30 March 2006

New borders, old tensions key to volatile area's future (Part 1/5)



MITROVICA -- Lifelong farmers Bozidar and Gordana Ahtic live illegally in an abandoned, half-finished apartment complex in a refugee-crammed city on the northern edge of a place that is not part of any recognized country.


They have no nation, no passport and no ability to visit their valley farm without weeks of planning and considerable danger. Fleeing is impossible, because their United Nations ID cards are not recognized at any national border.


The soft-spoken couple in their late sixties are quintessential citizens of the current Balkans. Their lives are tenuous, their borders uncertain, their status ambiguous.


But all that is about to change. This region was known as Yugoslavia before Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing campaign of the 1990s turned it into a cartographer's nightmare and an expensive ward of international organizations. This year it is about to undergo some dramatic upheavals.


Canada has poured more than a billion dollars and thousands of peacekeepers into this corner of Europe during the past 15 years, and in many ways this year's decisions will determine whether it was all worth it. The former Yugoslavia is, after all, the first post-Cold War experiment in international nation-building. With the brokered end of the Bosnian war in 1995 and the 2000 surrender of Mr. Milosevic after a NATO bombing campaign (which cost Canada $500-million), more than 100,000 international soldiers, aid workers and overseers moved into the five countries of the former Yugoslavia in hopes of turning them into peaceful democracies. But it is still not clear whether these can achieve a lasting peace.


And the Ahtics, members of the small and persecuted Serb minority in poor, Albanian-dominated Kosovo, are now pawns. Their small population is the most fought-after group in this region of Serbia, and their response to the coming changes could determine whether this year will see a move toward peaceful, European-style co-operation or a step back into the horrifying ethnic showdowns of the past.


But, as far as they are concerned, their interests are much simpler. "I just want to be able to go to my farm, and live in it, without someone burning it down or stealing all its cows," Mr. Ahtic says as he wrestles his pickup truck out of a parking garage.


But, in a sign of the tensions that will make this year's international negotiations extremely tense, his simple request is not so easy to grant. Despite billions of dollars spent by the UN, NATO and the European Union, some seemingly simple things are still impossible here.


The other day, Mr. Ahtic did what the United Nations officials who run Kosovo describe this way: "A group of K-Serb IDPs were assisted on a pre-return GSV across the Mitrovica boundary."


That is, he and some other Kosovo Serbs, who became Internally Displaced Persons after their farms were destroyed by angry Albanians in 1999 in revenge against Serbs for Mr. Milosevic's mass slaughter of Albanians, were driven for a heavily guarded "Go-to-See-Visit" to their half-wrecked farmhouses in a city completely divided between its ethnically Albanian south and Serb north.


Now the UN, the EU, NATO and most of the governments in this region want such delicate and expensive international hand-holding to come to an end. In the years since NATO bombs put a stop to Mr. Milosevic in 1999, the region has been technically at peace. But its cities are clogged with more than 500,000 refugees like the Ahtics, its key regions are either isolated rogue states (Serbia-Montenegro) or wards of the UN and the EU (Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo), its ambiguous status has turned it into the international centre for human trafficking, drug smuggling, slavery, organized crime and Islamist terrorist cells. The stakes of this year's decisions are extremely high. This is, after all, a region that has historically sent waves of violence and extremism across Europe. It's also a chance to prove that nation-building can work at a time when support for such efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan is waning.


So three crucial decisions will be made this year, under the close watch of international monitors, that will change the future of the region and redraw the map of Europe:


This spring, the people of Montenegro, a tiny, mountainous slice that, since 2003 has been called a "distinct society" in the nation now known as Serbia-Montenegro, will hold a referendum on independence. If they vote Yes, as is expected, then Europe will gain a new country, and Serbians will feel their territory shrink.


By the end of the year, Bosnia-Herzegovina will likely stop being a colony of the international community and become a single, united nation. Since its horrendous war ended in 1995 with the Dayton accord, it has been divided into dysfunctional ethnic enclaves: The Serb-controlled Republika Srpska; and the Bosnian Muslim and Croatian Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, both overseen by a European Union representative. And that representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, said in an interview at his Sarajevo office last week that he plans to be the last person to hold that job, and to transform Bosnia-Herzegovina by the end of this year.


Most crucially, the future of Kosovo, the disputed Albanian-dominated southern province of Serbia that became a UN protectorate after Mr. Milosevic's forces were driven out in 1999, will have its status resolved in international talks that resumed last week. The result will almost certainly turn it into an independent nation.


All three decisions run the risk of turning what remains of Serbia back into the angry, nationalistic, expansionist power that it became in the 1990s. Or Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and their neighbours could follow the former Yugoslav countries of Slovenia and Croatia, which have become prosperous, tourist-friendly European countries in recent years. Much depends on the reaction of Serbs in Serbia, and even more on those Serbs who live in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.


Officials from Serbia's government, and the UN and EU officials who are overseeing the Kosovo negotiations, say they are terrified that hundreds of thousands of displaced, angry Serbs from Kosovo, like Mr. Ahtic, will flee northward, or that the Serb population, who see Kosovo as their religious and historical heartland, will be radicalized and elect another violent ethnic-nationalist strongman like Mr. Milosevic.


For his part, Mr. Ahtic finds little comfort in his political influence. On a rare visit the other day to the ghost town that was his farming village, he stepped through the burned-out wreckage of his once-productive farm. He surveyed the decaying frame of the new house built by the UN, which he was forced to abandon in March of 2004 during a second wave of Albanian riots and killings. The village lost 600 cows and 16 tractors, and all its residents fled.


