Feature 23 Jan 13

Guerrilla Monument Dispute Divides Serbia’s Albanians

After Belgrade removed a memorial to ethnic Albanian fighters in Presevo, some locals called for political dialogue but others rejected cooperation with the government.

Idro Seferi

Some ethnic Albanian leaders have asked for talks with Belgrade after the authorities sent police in riot gear into Presevo to forcibly remove the controversial monument, sparking protests in the south Serbian town.

“We missed a chance for compromise here and we need to talk,” said Riza Halimi, the only Albanian member of the Serbian parliament.

But others, including political activists and former guerrillas who fought for the area to be united with Kosovo during a brief conflict in 2000, said they wanted to freeze relations with the Serbian authorities and set up a parallel system of government.

“We cannot act as if nothing happened and I think we should stop any connection with central government.  They treat us as second-class citizens,” said Belgzim Kamberi, head of Presevo’s Human Rights Council.

Around 200 police moved in to Presevo early on January 20 to take down the memorial to fighters from the Liberation Army for Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac who died in the conflict.

The Belgrade government insisted the monument promoted ethnic separatism and had repeatedy warned that it had to go.

The following day, several thousand protesters took to the streets of Presevo, claiming its removal was another example of discrimination against ethnic Albanians.

Some Presevo leaders said they wanted any dialogue with Belgrade to be mediated by the international community in an attempt to ensure fairness.

“We would like to discuss our problems starting from the monument, because these people died for freedom. But there are so many problems that we also need to solve such as healthcare, education, the economy, social problems, language, symbols and other issues,” Skender Destani, president of the Democratic Union in Presevo, told Balkan Insight.

“We know that we are dealing with a government which is not interested in our problems, but this is all we can do for now,” he said.

But former fighter Orhan Rexhepi, the leader of Albanian National Movement party, said he wouldn’t believe Belgrade even if the US and EU were involved in the dialogue.

“We should base out talks on our referendum in 1992. This is the reason why we fought,” he said, referring to a local referendum 21 years ago in which most ethnic Albanians voted for territorial autonomy and the opportunity to join Kosovo, although the vote was rejected by Belgrade.

“Serbia is pushing us to want separation,” Rexhepi insisted.

However Abdulla Ahmeti, head of Youth Imitative for Human Rights in Presevo, said that “demands for a parallel system are emotional reactions and are far from reality”.

He said that politicians in Belgrade and Pristina were playing the Presevo situation for political advantage amid their own dispute.

“Serbia and Kosovo wanted to strengthen their positions in the negotiations and that is why they’re using the monument issue,” Ahmeti told Balkan Insight.

Both Kosovo and Albania have condemned Serbia over the monument’s removal, with the Pristina government calling it “further proof that hatred towards Albanians in the Presevo valley is still alive”.

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha said on Monday meanwhile that the dispute showed that ethnic Albanians in the Balkans must unite in one state.

But Belgrade has insisted that the situation can only be addressed internally.

“We are in constant contact with Albanian leaders and we will deal with the problems together,” Zoran Stankovic, head of Serbia’s coordination body for Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, said on Tuesday.

Serbia’s south is among the least developed regions in the country, with a harsh social and economic situation, high unemployment and low incomes.

The region has been long been perceived as troublesome by the Belgrade authorities because of its close ties with Kosovo.

One of the main challenges remains local ethnic Albanians’ lack of trust in Serbian institutions. Most of them view Pristina as their de facto capital, not Belgrade.

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