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South Serbia / Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (UCPMB)

South Serbia, an economically depressed and politically charged portion of the country that borders Kosovo and Macedonia, is home to 60,000-80,000 ethnic Albanians. The region continues to bear scars from armed conflict between Serbian security forces and the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac that broke out in late 2000, and the relationship between Belgrade and South Serbia Albanians remains uneasy at best. The Albanian community, while united in its call for economic development, greater integration, and demilitarization of the region, has fractured along political lines and egos. Although some local political leaders harbor lingering designs on eventually joining Kosovo in the event of its partition, the majority of politicians and citizens advocate a future as part of Serbia. While not the potential tinderbox of the past, South Serbia continues to demand the sustained interest and engagement of the United States and international community. End Summary.

The region referred to as South Serbia includes the Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac municipalities, the only three Serbian municipalities with a substantial ethnic Albanian presence. South Serbia alternatively is referred to as the Presevo Valley, a geographic term favored by ethnic Albanians but opposed by Serbian nationalist groups and politicians who believe that its use belies secessionist tendencies.

It is estimated that 60,000-80,000 Albanians, or approximately one percent of Serbia's population, live in South Serbia, but many South Serbia Albanians spend significant amounts of time working abroad, particularly in Germany, Switzerland, and Turkey. Whereas Presevo is more than 90% Albanian, Medvedja is less than 10% Albanian. Bujanovac is the most ethnically diverse as its inhabitants are 55% Albanian, 35% Serb, and 10% Romani. The South Serbian Islamic community, whose Albanian, Romani, and Slavic Muslim followers adhere to Hanafi Sunni Islam, is apolitical and as a result has been able to maintain its historically strong ties with the Kosovo Islamic Community.

In late 2000, an ethnic Albanian insurgency, the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (UCPMB), clashed with Serbian security forces along what was then the administrative boundary line with Kosovo. Belgrade worked constructively with the international community, including KFOR, to reduce tensions, and the UCPMB eventually agreed to disarm in May 2001 under the terms of the Konculj Agreement. In return, the government extended an amnesty to former UCPMB members and created a multiethnic local police force. This agreement, accompanied by vast amounts of assistance from the United States, other international donors, and the Serbian government, targeted rebuilding infrastructure and stabilized the region. Despite the tensions generated by Kosovo's declaration of independence and isolated incidents of violence, including two unresolved attacks on police targets in the region in July 2009, the security situation generally is calm.

There are at least a dozen ethnic Albanian political parties in South Serbia, seven of which participate in ruling coalitions in the three municipalities. The local government in Presevo is controlled by the Party of Democratic Albanians (PDA), headed by Presevo Mayor Ragmi Mustafa, and the Democratic Union of the Valley (BDL) led by Assembly President Skender Destani. In Bujanovac, the largest ethnic Albanian political party, the Party of Democratic Action (PDD), and the Movement for Democratic Progress (LPD), run by former UCPMB political wing leader Jonuz Musliu, form the ruling coalition. PDD participates in the Medvedja local government as a minority partner. There are only 2 Serb deputies in the 38-seat Presevo local assembly, but in Bujanovac there are 8 Serb deputies in the 41-seat assembly, including former mayor Stojanca Arsic.

In January 2007, moderate Albanian politicians, encouraged by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), the UK Embassy, and the US Embassy, ended a 15-year boycott and participated in parliamentary elections. Although other factions led by Ragmi Mustafa declined to take part, Riza Halimi, the PDD leader, garnered enough votes to be elected to the 250-seat Serbian National Assembly. In the May 2008 early parliamentary elections, Halimi won re-election as the sole ethnic Albanian MP. Although Halimi is not a member of the parliamentary majority, he often voted with the ruling coalition and is an active member of the ethnic minorities' caucus. Halimi, however, has become increasingly frustrated with what he perceives as a lack of genuine interest by Belgrade to address and solve the problems facing South Serbia.