Given this experience, he was surprisingly eager to see Kosovo's status resolved this year, even if it becomes an independent nation with an Albanian majority.


"I want to stay here, in Kosovo, tending to my farm, and I'll do it if only there can be enough security that I know my family won't be attacked. If there isn't security, I may have to go to Serbia, but I'm not wanted there, either."


There are other signs of optimism throughout the region. To visit Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, or Belgrade in Serbia today is to find lively, comparatively prosperous cities with a cosmopolitan bent: Serbs now are vast consumers of Croatian and Slovenian TV, pop music and food, and Belgrade has become a party destination for Croats and Bosnians. Sarajevo, the shell-cratered Bosnian capital where thousands died in a three-year siege, has regained the spirit of multiethnic jouissance that it enjoyed before the massacres, and has become a leading European centre for theatre and filmmaking.


There are those who feel that Serbia is returning to moderation, and will propel the whole region into European normalcy.


"I strongly believe the country is on the right track. It's just a question of the speed," said Marko Blagojevic, a pollster with the Center for Free Elections and Democracy in Belgrade. "There are really two Serbias. There's the one Serbia that supports the values of the democratic reformers. Those are pro-European values. And on the other hand there are those who share the values of the socialists and the radicals; Milosevic's values."


But this optimism quickly fades if you step outside the major cities. And, as Mr. Blagojevic's polls indicate, Serbia's political balance is extremely unstable. The country is in many ways still a pariah state, isolated from European and world affairs. The EU has made it clear that Serbia will continue to be shunned until it allows Kosovo to go its own way and finds Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the military and political leaders responsible for the most horrific mass murders of the 1990s wars, handing them over to the international court in The Hague. Serbian officials have indicated that they are in negotiations with Mr. Mladic's people, hold Mr. Karadzic in their sights, and are willing to compromise on Kosovo.


But in the countryside of Serbia, in the Serb-minority districts of Kosovo, and in Bosnia's Serb-dominated district of Republika Srpska, many Serbs are not interested in turning their backs on the ethnic-nationalist past. In fact, they are becoming less, not more, European-oriented.


This becomes painfully clear on a visit to Novi Sad, a city in northern Serbia that was until recently a model example of multiethnic Balkan harmony. Even during Mr. Milosevic's worst years, Novi Sad saw Serbs living happily beside the region's many minorities.


But something has changed. And the change arrived on the outskirts of town, where as many as 100,000 Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina moved in and built makeshift villages that are quickly becoming permanent settlements. These new Serbs do not share the tolerant, cosmopolitan views of their established neighbours. And they have begun to leave their mark.


"They harass my children for not having a Serb name, and wait outside my apartment to threaten me," says Marina Fratucan, a producer with the local TV station. She is Serb, but has an unusual name and, more importantly, has friends who are Croatian, Bosnian and Hungarian. "The problem is that the Serb children are not becoming more tolerant, in fact they're becoming more radical and nationalistic than their parents."


Sonja Biserko offers a tour of the streets. As the director of the local branch of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, she watched the Balkans move toward democracy and harmony after the defeat of Mr. Milosevic in 1999 and is now watching that harmony fall apart.


"Here we have a secondary school, which has become filled with Serb refugees, across the road from a bakery whose owners are Albanian," she says. "And that bakery across the road was demolished this year by students who were from the refugee population. And local people are not revolting against this. The refugees have actually radicalized many of the locals against minorities. When Kosovo gets its independence, it will be a big problem here."


So instead of becoming a united country, Serbia is in danger of splitting apart or radicalizing. Just north of Novi Sad, the ethnic-Hungarian minority are now talking of forming their own Hungario-Serbian breakaway state, modelled after Kosovo, if things become even more intolerant.


Most Serbs are extremely poor, and many cling to the national and Orthodox Christian myths that propelled the Milosevic crusades. Should Montenegro declare independence, Kosovo become autonomous and the Republika Srpska subsumed into a multiethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serbs could become angry and defensive.


This is the worry of Serbia's negotiators in the Kosovo talks, who seem to have a genuine fear of a return to radical ethnic nationalism.


"If someone suddenly says, this is an independent Kosovo, the very next day we will have 150,000 refugees coming across the border," Radomir Diklic, a chief negotiator, said in an interview. "So generally, we have to take an approach where nobody can call themselves a total winner or a total loser. . . . Still, either you are independent or you are not. And if you are, then the door is open for radical, nationalistic, fascistic forces in Serbia to take control. Then this government can say, 'Bye bye.' "


And for the millions of people of the Balkans who have seen their countries slowly move toward becoming normal nations, rather than bizarre scribbles on the map, the prospect of a radicalized Serbia is truly terrifying.


This year's momentous decisions will see this whole convoluted corner of Europe become either a more normal place, or return to its former status as Europe's worst nightmare. "By the time 2006 is over, much will be resolved," said Milan Antonijevic, an activist lawyer in Belgrade. "For the people of Serbia, it will be much clearer, and if we can handle it well, our lives will be much better."


But it could all go terribly wrong as it has before in the Balkans. But there is a sense of hope among many in this region. Most want to be part of Europe, polls show, and know that this is the last chance in a lifetime.


"We have to have optimism to make this work," says Mr. Schwarz-Schilling, the EU's representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "This is a huge window of history for all parties, and it is a window that could close fast, so therefore this must be done at a higher speed than it would in other countries. To introduce democracy, to introduce rule of law, to introduce a market economy, normally, this needs much more time. But the global pressures on this region mean that it has to be done very fast here."