Thursday, December 29, 2005

Will the Serbs be safe when Kosovo becomes independent?

In a recent interview James Lyon, the Serbia project director for the International Crisis Group claims that
At present, the Kosovo Albanians view the Serb presence as an obstacle to achieving their independence aspirations. They view Serbs as agents of the Serbian state that for so long repressed them and conducted an official policy of state terror against them. As long as Kosovo’s status is unresolved, the Albanians will treat them as an unwelcome foreign organism that represents policies of a Greater Serbia. When Kosovo’s status is resolved in favor of independence, then it will be logical to expect that the Albanian majority will no longer view the Serb minority as a threat.

He goes on to say that the present situation is onworkable and that independence is the best solution (without saying why). But in the end it appears that he is perfectly prepared to sacrific Kosovo's Serbs for that "best solution":
The final status of Kosovo will probably be decided sometime in 2006. It is widely expected that Belgrade will refuse any outcome that gives independence to Kosovo. Should Belgrade refuse to sign off, independence will proceed without Serbia, which could have negative repercussions for Kosovo’s Serbian minority and give them far fewer privileges than should Belgrade participate.

But let's go back to the question whether the position of the Serbs will improve if Kosovo becomes independent. In Bosnia and Croatia the situation is rather negative. Many refugees have returned, but very often only to sell their property. And many of the people who do stay are older people. In areas that were still multi-ethnic at the end of the war - like Sarajevo - the minorities are still leaving. But Mr. Lyon does not want to see this.

But let's not be too negative. Bosnians lived peacefull together before the war and at some point they will find common ground again - allthough I doubt if that will be in a common state. For Kosovo the history is much more negative. And I fear that Kosovo's Serbs waits the same fate as Turkey's Greek minority (at about 1/3 of the page), that was slowly driven out until long after the 1922 war. The worst times were probably the anti-Greek riots in 1955, that had much similarity to Kosovo's march 2004 riots.

Allthough many newspapers like to use terms as "revenge attacks" for the Albanian attacks on Kosovo's Serbs they date from far before the war. Edith Durham described allready in 1908 in her book High Albania (chapters 9 and 10) a delicate position for the Serbs. After 1913 (when Serbia conquered Kosovo) the position of the Serbs improved (and the position of the Albanians worsened), but as soon as the Albanians got more power in the 1960s the Serb position worsened again. The 1999 war only made a bad situation worse.

In both Turkey and Kosovo the hostility is based on the desire to rob the minority of their property. Remember the names with claims on the houses in Svinjare after the 2004 riots. This should not be confused with the pilfering that happens in nearly every war. That is stopped once the violence is over and the rule of law is re-established.

The situation is Kosovo and Turkey reminds me more of the anti-Jewish pogroms in 19th century Russia and the anti-Christian pogroms in the Ottoman empire. In all those cases you had a situation where the rule of law was not valued and instead a zero-sum view of society prevailed: "if the others get rich it must be at our expense. And so we are entitled to take it back.".

After the march 2004 drownings one saw in the first 2 days many conflicting versions of what had happened. Only later some standard story appeared. But just as with any pogrom many people were not interested in what really happened. They had a reason to "teach the Serbs a lesson" and that was all they wanted. Even now it is hard to find an Albanian who really regrets the riots - except that it spoiled their image with the foreigners.

But pogroms are just the tip of iceberg. They are used when the minority is getting too self confident. More usually is a situation of harassment and discrmination. In Kosovo many of those incidents happen - not daily, but often enough to prevent people from having a normal life. Things are stolen or destroyed, people beaten up, houses or barns set on fire, occasionally someone is murdered or simply disappears. And usually the Albanian neighbours pretend never to have seen or heared a thing. In this type of climate biased justice and police are the norm. And Kosovo's politicians do just enough to keep the internationals content (usually just some cheap talk), but they don't seem motivated to really improve the situation.

I do believe that Kosovo should become independent. But I am very pessimistic about the future of the Serbs there. The scenario is too predictable:
- the first wave of Serbs will leave Kosovo once it becomes independent
- next we will see the Albanians taking control of Northern Mitrovica and adjacent Zvecan. As there is at the moment no city in Kosovo where still live more than a handfull of Serbs the result is predictable: slowly all Serbs will leave the city.
- this will rob the Serbs in the rest of Kosovo of their nearest shopping and services centre. As many still don't trust to be safe in Kosovo's cities, they will have to drive an hour more for Kraljevo or Nis. This will lead to another wave of departures.
- the remainder is predictable. The pressure will keep on and slowly more will leave. Kosovo's government will very probably play an active role in this. We might even see a "development plan for the North" in order to stimulate Albanian settlement in this now predominantly Serb area.

