By Belgzim Kamberi in Presevo (BCR No 406, 13-Feb-03)
South Serbia's ethnic Albanians are hoping that a decade-old referendum will help them realise their dreams of autonomy and unification with Kosovo.
With the creation of the new union of Serbia and Montenegro last week and increasing debate over the future of Kosovo, Albanians living in the Presevo region are believed to be moving to protect their interests in the event of any future border changes.
The Presevo Albanians now hope that an unofficial referendum conducted in 1992 - in which 95 per cent of some 47,000 people polled backed full autonomy for the region and recognised its right to be united with Kosovo - will sway local and international opinion and boost their bid to breakaway from Serbia.
Local politicians hope that the Presevo valley - which they call Eastern Kosovo - will be transferred in exchange for Serbian enclaves on the Kosovar side in the event of any future border discussions.
Analysts believe that although the plebiscite was never officially recognised by Belgrade or the international community, it may yet become the Presevo Albanian leadership's trump card.
The region, consisting of the Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja municipalities, home to around 70,000 Albanians and 40,000 Serbs, was the scene of armed conflict between the Yugoslav army and Albanian guerrillas until mid-2001.
The fighting stopped after the international community and Serbia's deputy president Nebojsa Covic hammered out an agreement under which the Albanians agreed to disarm in exchange for guarantees of improved human and democratic rights that had been denied by Yugoslavia's former leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Talk of the referendum was abandoned during the peace negotiations. "The international community made it very clear that we should abandon our plans for changing the borders, so we stopped talking about the plebiscite," said Naser Haziri, deputy head of the United Democratic Party of Albanians, who was a member of the Presevo negotiating team.
In accordance with the peace deal, municipal elections were held last July. In the ballot, leading Albanian party, the Party for Democratic Action, PDP, led by Presevo mayor Riza Halimi, won the control of Bujanovac and Presevo municipalities, while a Serb coalition triumphed in Medvedja.
However, while they were prepared to vote for the matters that concern them locally, ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia boycotted the Serb presidential elections in October and December last year. This has been viewed as yet another signal that they are not interested to stay part of Serbia.
Local leaders appear to think that the 1992 referendum may still play its part in an eventual change of borders within the former Yugoslavia - and that unification could still be achieved through an agreement between Pristina and Belgrade, with areas of northern Kosovo which have a majority Serb population being exchanged for Presevo.
"I do not think that this is just our nationalistic dream, but it is a legitimate and democratic way of expressing peoples' views," Haziri told IWPR.
While Kosovo is formally part of Serbia and Montenegro, it has been run as a United Nations protectorate since the end of the conflict in 1999, and talks over its final status are yet to begin.
However, the subject remains high on many political agendas. Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic has recently announced that he wants final status talks to begin by June of this year, while the independence issue has never been more fiercely debated in Kosovo itself.
Serbs living in northern Kosovo formed an association of their municipalities in January, which could - in the event of Kosovo being granted its independence - hold a referendum on joining Serbia.
The current political situation in the protectorate could allow Albanians in southern Serbia to use the 1992 referendum as a bargaining tool and ask the international community to recognise its result.
"I think this historical injustice to the [Presevo] Albanians could be changed through an agreement between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs," said Sevdail Hyseni, a spokesperson for the Albanian Democratic Progress Movement.
"The referendum is eternal and nobody has a mandate to brush away the wish of the Albanian population in this region."
However, the local population may not agree. Ten years on, most Albanians here have lost hope that their dream would one day become reality. "The referendum result is nothing more than a piece of paper, which is being used by our leaders for their own political needs," said one Presevo resident, who did not want to give his name.
Belgzim Kamberi is an independent journalist in Presevo.