danger that everything that has been done so far will be destroyed,» warned a European official in Pristina. Albania: Vendetta goes on In Tirana, the political vendetta in the ruling Socialist party between Prime Minister Ilir Meta and the party president, Fatos Nano, threatens to explode the calm which has prevailed of late in public life, and which had permitted the government to take some steps toward organizing state and economic development. Political disagreements between the two Socialist leaders have taken on the character of personal hatred, and it is possible that elections will held in order to break the impasse, which could affect stability in this long-suffering country with its weak institutions. Bulgaria: New Argentina? Bulgaria surprised everyone last year, acquiring former King Simeon II as prime minister, and Georgi Parvanov, the leader of the ailing Socialist party, as president. The new government’s promises to develop the economy, stamp out corruption and put an end to poverty, which brought them a resounding victory in the elections, proved to be hollow, and the country is in danger of going the way of Argentina, as a large proportion of the population sinks into poverty. Polls leave little room for optimism about the government’s future and observers predict early elections. Observers say that the many open fronts and unresolved issues in the former Yugoslav republics and other parts of the Balkan mosaic will maintain fluidity and could spark new crises. The signing of the FYROM peace agreement created the impression that wounds had healed in the region and the illusion may have been enhanced when other places, such as Afghanistan and the Middle East, came into the spotlight following the dramatic events of September 11.But dealing with unresolved issues in the Balkans is proving not to be so easy.

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