THE ALBANIAN NATIONAL QUESTION
PRESHEVE: WHERE WE STAND IN 2002
by Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi
The Peace Agreement Must Be Implemented
On March 1, 2001, the Liberation Army for Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc (UCPMB), signed a peace agreement with the Serbian government and NATO and then demilitarized. Since then, the terms of the peace agreement have been repeatedly violated by Serbia and human rights abuses against the Albanian population continue. (The State Department
acknowledged this to Albanian American Civic League President Joe DioGuardi and me on December 6.) Because the Bush administration seemed willing to take at face value the assertions made by Nebojsa Covic, Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister and envoy to the area, that the peace agreement was being faithfully implemented, the Civic League brought Riza Halimi, Mayor of Presheve, Galip Beqiri, Mayor of Ternoc, and Shaip Kamberi, President of the Bujanoc Human Rights Center, to meet with Congressman Ben Gilman on April 25. They reported that only the integration of the police force to include Albanians—who make up 70 percent of the population in the Presheve Valley—had begun. Even so, only twenty-two Albanians had been added to the police force, and the location of the police training school (which was to have been built in the Albanian area as a confidence building measure) had been moved to a site deep inside Serbia. This poses a major obstacle to the recruitment of Albanians because of the history of anti-Albanian racism and ethnic cleansing in Serbia.
No action has been taken on other terms of the agreement, including ending economic discrimination against Albanians, the integration of Albanians into the administration of local governments with proportional representation, and the reduction of Serb military forces in the region. On top of this, the Serbian government announced that it would not recognize degrees from the University of Prishtina. Since most college-educated Albanians hold diplomas from this university, they are de facto excluded from professional and governmental positions. Finally, in an act of provocation, a Serbian military base is being built between Presheve and Bujanoc, and some Albanian factories and schools have been turned into barracks.
Although the peace agreement calls for the establishment of a new legal framework, this has been put on hold because of the conflicts between Serbia and Montenegro and the unresolved status of Kosova. The current Serbian legal system contains no provisions for the protection of human rights; the region has no official municipal body that monitors human rights abuses; and Belgrade refuses to allow international human rights organizations, such as the Helsinki Commission, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, to enter the Presheve Valley.
When the peace agreement was signed, the Albanians of Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc were led to believe that genuine political dialogue and negotiations would begin
to bring civil and human rights to their community. As Congressman Ben Gilman stated in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell in September 2001, “If the United States is serious about building interethnic trust, stabilizing the Balkans, and preventing renewed armed conflict, then we must ensure that the Albanians of Presheve receive the remedies that they were promised. If the Serbian government is masking a failure to live up to the agreement, then the Administration should expose this and bar further assistance to Belgrade until there is full compliance with international law.” The Civic League hopes that the House and Senate foreign relations committees will not only adopt this position but also go further to refocus attention on the Presheve Valley, which was part of Kosova until Serbia annexed it in 1956.
A Credible Census Is Needed Before Local Elections
When the Serbian army retreated from Kosova in the summer of 1999, they withdrew into the Presheve Valley, arresting, torturing, and killing hundreds of thousands of Albanians and expelling 30,000. As of the end of 2001, only 12,000 Albanians had returned to their homes.” Either a U.S. or EU envoy should be appointed to monitor the situation in the Presheve Valley, to bring visibility to the region’s problems, and to expedite reforms. In addition, a substantial part of international development aid for the former Yugoslavia should be earmarked for Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc.
The issue of the Albanians displaced from the Presheve Valley is a major factor in advance of the forthcoming elections in the middle of June 2002. Called two years in advance of schedule, Stefano Sannino, the head of the OSCE mission to Serbia and Montenegro, has hailed the decision as “an essential element of the ongoing democratic process in south Serbia.” Albanians, meanwhile, have been insisting on elections, because they rightly argue that several local councils are undemocratic, Serbian-dominated relics of the Milosevic era. But they have also insisted that these elections cannot be successful in the absence of a reliable census. On March 30, 2002, the Council of Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc issued a statement, signed by Presheve Mayor Riza Halimi, that criticized the lack of “adequate preparation” for the census and demanded that the Serbian government, in cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), set a new date for the census and then implement it properly. “Our main demand is to register those displaced from their homes, and we also want the participation of the OSCE,” Halimi told Deutsche Presse-Agentur. Halimi also reported that the Serbian government was refusing to redefine the electoral units according to census results.
Jonusz Musliu, former political spokesman for the UCPMB, told KosovaLive on April 2 that unless the international community is called in to monitor the census, it should be boycotted. The Albanian American Civic League concurs. It would be far better for Albanians in Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc to boycott the census than to participate in
a process that can be manipulated by Belgrade to change the demographics of the Presheve Valley in Serbia’s favor. It is already an ominous sign that Belgrade has nominated two Albanians for the nine-member municipal commission for the census
without consulting the legitimate Albanian political representatives. More important, the conditions for the return of all deportees have not been met three years after the war’s end (in Medvejge alone, 90 percent are still displaced), and the potential exclusion of thousands of these legitimate residents of southern Serbia automatically invalidates the census and the local elections that are scheduled for June 16, 2002. Meanwhile, Serbia began an official policy on March 5 of buying up property in Presheve in an orchestrated attempt to create a stronghold in the Valley. It is therefore imperative that the OSCE monitor the census on the ground and also make it possible for the displaced, most of whom are in Kosova, to be counted.
Even if all conditions are met, it will be preferable to postpone the local elections until the fall to coincide with or follow the September elections in Kosova.This will prevent Belgrade from trying to exact concessions from UNMIK in return for Serb participation in the Kosova elections, which would have a disastrous impact on the future of both Kosova and the Presheve Valley. Some of the Serb leaders have already said that they plan to demand the creation of new municipalities and the redrawing of municipal borders (dividing Mitrovice, for example), extra-autonomy for municipalities, and the establishment of separate Serbian and Albanian administrations, judiciaries, and police forces in mixed communities. The Serbian government clearly sees the elections as a way to increase their grip on Kosova, and the danger exists that the international community, eager to demonstrate successful “multiethnic elections,” will yield to some of these demands. This is exactly what happened last year, when then UNMIK administrator Hans Haekkerup and Nebojsa Covic signed the “UNMIK-FRY Common Document,” without consulting the Albanian political leaders in Kosova, in the name of encouraging participation by Kosova’s Serbian community in the general elections that were held on November 17, 2001. Not surprisingly, Covic immediately heralded the document as “the start of Yugoslavia’s return to Kosovo.”
Albanians in Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc can neutralize the potential threat to Kosova and to their communities by delaying the municipal elections in the Presheve Valley and by giving Covic a set of conditions for their participation in them. The first objective should be to achieve parity between the status of Kosova’s Serbs and the Albanians in the Presheve Valley by insisting that both communities must enjoy the same rights. To this end, Albanians in southern Serbia should warn the international community that they will boycott the census and the subsequent election unless they are afforded the same rights that Kosova’s Serbs were given during Kosova’s civil registration and elections last year, including OSCE presence. (This strategy will actually help the international community reject excessive demands by Belgrade, which has been working hard to empower Kosova’s Serbian population to operate independently of Prishtina.)
Finally, Albanians in Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc—as a minority in Serbia but as a majority in southern Serbia—should make a concerted diplomatic effort to insist that Belgrade and the international community recognize their human and civil rights.
This would potentially force the Serbian government to end its repressive measures against non-Slavs and to become more realistic in its demands for Kosova’s Serbs. This, in turn, would make Serbian authorities more responsive to democracy and the rule of law, thus contributing to peace and stability throughout the region.