By Zoran Culafic in northern Mitrovica (BCR No 411, 4-Mar-03)
The Kosovo Serbs' decision last week to set up a municipal association calling for what amounts to the federalisation of the region is seen by some as a bargaining ploy for the forthcoming debate on its final status.
Their move was followed two days later with a call from Zoran Djindjic's for ethnic division, fueling suspicions that the Serbian premier is pressing local Serbs to be prepared to assert themselves politically to ensure that they get the best deal possible out of talks on Kosovo's future.
Calling itself the Association of Serbian Municipalities and Communities of Kosovo and Metohija, the new body comprises 220 Serb representatives who won places in October's local government elections.
Formed in the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica on February 25, it wields authority over the Serb dominated northern region of Kosovo.
The association called for the "reorganisation" of Kosovo into two separate ethnic entities. But they say that if the Albanians win the independence they are seeking then local Serbs should be able to join Serbia.
The move was followed by a statement in which Djindjic told reporters, "Kosovo should be federalised and the Serbs should be treated as a constituent ethnic group, equal to the Albanians."
Since the Serbian forces were driven out of Kosovo in 1999, Kosovo's status has remained unresolved. Formally it is a province of Yugoslavia under UN Security Council Resolution 1244, but in reality it's run as an international protectorate by the UN Mission for Kosovo, UNMIK.
Observers believe the Albanian-dominated Kosovo parliament's decision a month ago to issue a demand for independence prompted, in part, Djindjic to launch a high-profile campaign for Serb rights in the region, which, in turn, led to the founding of the new association.
Djindjic's campaign is also believed to have been motivated by a desire to gain Serbian nationalist support in advance of expected elections later this year.
The new Kosovo Serb body elected as its president Marko Jaksic, deputy leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, the least discredited official in the community's leadership, analysts say.
In a formal declaration, the association said that if anyone tried to establish another Albanian state in any part of the new union of Serbia and Montenegro, including Kosovo, then Belgrade should "establish effective sovereignty in areas which have always been inhabited by Serbs".
The declaration said the Serb entity would be firmly linked to Serbia proper, especially in the areas of education, justice, culture and security and would function as an integral part of Serbia. The Albanian entity would enjoy also a high degree of autonomy, according to the proposal.
The document endorsed the idea of blue routes - corridors that would ensure freedom of movement for the local Serbian population, especially between Orahovac and northern Mitrovica, Strpci and Gracanica; Gracanica and Merdrare; and Gracanica and Kosovska Mitrovica.
Serbian deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic immediately sought to play down the new association. After meeting with NATO ambassadors in Brussels on February 26, he said it was an expression of Kosovo Serb fears about the territory's future.
Covic is keen not to upset the international community over Kosovo, but he is being increasingly marginalised by Djindjic, a process highlighted the following day by the premier's insistence that federalisation of the region was preferable.
The Kosovo Serbs's move was strongly criticised by the international community, the region's authorities and Albanian activists.
"UNMIK will not attach legal validity to any institution established on the principle of mono-ethnicity. No one, including Belgrade and Pristina, will be able to prejudice the outstanding issue of Kosovo's final status," said UNMIK chief Michael Steiner. " We'll talk about it when the right time comes."
EU foreign policy spokesperson Cristain Gallach said such unilateral initiatives "were not in keeping with Resolution 1244".
Kosovo prime minister Bairam Rexhepi, meanwhile, demanded that the international community not only condemn the Serbian move but also take measures against what he called unconstitutional activities threatening Kosovo's constitutional order.
Yllber Hysa, president of Kosovo Action for Civic Initiatives, a Pristina-based NGO, accused the Serbs of trying to exploit the current turmoil over the arrest of suspected Albanian war criminals and the West's preoccupation with Iraq.
"The Serbs are staging another provocation, taking advantage of the problems of Kosovo, caused not just by internal matters but also by a geopolitical situation in which a war with Iraq and possibly the withdrawal of US troops from Kosovo are anticipated," he said.
Some Kosovo Serb politicians also have doubts about the new association, warning that it would not safeguard the rights of the community.
Significantly, the Povratak coalition, the only representatives of Serbs in the Kosovo parliament, has not yet taken an official stand, perhaps because its members appear to be divided.
Oliver Ivanovic, a member of Povratak and of the Kosovo parliament presidency, has said the creation of the association was an "own goal" which would heighten tensions between Belgrade and the international community.
But Povratak coalition deputy Rada Trajkovic said rather approvingly that the Serbs were proposing "an internal reorganisation of Kosovo so that they can set up their own government and arrange life in their own community".
She also argued that the federalisation plan would be good for the Albanians as they would be able to establish broader links with Albania itself.
Interestingly, Dusan Janjic, co-coordinator of the Forum for Ethnic Relations, said the association's declaration was less a call for ethnic division than a negotiating ploy. "I don't believe one could describe this as the proclamation of a mini-state," he said. " This is a tactical move because the Serbs do not really have the power to create one in Kosovo, nor can Belgrade help them do it."
Janjic said the ploy was dangerous as it could to a deterioration of relations between the Albanians and the international community.
Zoran Culafic is a B92 correspondent from Kosovo.