Kosovo Serbs' uncertain future

It's been one year since the UN assumed control. Serbs say improvements have passed them by.

Dragan and Dragana Pantelic fled Kosovo with their two sons last summer, when ethnic Albanian violence against Serbs was at its height. They rented a house in southern Serbia about 40 miles from the Kosovo border. "It was peaceful but expensive," says Mrs. Pantelic, a sad, thin woman with bleached blonde hair. "We didn't have any money. We didn't have any work."

So two weeks ago they came back, moving into the house of Mr. Pantelic's father in Gracanica, a Serb enclave in central Kosovo. Days later, a drive-by hand grenade attack on a roadside market in the town left three people wounded. Moving to an apartment they own in the regional capital, Pristina, isn't an option: It has been taken over by an ethnic Albanian family that pays no rent and refuses to leave.

Perhaps most crucial, ethnic Albanians now hold the jobs where they used to work, at local utility companies in Pristina.

Their predicament is not uncommon. A year after NATO and Russian troops entered Kosovo to end a mass purge of majority ethnic Albanians by the Yugoslav Army and Serb paramilitaries, Serbs here face an uncertain future. Their number, estimated before the war at about 200,000, has dwindled to half that. Those who remain find it risky to leave their enclaves except under armed escort. They have few opportunities to work and only difficult access to schools, social services, and medical care.

And the violence continues. The United Nations estimates that 567 people have been murdered in the province since peacekeeping troops arrived on June 12, 1999. More than a third of the victims have been Serbs, who make up only 7 percent of the population. The violence abated over the winter but flared in recent weeks.

On May 28, a grocery store in Cernica, a village protected by American soldiers, was sprayed with assault rifle fire by an unknown gunman. A four-year-old-boy and his grandfather died. On June 2, two men were killed by a land mine on a road connecting two Serb villages. These and other incidents have eroded what little confidence the Serbs had in Kosovo's UN administration and in the NATO-led peacekeeping force that is supposed to protect them.

The violence has sparked angry Serb protests. One in Gracanica ended with Serbs burning six passing Albanian vehicles and with British troops shooting one of the protesters. This past weekend in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, a local Serb security force known as the "bridgewatchers" tried to force international police out of their apartments. On Sunday, police said, two officers were attacked by an angry Serb crowd in a town near Mitrovica.

Yesterday in an event in Pristina marking the first anniversary of UN administration of Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, the province's top UN official, said, "We need a significant amount of years, and we need a lot of patience ... to set up a society based on coexistence and tolerance."

Still, Mr. Kouchner called the mission "a success" for the UN, pointing to the return of refugees - mainly ethnic Albanians - along with efforts to restart the economy and set up a system of government open to all of Kosovo's ethnic groups, even if Serbs currently choose not to participate. On June 4, moderate Serb leaders withdrew from a joint governing body to protest the upsurge in violence.

The unrest has dimmed hopes that a significant number of Serbs might return this year. "I am even afraid that if there is no progress in return [in] the next two months, many will be leaving," says the Rev. Sava Janjic, an Orthodox monk and one of the moderate Serb leaders with whom Western officials have been working. "Many people stayed last winter, expecting changes this spring and summer. But if things don't improve, I don't think they will want to spend another hard winter here."

Kosovo's NATO-led peacekeeping force has increasingly shifted soldiers toward protecting Serbs. But as recent incidents show, the proximity of peacekeepers does not guarantee safety. The hand grenade in Gracanica blew up just yards from the local police station and military outpost.

The Serbs have already been boycotting voter registration in Kosovo, making it unlikely that they will participate in local elections scheduled for October. Their withdrawal from Kosovo's civilian administration struck another blow at the UN's attempts to persuade them to cooperate with international efforts. Without such cooperation, says Susan Manuel, a UN spokeswoman, the Serbs "won't have a say in their future." But the Serbs say that cooperation has gained them little so far. Indeed, much that Western officials have promised, such as a radio station for moderate Serb leaders to broadcast their views and stepped up returns, has not yet come to pass.

Progress, when it happens, is measured in increments. In the town of Vitina, American peacekeepers were delighted when Serb women began to shop in a weekly open market. In Serb hamlets around Slivovo, in eastern Kosovo, British troops are encouraged that a few people have come back to look at their old homes; one stayed for four days until he got lonely and left.

The future of the Serb presence in Kosovo is overshadowed by larger political problems that the West is ill-equipped to solve.

One of these, officials say, is the growing influence in Kosovo of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose regime enjoys the loyalty of many Kosovo Serbs. Another is the lingering uncertainty over Kosovo's final status. A UN resolution last year guaranteed Kosovo "substantial autonomy" but preserved Yugoslav sovereignty -it remains a province of Serbia. The ambiguities have made it possible for Kosovo Serbs to dream of the day when the Yugoslav Army will return, and for Albanians to fear the same possibility.

"We haven't solved the underlying political problem, and the failure to address it is making things worse," says Louis Sell, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization based in Brussels and Washington.

Sava acknowledges that the prospects for Serbs in Kosovo at present appear "very bleak." The Pantelics hope to sell their apartment to an Albanian family and move to Montenegro. "There is nothing for us here," Mrs. Pantelic says bluntly.

But some Serbs see a less gloomy future. Velimir and Miriana Plavic live with 40 other Serbs in Slivovo, and insist they will stay. "This is my home. My grandfather was here," says Mr. Plavic, while sitting outside his house on a quiet morning. He recalls days when he lived peacefully with his Albanian neighbors, adding, "I'm optimistic. The situation must get better. People must live together again."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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