Preparing for the Inevitable Serbs in Kosovo Uneasy as Independence Looms

What happens when Kosovo becomes independent? While Belgrade threatens war as an option, Serbs in the province are preparing for the inevitable -- or getting ready to move away.

By Renate Flottau


Few pedestrians ever walk across the bridge dividing Mitrovica into its Albanian southern half and Serbian north. Giant rolls of barbed wire are lined up along the railing, to be used as barriers should violence erupt in the city once again. Dozens of tall buildings lining both sides of the river form opposing fronts of concrete, providing cover for snipers to hide behind windows, ready to transform this old industrial city into a death zone at a moment's notice.

Serbs attend a protest in the ethnically divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica Dec. 18, 2007.
REUTERS

Serbs attend a protest in the ethnically divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica Dec. 18, 2007.

Geographically speaking, the Serbian section of Mitrovica marks the beginning of northern Kosovo, but in reality this is already Serbia. Serbian plainclothes police officers suspiciously size up every pedestrian who crosses the bridge spanning the Ibar River and enters their territory. Posters depicting radical Serbian leader Vojislav Seselj -- currently on trial for war crimes before the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague -- hang from most buildings and shops, with the words "The Conqueror" printed below. Blue signs marked "Boulevard Ratko Mladic" hang on house doors, indicating who the true heroes are in this part of Kosovo. Mladic, a Serbian general in the Bosnian war, is said to have ordered his soldiers to "shoot only at human flesh."

Mitrovica's Serbs also have a number of new heroes. One of them is Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose photograph is displayed on kiosks and in bars. A wide banner, framed by the Serbian and Russian flags, is stretched across the sidewalk in downtown Mitrovica and reads "Help us, Russia." Across the street, a new memorial has been built to Russian Consul Grigory Stepanovic-Scerbini. Serbs have considered him a martyr ever since he was killed in Mitrovica by the Turks in March 1903, when this part of Serbia was still under Ottoman rule. At the time, Serbs hoped that his death would prompt Russia to declare war on Turkey. But the Russian czar had no such plans and, according to historical accounts, was content with financial compensation from the sultan.

Today's Serbs have also pinned their hopes on the Russians coming to their aid if Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority opts for independence instead of continuing as a Serbian province.

About a dozen soldiers from the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), which has provided security in the small province since the 1999 war, are sitting in Pizzeria Nr. 1 in downtown Mitrovica. The men are supposed to be outside on patrol, but the cold and rainy weather has brought them indoors, where they insist they can be reached by radio.

Marko Jaksic is also a regular at the pizzeria. An orthopedist and the director of a local hospital, he was part of the Serbian delegation to the recent negotiations over Kosovo's future led by a trio of international diplomats. War is inevitable, Jaksic says coolly, and it will lead to Serbia reestablishing sovereignty over the province. He is convinced that not even the battalions of the German military, the Bundeswehr, stationed along Kosovo's northern border with Serbia since November will be able to prevent this from happening. The contingent of more than 500 Germans, together with 200 US soldiers, was deployed to the region to prevent the north from seceding and becoming part of Serbia as soon as the government in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, declares independence.

Jaksic finds the international community's maneuvers extremely amusing. Serbia, he says, has long been negotiating with Moscow over weapons shipments and the deployment of Russian military advisors who, as he says, could easily be slipped past the Germans and Americans and brought into Kosovo.

Since the trio of diplomats from the European Union, the United States and Russia declared their mission a failure on Dec. 10, the only remaining issue is Kosovo's timing in declaring independence. Hashim Thaçi, the likely future prime minister, has promised to coordinate his efforts with Washington and Brussels. With the United States serving as Kosovo's protector, Albania and Macedonia will likely set an example by quickly recognizing the new country, with most European Union nations expected to follow suit.

But what happens after that?

Serbia has issued a number of threats, including blocking transit routes for ethnic Albanians and cutting off power supplies to Kosovo. "We will not yield one centimeter of Serbian territory, and we will ignore any declaration of independence by the Kosovo leadership," says Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. Serbia could also attempt to incite its fellow Serbs in Bosnia to secede with their Republika Srpska "as compensation for the loss of Kosovo." And in northern Mitrovica, an office intended to serve as the seat of a Serbian parallel government has already been opened, despite protests from the United Nations administration.

