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Southern Serbia’s Albanian-majority Presevo Valley is one of the rare conflict resolution success stories in the former Yugoslavia. Outwardly, it is increasingly normal, with no major incidents in over three years. Yet, tensions linger: massive unemployment is still the single largest problem but the shadow of Kosovo’s future status darkens the political landscape. How Kosovo’s final status is determined in the next months will have a profound impact. If formal partition or large-scale violence accompanies independence, the peace could unravel; in a worst case scenario, ethnic cleansing in southern Serbia would be accompanied by significant, cross-boundary, two-way refugee flows. All parties – local Albanian politicians, the Serbian government and the international community – need to work with greater urgency on developing the region’s economy and ensuring that developments in Kosovo do not disrupt its peaceful progress.
In 2001 the international community – NATO, the U.S. and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in particular – working in close cooperation with Serbia’s authorities, successfully negotiated an end to an armed Albanian insurgency in the valley (the Konculj Agreement). Since then substantial donor and Serbian government investment has created noticeable albeit slow progress, including the formation of multi-ethnic local governments, joint Albanian-Serb police patrols and improvements in the Albanian-language media. Importantly, for the first time since 2000 Albanians participated in national politics, electing a representative to Serbia’s parliament in the January 2007 elections. Nevertheless, education reform and integration of Albanians into the judiciary and other public organs remain disappointing.
Grievances abound on both sides. Most local Albanians feel peace has not delivered an end to tensions with Serb security forces or the promised prosperity. Serbs feel the Albanians are a disloyal, irredentist minority, which continues to flout Serbian sovereignty and endanger what has traditionally been an economically important north-south trade route. In some instances Albanians, when exercising their newly found majority power against Serbs, fuel charges of reverse discrimination.
All Presevo Valley Albanian politicians want to join Kosovo and have adopted a platform demanding that the valley’s three municipalities be awarded to it in the event Kosovo is partitioned. But those same politicians mostly know this is not realistic: Belgrade and its security forces will not permit it. In the event anti-Serb violence breaks out in Kosovo, both Albanian and Serbian extremists may wish to foment incidents in the valley, Albanians in the hope of uniting it with Kosovo or pressuring Belgrade to give up partition and Serbs with the hope of using the cover of violence next door to ethnically cleanse the valley. Some in Serbia wish to see population transfers between Kosovo’s Serbian enclaves and southern Serbia.
Kosovo’s unresolved status and Belgrade’s resulting lack of clear policy direction are hampering the political and economic changes needed to move forward on many critical issues in the area, for Serbs and Albanians alike. As life has seemed to become more normal, donor interest has declined; Belgrade wants to close the special Coordination Body (CB) that supervises implementation of the Konculj Agreement and transfer its competencies to the regular government institutions.
For now at least, southern Serbia’s Albanian politicians and population eschew any violent attempts to achieve union with an independent Kosovo, but rogue elements operating from Kosovo may wish to stir the pot. To maintain the hard-won peace in the difficult days ahead, the international community will need to be engaged, pressing both Belgrade and Albanian politicians to fulfil all aspects of the Konculj Agreement, while focusing more attention on the local economy. At the same time, the Serbian government should revitalise the Coordination Body (CB), which despite its problems, performs a valuable function.
To Contact Group Embassies (France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the UK and U.S.) in Belgrade and the OSCE:
1. Continually urge all parties in southern Serbia to refrain from violence, no matter what happens in Kosovo.
To the NATO Mission in Kosovo (KFOR):
2. Prevent in all circumstances Albanians from ethnically cleansing Serbs from the Kosovo enclaves and any would-be insurgents from crossing the boundary between Kosovo and southern Serbia.
To UNDP and International Donors:
3. Extend the life of the MIR2 development program and work with the governments of Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia on programs to develop the economies in Vranje, Skopje and Pristina in order to better and more fully integrate the multi-ethnic population of southern Serbia into economic, social and political life in those urban centres.
To the Government of Serbia:
4. Improve the effectiveness of the Coordination Body, including by involving civil society organisations in its operations, and extend its life until at least 2010.
5. Prevent security forces, both formal and informal, from taking revenge on southern Serbia’s Albanian population in the event Kosovo declares independence.
6. Stop and begin to reverse the impact of discriminatory employment and investment practices in southern Serbia.
To Albanian Politicians in Southern Serbia:
7. End the boycott of the Coordination Body, cooperate fully with it, participate in Serbian political life, particularly national elections, and avoid provocative display of Albanian national symbols.
Belgrade/Pristina/Brussels, 16 October 2007