In addition to accusing the government of generally distancing itself from the region's problems, ethnic Albanians' main grievances remain a lack of adequate representation in local-level state institutions such as the judiciary and police, an excessive security presence in the region, and lack of access to Albanian-language education. Given local unemployment rates believed to be in excess of 65-70%, the lack of jobs in local institutions and Belgrade's unwillingness to recognize university diplomas from Kosovo are of particular concern. Belgrade in turn has been particularly critical of the mono-ethnic local government formed in Bujanovac after the May 2008 local elections, insisting that inclusion of Serbs in the ruling coalition was a crucial precursor for maintaining stability given the municipality's 35% Serb population.

The primary bone of contention for South Serbia Albanians is the efficiency of Coordinating Body for South Serbia (CB), which the government created following the 2000 armed conflict and tasked with oversight of government policy in the region. Originally headed by Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, the CB enjoyed its financial and political heyday from 2001-2003 before newly appointed Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica slashed its budget in March 2004, arguing that the money was best spent elsewhere. Although the government reversed course in November 2004 in response to local elections that brought ethnic Albanian hardliners to power, the CB had entered in a long slow downward spiral in which its influence was significantly weakened.

A March 2009 agreement on restructuring the CB, brokered by the OSCE, breathed life back in the body, but it continued to lurch along, hampered by infighting and distrust. MP Halimi's decision to sign the restructuring agreement precipitated the collapse of the ruling coalition in Presevo and soured relations with Minister Milan Markovic, the current CB head, whom Halimi believed played an unhelpful role in exacerbating fault lines within the Albanian community (Ref D). Within the Albanian community, where egos are in full force, relations between Halimi and Mustafa and Destani are virtually non-existent, and there is BELGRADE 00001168 003 OF 003 growing discontent within Halimi's PDD. Nonetheless, with USG support increasingly limited to technical assistance, a functional CB has become a must, rather than a luxury, especially for the South Serbia Albanians.

The majority of politicians and citizens in South Serbia advocate for the region's future as part of Serbia, while insisting that the Presevo Valley should be a unified administrative unit when Serbia undergoes decentralization and regionalization. In an October 6 interview with the prominent Belgrade daily "Politika," Bujanovac Mayor Shaip Kamberi, a member of the PDD, defended ethnic Albanians' right to cooperate with Pristina, despite Serbia's non-recognition of Kosovo's independence. Kamberi also argued that "legalization" of the Presevo Valley as an administrative unit would be the only way to ensure that ethnic Albanians in South Serbia enjoyed the same rights as ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.

There are, however, a few politicians who continue to express support, at times openly, for South Serbia to join Kosovo, especially if a partition of Kosovo were to occur. Presevo Mayor Ragmi Mustafa frequently refers to the Presevo Valley as "Eastern Kosovo" and his call in a June 2009 interview for Belgrade to recognize Kosovo drew accusations that he had violated the Constitution. In August 2009, the Assembly of Presevo Valley Albanian Deputies, a body that unites approximately 60 local councilors from Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, adopted a statement that cited the results of a March 1992 referendum (organized by the local Albanian authorities but not recognized by the central government) in which citizens of the Presevo Valley voted for independence from Serbia.

Many of the problems that currently plague South Serbia, such as high unemployment, political infighting and patronage, and a tense relationship with the central government, are by no means unique to Serbia. What sets the region apart is that it is only eight years removed from armed conflict. This common history inevitably shapes interactions between the South Serbia Albanians and Belgrade and sharpens perceived slights. The pervasive lack of trust and suspicion leads to political immaturity that essentially creates a "chicken or the egg" situation in which neither the government nor local political leaders wants to demonstrate the statesmanship necessary to create good will. Instead Serbs and Albanians alike have an unhealthy dependence of foreign arbitration and mediation for sometimes the most piddling of issues.

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Page last modified: 20-09-2013 19:03:27 ZULU