Serbian President Boris Tadic has inspired somewhat more confidence in the West than Kostunica. He has assured the international community that his country will only defend Kosovo by peaceful means, but he has also made it known that he will appeal to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to determine whether it is even legal, under international law, for the southern province to declare independence unilaterally. As president, Tadic is also the commander-in-chief of the military, although this could change after the Serbian presidential elections set for Jan. 20. Tadic faces stiff competition from Tomislav Nikolic, the candidate for the Serbian Radical Party.

For most Serbs, Kosovo is the cradle of their nation. The Serbs fought the historic Battle of Kosovo against the Ottoman Turks in 1389, and the region is home to many of their Orthodox monasteries. Serbian newspapers and television stations have recently intensified their criticism of the West, rehashing former President Slobodan Milosevic old war propaganda by referring to the Kosovo conflict as a malevolent game for the major powers. Even the respected daily newspaper Blic has incited Serbs in northern Kosovo to violence by claiming that there is "information that the international community would not intervene in a limited revolt" and would not oppose a partition of Kosovo.

The media hysterics have been met with enthusiasm in the northern part of the province. But elsewhere in Kosovo, with its more than 80,000 Serbs living in enclaves, the reaction has been decidedly different.

Roads with potholes so deep that even Jeeps can only travel at a snail's pace lead to Caglavica, less than a 10-minute drive from Pristina. The few stray chickens roaming in front of houses suggest that people still live here. But despite the fact that, according to official statistics, the village still counts close to 1,000 residents, there is no one in sight. Budimir Nicic, the community's 30-year-old mayor, points to a fenced-in meadow in front of his house, which he says was sold for 2 million. According to Nicic, the Albanians are paying astronomical prices -- up to 30,000 per hectare (2.47 acres) -- for worthless pasture and farmland. The sales have turned pig farmers into overnight millionaires, who have used the proceeds to buy themselves villas in Serbian cities.

Nicic is more incensed with Belgrade than with the Kosovo-Albanians, who he is convinced are deliberately buying up property in Serbian enclaves. "We feel manipulated and abandoned," says the mayor. According to Nicic, not a single politician from the Serbian capital has visited Caglavica in eight years, despite the fact that Albanian extremists have carried out eight bombing attacks, claiming two lives, since the war. Belgrade, he says, pays the wages of community residents, but only those who comply unquestioningly with its political directives.

Gracanica, a nearby Serbian enclave, is much livelier. In addition to serving the shopping needs of smaller Serbian villages in the surrounding area, Gracanica has also emerged as a center for business-minded attorneys and so-called brokering agencies. Many inhabitants have already secured houses and apartments in southern Serbia, says Zoran Stankovic, the editor-in-chief of Radio Gracanica. According to Stankovic, Gracanica's former residents have sold portions of their properties, and many return to the town only on weekends.

Radio Gracanica, a Serbian radio station that broadcasts throughout Kosovo, employs a staff of 30, most of them earning less than 100 a month. The station derives its funding almost exclusively from the sale of on-air messages Serbs send to each other. Because of the volatile situation in the province, says Stankovic, he has cancelled his employees' vacations for December and January. The editorial staff is considering how best to notify its listeners if violence erupts in Kosovo. According to opinion polls, this would prompt more than 70 percent of Serbs living in the south to leave Kosovo. The government in Belgrade is said to have already developed evacuation plans.

But not everyone plans to leave. A nun who looks to be about 70 and lives in the orthodox monastery in Gracanica, with its famous five-domed church in the Byzantine style 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of Pristina, says she would rather die than be driven from sacred Serbian territory. KFOR soldiers guard the tall stone walls of the monastery, built in 1310, to protect it against attacks by ethnic Albanians. The church, its walls adorned with frescoes, is empty and bitterly cold. Only a few dinar bills beneath icons and candelabras are testimony to the occasional visitor.

The monastery is home to Bishop Artemije, who was critical of the Milosevic regime and condemned the atrocities Serbs committed against the Albanians. But this hasn't prevented him from being vehemently opposed to independence for Kosovo. In fact, Artemije even wants to see Belgrade issue "military threats" should the West turn the province into an independent nation.

The bishop is the only true Serb left in the area, says the nun. She is adamant when she says that blood -- a lot of it -- will have to flow so that the old order can be reestablished.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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