Serbs demand ethnic enclaves in Kosovo

By Julius Strauss in Pristina

The Electronic Telegraph (United Kingdom), 23 August 1999        

SERBS in Kosovo have demanded the division of the province into ethnic "cantons" to protect them from the growing number of attacks by Albanians. The move would mark a step towards partition, but the attacks are making the case for it appear ever stronger.

Since Yugoslav troops and Serb police were withdrawn from Kosovo in June, the Serb minority has been increasingly victimized by ethnic Albanians and most of Kosovo’s 200,000 Serbs have fled the province. Of the remainder, many have headed for Serb-controlled ghettos scattered around the province, where their protection is the guns they still hold and Nato patrols.

Momcilo Trajkovic, the leading Serb politician in Kosovo, said at the weekend that cantonisation was the only way to protect the Serbs and insisted that these mono-ethnic enclaves should be legally recognised. He said: "We think that cantonisation could stop the ongoing tragedy of the Serb people. The multi-ethnic Kosovo has failed."

Mr Trajkovic’s proposal flies in the face of the West’s policy of supporting an integrated, multi-ethnic Kosovo. Bernard Kouchner, the head of the United Nations administration in Kosovo, said that he would look at the idea but he did not favour it.

But it will appeal to a growing number of sceptics who say that Nato’s efforts to persuade Serbs and gipsies to stay are failing. If accepted, it would probably allow the Serbs a high degree of autonomy to run their affairs along the lines of the ethnic entities agreed at the 1995 Dayton peace agreement for Bosnia-Hercegovina.

In Bosnia, Western efforts to recontruct a multi-ethnic society after four years of war have failed, although the West has spent billions of pounds on a peacekeeping force and reconstruction and social aid. But conflict has been kept to a minimum by heavy Nato policing of the lines that separate the entities and occasional steps to rein in radical politicians and parties that incite violence.

Since Serb forces withdrew from Kosovo, almost all Serbs have been forced out of predominantly ethnic Albanian areas. About 200 Serbs have been killed and many more beaten or expelled from their houses. Last month 14 Serb farmers were killed in one shooting south of Pristina.

The leadership of the Kosovo Liberation Army has denied responsibility for the violence against Serbs and has called on ethnic Albanians to refrain from revenge killings. However, many ethnic Albanians see a historic opportunity to rid Kosovo of their long-time enemies once and for all before a final Balkan settlement which will probably come after the political demise of Slobodan Milosevic.

The proposal for the cantonisation of Kosovo will be implemented only if it gains currency internationally as a way of halting attacks against Serbs and gipsies. Much of the political gain reaped by Western leaders when Belgrade capitulated after three months of air strikes has been lost as Nato’s inability to protect the besieged minorities becomes evident.

The KLA, now Kosovo’s leading political force, has rejected autonomy or cantons for the Serbs. Bilal Sherif, the KLA official at the council meeting, said: "There can be no division of Kosovo."

If Serb demands for autonomy within Kosovo are met, the boundaries of those areas will probably strengthen into borders. With Kosovo moving towards full independence, these enclaves could eventually be given to Belgrade in a land-for-sovereignty trade.

Such a compromise has been rejected both by ethnic Albanian leaders and Belgrade. But as Kosovo’s Western administrators grudgingly accept that the multi-ethnic ideal is not working it will doubtless gain currency among advocates of realpolitik.