By Nicholas Wood International Herald Tribune
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28, 2006
GRACANICA, Kosovo The prime minister of Serbia made a symbolic visit Wednesday to this town in the province of Kosovo, asserting Serbia's historic and religious claims to the region.
Vojislav Kostunica picked July 28, which Serbs regard as the most important date in their history. It commemorates the 14th-century defeat of the mainly Christian army in Kosovo by Ottoman Turks.
In Gracanica, "there is no better place to repeat what every Serb has to know," the prime minister told of hundreds of Serbs gathered on the grounds of the 14th-century monastery in the center of the village. "Kosovo has been and will always remain part of Serbia."
His foray into the United Nations-administered region was the latest attempt to head off what the government in Belgrade sees as the province's increasing momentum to becoming a separate state. That has long been the goal of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.
Serbian and Albanian negotiators have made little progress on the topic in meetings in Vienna over the past six months. But Western diplomats here said independence would probably be granted by the UN Security Council by the end of the year, most probably in an imposed settlement.
The Serbian government has made no indication that it is ready to accept or even acknowledge such an agreement and senior UN officials in Kosovo appear worried about how the settlement will play out.
Kostunica met with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain in London on Tuesday and warned that Serbia might break its ties with the West unless the international community took a more conciliatory approach to its claims to Kosovo and to Serbia's failure to arrest the war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic, a former Serb general. The European Union cut off negotiations on Serbian membership in the bloc in May over the failure to detain Mladic.
Seventeen years ago, when he was president, Slobodan Milosevic used the same occasion to promote Serbian nationalism when he addressed a million Serbs gathered at the presumed site of the battlefield and gave a similar message, one that ultimately led to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
This time the anniversary was a low- key affair. With members of Serbia's Orthodox Church, Kostunica attended a ceremony in which Serbian mothers of four or more children were given gold and silver medals, an attempt to encourage the Serbian birth rate in the province, which lags behind that of the Albanians. The visit was his second since he came to office two-and-a-half years ago.
Sounding a conciliatory note, Kostunica told the crowd in Gracanica that Serbia wanted to reach a "compromise" over Kosovo's future, but made no mention of what that might entail.
Serbs, he said, want "justice, rights and peace, want to talk, want to make an arrangement, want to make a compromise and to make the right solution historically for Kosovo."
Although officially a part of Serbia, Kosovo has been controlled by the United Nations since June 1999, when Yugoslav troops accused of committing widespread atrocities were forced to withdraw after NATO-led bombing.
From 1998 to 1999 an estimated 10,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanian civilians, were killed as the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army and the Serbian police cracked down on an insurgency led by ethnic Albanians.
While the day's visit passed without any significant reaction from ethnic Albanian leaders, international officials working here said they were alarmed that Serbian officials were toughening their stance over the province's future.
Senior UN officials say the government is trying to play up ethnic tensions to undermine the Albanian-led government's drive for independence.
In a recent interview, the departing head of the UN Mission in Kosovo, Soren Jessen-Petersen, warned that Belgrade's policies were compounding already hostile relations between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
He said leading Serbian politicians were playing up safety worries, in ways that could prompt Serbs to leave the province.
"The Kosovo Serbs are constantly hearing statements from Belgrade that would give them every reason to fear for their future," said Jessen-Petersen, who is to leave his post Friday.
"We have had some statements by leading politicians saying it is clear that Serbs here have a choice between death or exodus," he said. "They are not the kinds of statements that you make if you want the Serbs to stay here."
Belgrade wants to administer the Serbian areas of Kosovo directly.