Institute of War and Peace Reporting, London

Comment: Kosovo Serb Despair

The Serbian extremist's electoral success here reflects local Serbs' increasingly desperate plight.

By Father Sava Janjic in Decani (BCR No 372, 7-Oct-02)

Overwhelming Kosovo Serb support for ultra-nationalist Vojislav Sesejl in the recent Serbian presidential elections is more an indication of their desperation than of backing for his retrograde policies. The confidence the majority of them entrusted in the Radical Party leader points to the need for greater understanding of the Serb community in the UN-administered province.

In his election campaign, Seselj failed to come up with a concrete programme for Serbia's economic and political problems nor propose a strategy for tackling the difficulties facing the Kosovo Serbs.

Why then did Seselj win the majority of Kosovo Serb votes? Before one can answer such a question, it is important to understand that the participation of Serb voters was lower than expected and that if all of them had taken part the results would have been less discouraging.

Despite this, it is not hard to believe that even if this had been the case, Seselj would still have gained more Kosovo Serb voters than the two democratically-oriented presidential candidates, Vojislav Kostunica and Miroljub Labus.

The number of votes won by the Radical party chief, well known for his brand of extreme nationalism that has no basis in Orthodox religious tradition - but is rather the product of an atheistic consciousness - does not prove Kosovo Serbs have given their support for the so-called Greater Serbia project. Nor does it show they want war, as many Albanian commentators have gleefully concluded.

It more accurately reflects a mood of deep disillusionment with the policies that the international community, Belgrade and the ethnic Albanians are implementing in Kosovo. The votes that went to Seselj are first and foremost an expression of bitterness and disappointment in the UNMIK administration, which in three years has not managed to create even the minimum conditions for the free and dignified life of the non-Albanian, primarily Serb, population.

Even those Serbs who at first expressed confidence in the efforts of the international community to create a multi-ethnic society gradually began to lean towards harsher and less compromising positions. The responsibility for this lies primarily with western officials, which, instead of establishing law and order, permitted uncontrolled violence and repression of the Serbs.

Rendered lethargic by bureaucracy and by fear of conflicts with Albanian extremists, it has hypocritically ignored the problems of the Serb community, insisting its mission be declared a success before the basic tenets of a democratic and free society are established.

But the Kosovo Serbs are also dissatisfied with Belgrade's policies. Since the change of regime in October 2000 and the departure of Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague, the Serbian leadership has failed to produce a concrete strategy that might address the problems facing the Kosovo Serbs - namely the international community's failure to return displaced Serbs to the region and provide adequate security for those living there.

Finally, the Serbs are disappointed with the local Albanian leaders. In all honesty, they could not expect much from them, considering they mostly graduated to their ministerial portfolios and seats in parliament from the ranks of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, whose leaders were responsible for numerous war crimes not only against Serbs but also Albanians who disagreed with the policy of an ethnically pure Kosovo.

Three years after the end of the war and the arrival of the UNMIK mission and KFOR, the Kosovo Albanians have not managed to present a vision of a democratic society to be enjoyed by all citizens regardless of their ethnicity.

Even the newly-elected provincial president, Ibrahim Rugova, whom the West considers a moderate, behaves as though the Serbs in Kosovo do not exist.

The primary reason why the Kosovo Serbs decided to participate in the Serbian presidential elections was to demonstrate that they do not consider the protectorate's president and the transitional government in Pristina their legitimate representatives.

Taking these facts into consideration, it is hardly surprising that most of the minority gave their votes to Seselj. He has consistently claimed that the international community and the Kosovo Albanians, with Belgrade's silent acquiescence, will relegate them to the rubbish heap of history.

In order for the Serb electoral body in the province to reconsider more democratic options, it is necessary first and foremost to change the attitude of Belgrade, Pristina and international community towards the minority.

A just and balanced policy, which will approach the Kosovo problem objectively and speedily, is the only way of winning over the local Serbs. Only this will open the door to moderate political forces among the latter, isolating extremist, nationalist forces, and creating the basic preconditions for the political and economic stabilisation of the province.

Father Sava Janjic serves in the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizren