By Hamdi Fırat Büyük
Following the conclusion of EU-led talks in Brussels between Kosovo and Serbia, the issue of Serb nationals in Kosovo has come to trigger new debates in the region, with Serbia taking center stage.
During the talks both countries discussed the future of the Serbs and their role in the governance of Kosovo, including the formation and responsibilities of the Association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo. Now, however, Serbia’s demands for Kosovar Serbs has sparked a strong reaction from Albanians in Serbia’s Presevo (Preševo) Valley, neighbouring Kosovo, as the latter call for more rights, or at least the same rights that Serbia seeks for Serbs across the border in Kosovo.
Unhappy with their current situation, Albanian political representatives in the Presevo Valley have even gone as far as to warn that they will announce autonomy and unite with Kosovo if necessary.
The head of the National Committee of the Albanians in the Valley, Jonuz Musliu, says that this process would take place in compliance with the results of Presevo’s unofficial 1-2 March 1992 referendum that saw a majority of the Valley’s inhabitants express the desire to join Kosovo.
“Such act is also in compliance with international conventions and UNO Charter, which guarantees the right of self-determination” he was quoted as saying by the Independent Balkan News Agency.
Musliu went on to note that there would be coordination with Pristina and Tirana in order to demand reciprocity in relation to the rights that Serbs in Kosovo are given.
“We demand the same rights that Serbs are given in education, judicial system and police through the Association [of Serbian Municipalities]. We will first try and attain our goals through dialogue and then we will look into other measures”, he said.
Musliu also made clear that they do not want another war but only dialogue, stating that Serbia’s discriminatory policies “must end once and for all”. Yet in the end it seems that the Presevo Valley issue is not a problem simply between Kosovo and Serbia, but between Serbs and Albanians in the Balkans.
Here, the fact that Albania PM Edi Rama went to Presevo directly after Belgrade during his first official visit to Serbia can be read in this context. There, he re-announced Albania’s support of the Valley’s endeavours for greater rights.
This visit sparked many debates in Serbia and was harshly criticized by the Serbian media and many politicians. During this time claims of Greater Albania began to become the object of increased attention in Belgrade. Within this context, shootouts between Macedonian police and mostly ethnic Albanian militants in the Macedonian city of Kumanovo led to a new phase in Serbia’s perceptions of Greater Albania. Serbia’s media outlet Blic even presented this incident in Kumanovo to its followers with the title “Velika Albanija kuca na vrata” (Greater Albania knocks on the door). While such public exclamations epitomize Serbia’s fear of claims of Greater Albania, ironically the country’s own policies in Kosovo have indirectly helped to allow this fear to grow.
In this vein, Presevo Valley authorities have consistently asked for their administration to be included in the talks between Kosovo and Serbia only to be rejected. And considering the Valley’s appeal to be included at such a platform, it can be seen that the Presevo authorities aim to internationalize the issue.
Yet this position is not only unique to Musliu and the National Committee that he heads, as the same political posture has also been adopted by the mayor of Presevo, Ragmi Mustafa. He states that the request for greater rights of Serbia’s Albanians is nothing new. According to him, Albanians in southern Serbia have demanded that they be afforded the same rights as Serbs in Kosovo since the start of talks in Brussels between Kosovo and Serbia.
Serbia’s other ethnic communities
Nonetheless, despite Serbia’s demanding policy regarding Kosovo’s Serbs, Serbia’s own ethnic composition is highly diversified and often contentious. Here, if anything, these recent developments shine a light on Belgrade’s inability to afford minority rights to its own ethnic communities while also failing to integrate them within its state and political apparatuses since the collapse of Yugoslavia.
In this case, considering the recent vocalizations of the Presevo Valley’s Albanians, it may be possible that other regions in Serbia will follow suit, among which include Sandzak (Sandžak) in southern Serbia – inhabited largely by Muslim Bosniaks (almost 5% of Serbia’s total population) – and Vojvodina in northern Serbia includes ethnic Hungarians (almost 4% of Serbia’s total population). At this point, both of these regions, as well as some other ethnic groups such as the Roma (composing 2.5% of Serbia’s overall population) have been issuing stronger calls for greater rights for years.
These minority issues also have a direct influence on Serbia’s relations with its neighbours such as Hungary and Bosnia. The Sandzak Bosniaks’ role is very important in the ties between Belgrade and Sarajevo; moreover, the links between Sandzak and Bosnia’s Bosniaks grew exponentially after the great waves of immigration from Sandzak to Bosnia particularly after the Bosnian War. Hungary also takes Hungarian minority issues in Serbia very seriously, even threatening to veto Serbia’s EU membership if the minority does not receive its desired rights.
As can easily be understood, Belgrade’s Kosovar Serb policy is pushing Serbia into difficult waters. As Serbia fights for more rights for Kosovar Serbs, Serbia’s own minorities increasingly demand greater rights as well, all this while being backed by other countries as well as the EU. Moreover, indirectly, such a dynamic triggers latent populist tendencies among the Serbian public and elites as witnessed in the emergence of strong rhetoric revolving around deep-rooted debates having to do with Greater Albania or separatist claims of Sandzakians. In reality, these debates are a waste of time for Serbia, as the country already has serious fundamental issues that need to be addressed such as the ongoing economic standstill, the Kosovo issue, and the reforms necessitated by the country’s EU agenda.
At this point, only time will tell whether the cacophony of opposing voices will grow louder as a consequence of the solidification of the Kosovar Serbs’ position that came out of the recent talks in Brussels.