02 April 2007

Kosovo Serbs weigh election rhetoric with reality

Reuters, January 18, 2007 By Matt Robinson

SVINJARE, Serbia - Rhetoric and reality in Kosovo sit about as far apart as Vojislav Jovic's two remaining teeth.

Political parties vying for victory in Sunday's general election in Serbia have assured him and the other 100,000 Serbs left in the province they need not fear the ethnic Albanian majority's bid for independence.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, bidding for a second term, says Russia and international law are on Serbia's side.

Jovic is unconvinced.

"No one up there can stop independence," he says in the deserted Serb enclave of Svinjare, nodding north toward Belgrade. "Not here, nor there."
"Greater powers than us will decide that."

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt a Serb counter-insurgency war that killed 10,000 Albanians and forced almost one million to flee.

Tens of thousands of Serbs left as NATO troops deployed and the United Nations took control. A U.N. proposal to decide its fate is due within weeks.

The West favors independence, but Serbia insists Russia will veto any such settlement at the U.N. Security Council.

Jovic scoffs at the idea that anyone but the United States will decide. Washington, he says, stirred conflict in Bosnia and Croatia and bombed Serbia to stop a war created by foreign media.

Sipping Vinjak brandy and echoing the conspiracy theories that fuel anti-Western sentiment among many Serbs, the 56-year-old says Kosovo's eventual amputation is only the latest chapter in a years-long operation to bring Serbia to its knees.

And whoever wins Sunday will be helpless to prevent it.


"They said they came to calm things down," he says of NATO. "Then the Albanians burned down my village. They got the green light. It's all imposed from outside."

Svinjare is a new, old village. Razed to the ground by Albanian rioters in 2004, dozens of homes have been rebuilt by Kosovo's Albanian-dominated authorities under pressure to reach out to the ghettoized Serb minority.

The 48 hours of rioting marked the worst unrest since the war - violence motivated by a potent mix of revenge and anger at the status quo. The 90-percent Albanian majority is impatient for its own state and the growth and jobs they hope will follow.

Jovic and his wife are among only a handful of Serbs to have returned to the village, just outside the Serb-dominated northern slice of Kosovo. They live off their land.

Albanians work the gardens across the road, having bought out Jovic's neighbors.

In Caglavica, Serb homes are up for sale as the capital, Pristina, expands with shiny shopping malls and petrol stations along the main road south to Macedonia.

The Serb owner of a single petrol pump outside his home says he'll vote for Kostunica, since the party of late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic is no longer the force it once was.

But he too concedes the next government will have little influence on Kosovo's future. "Bigger powers will decide," he says, asking not to be named. "We hope it won't be independence, but what can we do about it?"

Jovic, who remembers fondly his years working with Albanians in the nearby Trepca mine, says he will stay whatever happens to Kosovo. He will vote Sunday. But his tone betrays anger at the pre-election promises he fears will go unfulfilled.

"It's always the ones who stay who end up paying the price for the past."