So I think that we should secede Northern Kosovo from the rest (the Albanians could have a part of the Presevo Valley in return). And if we are really serious about minority right we should use the only type of sanctions that works: territorial sanctions. According to this Kosovo would have to give Serbia some territory if after 10 years more than a certain amount of Serbs have left.

Will a split of Kosovo have negative consequences for the stability of the rest of the Balkan? That depends on how the West behaves. As for mr. Lyon, he should stick to the title of his interview: "Kosovo 'domino effect’ no longer genuine issue".


arianit said...

First off, by no domino effect, Lyon means indepedence for Kosova in the present borders. If the borders are changed, though, that's a whole different issue.
In politics and diplomacy everything is possible along with the name you put on it. North of Iber will have very broad autonomy (they will call this devolution of cetnral authority to the municipalities) that amounts to them not caring about Prishtina anymore and having an open border with Serbia (and maybe closed one with Kosova). In return, Presheva Valley will ask for the same rights but stay withing the borders of Serbia.

Will the situation of K-Serbs improve? Even if Albanians behave in the best way, you still have the issue of economy for the Serbs. Since Kosova is considered poor in comparison to Serbia, there will be a tendency of those seeking employment and other opportunities to move to northern Serbia where the situation is better and there is somewhat less discrimination. In fact, I read that Serbs are selling off and leaving even from the Presheva Valley where they are not minority everywhere but which is as devoid of opportunity as Kosova. If the present economic situation continues, I'm predicting that north Mitrovica will empty out of young Serbs as well once Belgrade stops flushing the area with cash, at which point Albanians will start buying their property in hard currency.
But there is hope. Some 1/3 of the trade of Kosova is done with Serbia. Another third is done with Macedonia, which could easily shift towards Serbia if the relations with K-Serbs and Serbia itself were better. Serbs of Kosova could play a role in this trade.
Serbs have to change their way of thinking and sacrifice if they really love this land as much as they claim they do. It won't be easy , but there are things that depend strictly on them. Start by turning over the criminals among them and apologizing for the attempted genocide instead of flashing Milosevic symbols when they visit their homes. Only then can Albanians forgive them. Only somebody that doesn't want to live here would root for Milosevic and Seselj in Kosova. Next, they could join the security services as well and accept the reality. Things not to do: the Serb church in Gjakova recieved the ex-mayor who is accused of making the hit lists during the war in church clothes and asked Italian soldiers to escort him from Montenegro. How do you think Gjakovars dealt with that church during the March riots? The same guy was sent in talks to disucss the return of Serbs to Gjakova. Bad, bad choice!

Good point there with the analogy of one the fortunes of one side declining while the other one rised. But that that could be only relative and doesn't necessarily mean discrimination. Before the 1960's, Serbs got almost all the security jobs, all the executive jobs, were first in line and everybody in town I know of got an apartment from the state. After 1972, they still had a disproportionally number of security jobs. Education in their language no matter what the class size. Everyone got an appartment from the employer. Communication in the presence of even one Serb was conducted in Serbian (note: there was no law asking for this) - no wonder today the "discriminated" can hardly speak Albanian and yet the "discriminators" (us) speak it so widely.
But in 1972 Albanians started getting the executive jobs. You would certainly expect that since the ratio in the population was more like 8:1, right? So when we talk about discrimination, empirical evidence and statistics are by far the best measurer since values of what is fair certainly are warped in the eyes of K-Serbs who were pampered for so long.

In conclusion: there is a lot of potential and yet a lot of if's and but's, so I must agree with you that the future of Serbs is bleak.

You forgot to mention the ethnic cleansing of Turks from Greek occupied territories. Turkish cleansing was often in reaction to the Greek side (and I'm not downgrading Turkish capacity for brutality) until both sides ended up with ethnicly cleaned states. Actually, Turks were the latest to develop nationalism (even behind Albanians) with the rise of Young Turks, who's strongest adherents were people that were cleaned up by the Greeks and Bulgars in the struggle for the region of Macedonia (think: Thessaloniki was majority Mulsim, Jews second, Slavs third, Greeks fourth) in the 19th century.

Wim Roffel said...

Lyons said that the region had stabilized enough. If changing borders in Kosovo changes everything for the whole region then that stability is the stability of a house of cards: it will tumble down sooner or later.

I don't believe the Kosovo government really wants to give the Serbs autonomy. They have now fielded several proposals for municipal reorganisation that basically sabotate what the international community wants. They reacted negatively when the ICG proposed autonomy for the Serbs. Maybe the Serbs will get in the end something that looks good on paper. But if the Kosovo government doesn't believe in it it will not work out in practice.

