27 March 2006

Serbs caught in the middle of Kosovo tug-of-war

Reuters, Tue Feb 21, 2006 08:13 AM ET By Matthew Robinson


GRACANICA, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - A single candle wedged in an empty wine bottle throws a dancing light on the kitchen table.


Marko stands in the half-darkness beyond, his back to the crackling wood stove. He has not paid an electricity bill for six years, and does not intend to start now.


"No one from the power company ever brought me a bill," he says. "I don't even know what the contract looks like."


Marko is four hours into the five-hour rotating power cut that blankets the Kosovo Serb monastery town of Gracanica in darkness every evening -- part of a regime of electricity cuts plaguing the province since Serb forces pulled out under NATO bombing in 1999 and the United Nations took control.


Not paying for electricity is something of a tradition among Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, jobless and poor alike.


Even in this there is a political undercurrent, a tug-of-war set to surface in direct negotiations beginning this week to decide Kosovo's fate.


The 100,000 remaining Serbs reject the power company now run by Albanians and its demands for back-payment.


Egged on by Belgrade, they say they want power from the Serbian provider which, like every other Serbian state body, lost the right to operate in Kosovo in 1999.


At least, officially.


In practice, with the exception of electricity, Serbia runs an elaborate system of parallel structures covering schools, health care, public administration and telephones.


Gracanica's health clinic answers to the Serbian Health Ministry, the school is run by the Education Ministry and the phone system by Telekom Srbija, the state telecoms monopoly.


This is a 100-million-euro per year ($119 million) operation, Serbian government sources say, with 30,000 Kosovo Serbs paid to answer only to Belgrade, whether they work or not. U.N. sources say some Kosovo Serb police officers are also on the books.




Just as the 90-percent Albanian majority created its own network of backyard schools and basement clinics in response to Serb discrimination in the 1990s, so Serbs have shunned their new masters and cocooned themselves in a Serb-run world.


"That society five kilometers from here has preserved almost nothing of any meaning to me," says Marko, jabbing his finger in the direction of the nearby capital, Pristina.


"My family isn't there any more. The church I was christened in was torched and the name of the school I went to changed. I have nothing to look for in that society."


NATO's bombing campaign, which lasted for 78 days in 1999, was designed to drive out Serb forces accused of killing and expelling Albanian civilians in a war with rebels. About 10,000 Albanians were killed.


As NATO deployed 60,000 peacekeepers, Albanian revenge attacks ensued, provoking the flight of as many as 200,000 Serbs, according to Serbian figures. U.N. officials say the true figure is probably about half that.


Those remaining eke out a grim, ghettoized existence on the margins of society.


"The roles have simply been reversed," says Marko's friend Dejan, a sentiment scoffed at by Albanians who recall more than a decade of state-led discrimination and brutal repression.


U.N. officials say parallel structures are illegal but tolerated as the best way to provide basic services for Serbs.


To Belgrade, they are a foot in the door, the foundations of a separate Serb entity it wants to create in Kosovo. Fearing partition of Kosovo, Albanians want them dismantled.




Diplomats say Kosovo's independence is almost certain. Much of the talks in Vienna will focus on the position of Serbs in Kosovo, with Belgrade pushing for control over Serb areas and Albanians vying to sever those links irrevocably.


The parallel structures are in the firing line.


When Serbia offered to supply electricity to Serb areas free of charge, the United Nations said this would only strengthen Belgrade's hand. Instead, Serbs should sign contracts with the Kosovo provider and pay their bills, the U.N. mission said.


Belgrade's reply was telling: "This would mean Serbs taking another step toward recognizing Kosovo's status and the complete Albanian takeover of institutions across the entire territory," said Kosovo policy chief Sanda Raskovic-Ivic.


When Kosovo's telecom watchdog began disconnecting antennas of the Serbian phone network, Telekom Srbija sent engineers under cover of night to switch them back on.


The Serbs who stayed on in hopes of seeing a return to the life they once knew are now stuck. They reject Western overtures to accept the "new Kosovo" and cling to Belgrade promises to reunite them with the motherland, however unlikely that seems.


Belgrade's refusal to encourage Serbs to sign up to the Kosovo electricity provider is "rooted in politics," U.N. governor Soren Jessen-Petersen said last week.


"But its effects are damaging to the welfare of individual Serbs, and it is they who have to cope with the consequences."


Talking in the darkness, Dejan said it was a question of identity: "They want us to be 'Kosovars', not Serbs. But the border they drew there doesn't exist for me. Let them prove our fears are unjustified, and maybe we'll join that society."


(Additional reporting by Branislav Krstic)