Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Serbia revives Milosevic-era policies over Kosovo

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - It's all there: nationalist rhetoric, pledges to resist Western pressure, even saber-rattling. As far as Serbia's Kosovo policy is concerned, Slobodan Milosevic is not dead.

The prospect that Kosovo -- the separatist province that has been under U.N. control since 1999 -- might be granted independence in U.N.-brokered talks has unleashed a tide of nationalism in the Balkan republic that is reminiscent of the era of the late Serbian autocrat.

Top Serbian officials, who normally advocate pro-Western reform and European integration, in the past weeks have switched to Milosevic's language of defiance and resistance, to the "evil" world that is plotting to rid Serbia of its sacred territory.

They are even flexing military muscle, making vague threats to use force to keep Kosovo -- where ethnic Albanians represent 90 percent of its 2 million people -- within Serbia's fold.

Serbia's top leaders made a point this past weekend of attending a military parade, the first in over 30 years in downtown Belgrade.

"Kosovo has always been and forever will remain within Serbia," Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said during the parade that was part of a grandiose graduation ceremony for about 200 cadets from Serbia's Military Academy. "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia."

Earlier this month, the Serbian parliament decided that a future Serbian constitution will refer to Kosovo as an "integral" part of Serbia, whatever the outcome of negotiations, and that a referendum will be held to cement the decision by the "people's will."

The toughening of Serbia's stance has prompted warnings from liberal politicians and analysts that current policies were ominously similar to the ones pursued by Milosevic, who used the Kosovo issue to trigger a series of wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Milosevic, who ruled Serbia for more than a decade before he was ousted in 2000, died in March while in custody of the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

Back in 1998, Milosevic also had sought parliamentary backing for his decision to pull out of the talks on Kosovo, and organized a referendum to rally the people behind his defiant policies, which eventually resulted in a NATO assault.

"The concept is the same, only Milosevic is missing," Cedomir Jovanovic, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, said of the policies of the Kostunica and President Boris Tadic.

Zoran Ostojic, from the Civic Alliance, said "similarities and continuity with Milosevic's policies are unbelievably obvious."

Milosevic governed restive Kosovo with a heavy hand for years in the 1990s, before the province exploded in violence in 1998, prompting the United States and its allies to intervene on the side of the Kosovo Albanians.

The 1999 NATO air war against Serbia destroyed much of the republic's infrastructure and killed hundreds, before Milosevic agreed to end his crackdown against separatist ethnic Albanians, pull his troops out of Kosovo and relinquish control over the region to the United Nations.

Some seven years later, the U.N. launched negotiations to determine whether Kosovo will become an independent state or remain, at least formally, within Serbia's boundaries. The talks are to conclude by the end of 2006, and most analysts predict Kosovo will gain some form of independence.

Serbia's president, Tadic, upon return from the United States last week acknowledged that Washington, and most of its allies, support granting independence to Kosovo. In Serbia, the news fueled anger and a fresh wave of anti-Western, Milosevic-era rhetoric.

In Parliament, ultra-nationalist leader Tomislav Nikolic, who ruled with Milosevic in the 1990s, urged the army to "stand ready" to go to war in case Kosovo is declared a new state at the U.N. talks. He said Serbia must sever diplomatic ties with all Western states that advocate Kosovo's independence.

Kostunica met Nikolic on Tuesday, and the two urged in a statement that the new Serbian constitution with Kosovo as its integral part should be adopted as soon as possible "to prevent possible (international) attempts to impose a solution for Kosovo."

Cedomir Jovanovic, leader of the Liberals, argued that Serbia's reluctance to let go of Kosovo, despite the province's overwhelming pro-independence drive, will hurt Serbia's future. To counter the current policies, Jovanovic announced a campaign against the new constitution.

"It is not fair to burden future generations in the 21st century with the unfulfilled plans from 19th and 20th century," his party said in a statement.

Miljenko Dereta, a pro-democracy activist and political analyst, said the bravado on Kosovo, amounted to "manipulation with the feelings of the citizens of Serbia, by which incapable leaders hide their own lack of readiness to face reality."

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