Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BALKANS: Kosovo Serbs Turn to Russia for Protection

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Dec 14 2011 (IPS) - On Dec. 1, the government in Moscow turned down a petition for Russian statehood by some 22,000 Kosovo Serbs who argue that their lives as ethnic minorities in Kosovo have become “unbearable”.

Serbs in Kosovo see the rejection of their appeal, filed on behalf of their next of kin, as yet another blow from a country that is often portrayed in the media as an “ally” or “big brother” but is yet to express any fraternity with the 100,000-strong minority in Kosovo.

Officials in Moscow claim that granting blanket citizenship is “impossible” due to the strict regulations of the Russian constitution.

“Russian laws do not allow for (such moves) but we will find other ways to support the suppressed minority,” foreign ministry spokesperson Aleksandr Lukashevich said in Moscow on Dec. 1.

He said Russia understood that Kosovo Serbs “face constant repression at home” and assured the public that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently agreed to boost “other forms” of support such as humanitarian aid.

Still, Moscow’s message came as a huge blow to Kosovo Serbs.

Zlatibor Djordjevic, head of the association Stara Srbija (Old Serbia), which initiated the citizenship petition, told Belgrade’s national TV station that petitioners had been expecting “a lex specialis (special law) to be introduced by relevant bodies” to solve the question of citizenship.

“It is easy for Islamic nationalists (Albanians) to attack Kosovo Serbs with total impunity but people might think twice before attacking a Russian citizen,” he added.

Of the more than 1,000 Serbs killed in Kosovo since 1999, either in their homes in the middle of the night or in fields while cultivating their land, only a handful has been granted posthumous justice through the U.N. or the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), both of which have been slow to deal with the violence.

Several of the most gruesome cases, such as the murders of 14 Serbian harvesters in 1999 or the bus explosion that killed 12 Serbs in 2003, were eventually brought to justice but alleged perpetrators were quickly set free due to “lack of evidence.”

In March 2004, unrest by organised groups of thousands of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo left 19 Serbs dead, 4,000 displaced, 935 Serb houses burned and 35 Orthodox churches destroyed.

Most of these atrocities have thus far been chalked up to “retributive justice”, meted out by ethnic Albanians who were themselves slaughtered in the thousands by Serbian armed forces in the late 90s.

Understanding the bid for statehood

Kosovo carries with it a long history of conflict between Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanian Kosovars, with each group placing religious and cultural significance on the land.

In the early 1990s, Muslim Albanians seeking independence from former Yugoslavia took up arms against the dictator Slobodan Milošević but were crushed in a brutal military offensive led by Serbian forces that left over 10,000 ethnic Albanians dead.

In an effort to stem the bloodshed and send a message to Belgrade, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) carried out a series of air raids on former Yugoslavia between March and June of 1999.

By mid-June 1999, the Serbian military and police had withdrawn from Kosovo, leaving the U.N. to administer the region until the majority ethnic Albanians unilaterally declared independence in 2008.

The Christian Orthodox Serbs who remained in the Northern regions that border Serbia now live in geographical proximity but in cultural and political alienation to the ethnic Muslim majority.

So far, 85 of the 193 U.N. member states have recognised Kosovo’s self-declared independence but Serbia has staunchly vowed never to do so. Caught in the middle of this political wrangling, Kosovo Serbs have sworn to recognise the authority of Belgrade over and above the laws of Pristina, Kosovo’s administrative capital.

Lingering hostility

Meanwhile, the lines of land and history that were blurred by bloodshed during the Kosovo Wars remain sites of fierce struggle, making Kosovo Serbs’ bid for statehood a pressing one today.

Pristina’s efforts to exert police control over the mostly Serb inhabited North Kosovo earlier this year led to a wave of violence against the Kosovo Force (KFOR), a NATO-led international peacekeeping force tasked with establishing peace and security.

Expressing their loyalty to Belgrade and their desire to remain physically connected to Serbia proper, local Kosovo Serbs have mounted physical barricades preventing ethnic Albanian and international control of the Serbian border.

According to Serbian Government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic, the request for Russian citizenship puts unnecessary “political pressure” on Moscow, since Belgrade is doing everything in its power to safeguard the rights of Kosovo Serbs.

But others are much more sympathetic to the petition.

Nebojsa Popovic, a top official of the nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia, told IPS, “The call (for citizenship) spoke with a voice of desperation and fear.”

“It was a call not only to Russia, but also to Serbia and the international community. Others are deciding the fate of Serbs in Kosovo without their participation or voices,” Popovic added.

“It is obvious that Kosovo Serbs do not trust anyone any more,” historian Predrag Popovic told IPS. “They have lost faith in Belgrade, EULEX and the remnants of the U.N. administration. They want concrete political aid in a situation where they have been forsaken by all.”

“They believe Russia alone can provide their safety and security,” he added.

Nebojsa Covic, former head of the coordinating body of the government of Serbia for Kosovo, said this latest turn of event was a “reminder to the international community that Serbs are now the ones being oppressed in Kosovo, facing uncertainty and grave violations of their human rights by the ethnic majority.”

Though it failed in its original mission, the petition to Moscow has sparked some unexpected reactions.

NATO’s Russian representative Dmitry Rogozin told Belgrade media last month that “Kosovo Serbs should be offered (relocation) to areas east of the Urals and fill the demographic hole in Russia”, since that region is currently experiencing negative birth rates.

According to Rogozin, Kosovo Serbs would easily adapt to their new surroundings and have no trouble finding sufficient employment.

However, a chorus of Serbian historians criticised the idea, harking back to 1752 when over 2,000 Serb families fled what used to be the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and settled in an area known then as Nova Srbija (New Serbia) and Slavenosrbija (Slav Serbia) and known now as the Ukraine.

In less than 100 years, these families became completely assimilated and absorbed by the local population, an outcome that is anathema to Kosovo Serbs who are desperate to preserve their ethno- religious roots.

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