19 April 2007

Serbs fear losing soul of their nation in Kosovo

DAILY TELEGRAPH (UK),  Updated: 12:01am GMT 21/01/2007 By Alex Spillius in Belgrade


(Photo) A woman passes by pre-election billboards showing Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica [left] and Serbian President Boris Tadic


Nada Todorovic keeps a much cherished chunk of rock in her sitting room in Belgrade.


"It is my own piece of Kosovo," the 69-year-old artist said mournfully, remembering how she carried the lump home after a trip to Serbia's border with the disputed territory.


"Kosovo is part of the soul of Serbia. If foreign powers take it away it will be a great crime."


As Serbia votes in presidential elections tomorrow, the one thing both hard-line nationalists and moderate reformists all warn is that if Kosovo is granted independence in coming weeks, as the United Nations hopes, the Balkans could be plunged into turmoil again eight years after Nato forced Serb forces out of the territory.


The UN is planning to set Kosovo on the path to independence with a final status declaration for the territory as soon as next month.


The announcement, originally due last December, was delayed out of concern that it could provoke an ultra-nationalist swing in Serbia. Even if more moderate reformists emerge dominant in tomorrow's tightly-contested vote, they too have made clear that they will not support the UN's decision.


Serbs regard the region, which is replete with medieval art and monasteries, as the font of their Orthodox civilisation.


Vojislav Kostunica, the prime minister, recently described the move as the "most dangerous and destructive idea in Europe".


A constitutional lawyer, he passed a new constitution in October that enshrined Kosovo as part of Serbia, so making independence illegal.


Even the Democrat Party, the only major party to accept that Kosovan sovereignty is probably a fait accompli, has warned of Balkan instability for years.


"It would present several regional problems, but also present problems for the West," said Milan Markovic, a member of the party's executive.


"It would establish an international precedent of people who were a minority not long ago using terrorism to achieve political goals, and would encourage others to do the same.


"Kosovo has been administered by the UN since the 1999 Nato bombing campaign to expel Serb forces committing atrocities against civilians. The previous year a rebellion was launched against Slobodan Milosevic's revocation of the territory's autonomy.


But tension has simmered ever since and there is growing fear in international community of a return to violence now either as Serbs protest against the UN decision or by Kosovo Albanians frustrated by delays in reaching their long sought after goal. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana this week urged the people of Kosovo to be patient. "It is very important that everybody behaves properly if we want the last part of the journey to have a nice, soft landing," he said.


A century ago ethnic Serbs were in the majority in Kosovo, but there is now a 90 per cent ethnic Albanian Muslim majority, in part because of a high birth rate, Serb migration after the Second World War and, Serbs say, intimidation. Serbia is still recovering from 16 years of war and sanctions and is not expected to launch military retaliation against the new nation, which is likely to be granted a form of supervised independence. Mr Kostunica has said Kosovo will be the single most important issue as his party aims to forge a ruling coalition after tomorrow's vote.


His stance has raised fears that he could ally with the uncompromisingly nationalist Radical Party.