01 April 2006

Ceku's rise seen in Belgrade as fresh blow to Serbia

DPA, Mar 2, 2006, 19:00 GMT By Boris Babic


Belgrade/Pristina - The nomination Thursday of the former Kosovo Albanian rebel commander Agim Ceku as the next prime minister of the province was another blow to Serbia, which is already concerned that it could lose its hold on Kosovo.


Ceku, an officer who skipped the Yugoslav army to fight Serbs in Croatia before organizing the rag-tag Kosovo Albanian rebels (UCK) into an effective force, was nominated by President Fatmir Sejdiu a day after Bajram Kosumi\'s surprise resignation as prime minister.


Kosumi stepped down amid pressure from within his own party and a power struggle that erupted after the undisputed Kosovo Albanian leader, President Ibrahim Rugova, died in January.


He also resigned just days after provisional Kosovan authorities and Serbia launched talks on the future status of the province, held under United Nations auspices in Vienna.


Politicians in Belgrade are already fretting over increasingly strong signals from the international community that Kosovo may gain independence.


The political rise of an ex-guerrilla who was convicted in absentia by a Serbian court of war crimes is seen in Belgrade as another slap in the face.


\'It could be a radicalization of the Albanian political scene or a struggle between clans, but either way it is a bad message at a time when we should make something through compromise, not intimidation,\' said Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, the head of Serbia\'s committee for Kosovo.


The ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo wants independence for the province. Belgrade is offering it broad autonomy instead, concerned that full independence could undermine conditions for Kosovo\'s already embattled Serb minority.


President Boris Tadic said that while Serbia has no say in whom Kosovo would elect prime minister, it was \'not good\' to promote former warriors to positions of political leadership.


\'Whatever the Kosovo people and institutions decide, I hope it would not destabilize the region and jeopardize the Serbian ethnic community in Kosovo,\' he said.


The UN mediator in the talks, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, said Wednesday that changes in the Pristina government would not influence the negotiations. The UN administrator in Kosovo, Soren Jessen-Petersen, also failed to see Ceku\'s nomination as heralding a crisis.


But some Kosovo Serbs disagree. \'I think it will have influence, because he is a former UCK fighter,\' the mayor of the Zubin Potok enclave, Slavisa Ristic, said after meeting Ahtisaari Thursday.


Many Serbs fear Ceku, whom a Serbian court convicted for the death of at least 669 of their compatriots during the fighting in Kosovo. In 2004, Ceku was detained in Hungary on a warrant for his arrest, but was quickly released.


The ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which was a part of Slobodan Milosevic\'s regime when it responded in 1998 with an indiscriminate and heavy hand - including the use of armour and grenades - to the appearance of the UCK, said Belgrade should break off the talks.


\'There is no Serb who should sit to negotiate the future of Kosovo with war criminals like Agim Ceku,\' said SRS leader, Tomislav Nikolic.


That however is not likely to happen, at least not at this stage of the talks, because quitting the negotiations would automatically lead to a default on the departing side\'s claims.


The second round of talks in Vienna are scheduled for March 17.