Economics is part of the problem. But at the moment many Serbs are afraid to work their land. And if they have some money to spend they won't invest it in Kosovo in the present climate.

Are the Serbs a minority in Kosovo or are the Kosovo Albanians a minority in Serbia? It is just the way you look at it. Until recently the last was true - at least for the Serbs. Now they will have to adapt to the other view.

You are blaming the Serbs for clinging to Serb nationalist symbols like Milosevic. The problem is that for many of them it seems the only way to have a future in Kosovo.

The Serbs in Kosovo have moderate leaders too. But what can they promise their followers? They are ignored and sometimes ridiculed in the Kosovo parliament. And they don't have Albanian counterparts who really believe in living peaceful together.

The Albanians now rule Kosovo. It is up to them to define a situation in which the Serbs can feel at home - with power comes responsibility.

And sorry to say, but what happened in 1999 was definitely not "attempted genocide". The whole operation was basically a copy of what the Croats had done to the Serbs in "operation Storm" (Milosevic copied much from the Croats). The strategy is that you kill a few people to show that you are serious and then the others will leave without protest. Several factors contributed to it that more people were killed than in the Krajna: a bigger population to drive out, a less diciplined army, the use of criminal militia like Arkan's and the bad ethnic relations before the war. But the aim was to drive out people - not to kill them.

You say that Serbs have to "start by turning over the criminals among them and apologizing for the attempted genocide" and that it all depends strictly on them. I think this is nonsense. We live in a time where everyone is innocent until proven guilty. You turn this upside down and deny every Serb his civil rights just because some Serbs committed war crimes.

And what about Albanian war crimes. Kosovo's Albanians are at least as defiant about their war criminals as Kosovo's Serbs about their's. They have even demonstrations for them.

As for Turkey-Greece: a lot happened before and during the 1922 war. I am now talking about the period after that war and the Lausanne "population exchanges" that followed. It was then agreed that Greeks should be allowed to stay in Istanbul and that Turcs should be allowed to stay in the North-eastern Greece near the Turkish border. The Greeks kept their word and you can still find a Turkish minority there. But nearly all Greeks have left Istanbul.

Estavisti said...

I've just found your blog and despite the small number of posts I'm very impressed. You've managed to articulate some of the main feelings that lead to the war, that even the people involved were (on the whole) not able to. Your comments are the most clear sighted I've read for a very long time. Looking forward to your next post...

John1975 said...

I once had a good Serb freind who swore to me that Serbia would never let Kosovo go.

"That is our land and the Serbs will fight to the very end before some international force takes it from us", he would say.

To be honest with you I have little experience or knowledge of Kosovo.

And, I really don't believe what my friend was saying to be true. He was simply venting some built frustration. I did, though, here stuff like this often in the Srpska Republika about Kosovo.


arianit said...


I'm back ;) to the discussion of our joyous subject. My problem with your writings is that you tend to take things out of context. While I don't intend to protect Turkey's human rights record here, just to let you know that Turks from Thrace are gradually leaving for Turkey as we speak. The irony here is that Greece is in the European Union and is supposed to share the same values with the rest of Europe, for which Turkey is being kept out. Greece is also maintaining a declared state of war with Albania from WWII because it doesn't want to allow the return of expelled Chams to their occupied homes and property. The Chams that remained in the territory of Greece cannot speak Albanian in public. Athens is the only European capital that doesn't have (they were destroyed earlier) nor does not allow the construction of a mosque. And again, Greece is a an EU member so I think you are asking a bit too much from Albanians. From the past I can deduce that the sooner we clear out things with the Serbs in Kosova the sooner will get into our way to EU.

Wim Roffel said...

Hello Arianit,

Welcome back to my blog.
There are many ways to make life difficult for minorities. Greece has a very restrictive policy that doesn't give minorities much special rights and aims for assimilation. But this is definitely different from the violence that drove out many Greeks from Turkey.

Also it is so that just as Serbs from Kosovo go to Belgrade or Nis to study and work, so many Turks from Greece go to Istanbul or Edirne rather than to Thessaloniki.

But the subject from my post was not to discuss minority rights in the Balkan. The question was "Will the Serbs in Kosovo be safe when Kosovo becomes independent". It is well known the Serbs in Kosovo at the moment are not safe and that many are afraid to leave their village. Some people are now trying to make us believe that Kosovo's Albanians are just a bit too nervous about becoming independent and that - when Kosovo is independent - life will become easier for the Serbs. My answer is the example of the Greeks in Turkey where the violence continued long after the Greeks stopped to be a threat. And I fear that the conditions in Kosovo are very similar as they were in Turkey.

I am very well aware that minority rights are about more than physical safety. But this post was just about that.