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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 January 2007, 18:02 GMT
Kosovo looms large in Serb poll
By Nick Hawton
BBC News, Presevo, Serbia

Budmir Jankovic and Xhevap Ameti
Friends are bridging the old ethnic divide near Kosovo
On Sunday Serbia will hold its first general election since becoming an independent state last year.

One topic looms large over the election, the future of the province of Kosovo.

In southern Serbia the Albanian and Serb communities are looking anxiously at developments in neighbouring Kosovo.

"I help my Serb friend sell onions here in the Albanian market and he helps me to sell my potatoes in the Serb market further north," says Xhevap Ameti, an Albanian, living near the town of Presevo in southern Serbia.

"We've tried war, we've tried politics and none of it has worked. But we've managed to connect ordinary people through this agricultural association.

"We've been able to maintain the relationships between Albanians and Serbs and we hope to be an example to other people," says Xhevap.

Serbia/Kosovo map

His Serb friend and trading partner, Budimir, agrees:

"We've become so close that I come with my family to visit him and we really do help each other.

"I see our personal friendship as the most important thing. I cannot describe it in words. Politics is politics and life is life," says Budimir.

Guerrilla war

Relations between Serbs and Albanians in southern Serbia, in the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, have not always been so warm.

In 2001 ethnic Albanian guerrillas fought Serb security forces in the hills around here.

A wider conflict was ultimately avoided, the international community got involved, money came in and the Albanians were given more rights.

"The introduction of a multi-ethnic police force has certainly helped matters. The security situation has improved. But this is still an impoverished area," says Martin Brooks of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Kosovo Albanian children next to Free Kosovo slogan in Mitrovica
Kosovo's ethnic Albanians are hungry for independence
As a sign of how things have improved, a coalition of Albanian parties will take part in this general election, finally ending years of boycott.

But there is concern about the consequences for the finely balanced ethnic relations should trouble erupt in neighbouring Kosovo just a few kilometres over the nearby hills.

The province of Kosovo remains a part of Serbia but has been administered by the UN since 1999.

Its majority Albanian population want independence.

The chief international envoy for Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, has said he will present his proposal for the future status of Kosovo "without delay" after the Serbian election.

There is a widespread belief he will recommend some form of independence.

Serb migration

There is concern that some Serbs may then leave Kosovo and move to southern Serbia, upsetting the ethnic balance.

"Whenever there is migration the situation becomes tense. We don't want to see our own people thrown out of Kosovo and it would have a negative impact. But we would accept them and take them in," says Svetislav Stojmenovic, the owner of the Oasis restaurant in the town of Bujanovac.

He is also a leading member of the Serbian Radical Party, the main nationalist party in Serbia.

"We don't want a new war here. We want peace and higher standards of living. But we will never agree to an imposed solution over Kosovo and we will wait for an historical moment when we can legally regain that territory if it becomes independent," he says.

At a cafe around the corner a leading Albanian politician tells me he would be concerned if there was a sudden influx of Serb refugees.

Jonuz Musliu, a former Albanian fighter, is now leader of the Movement for Democratic Progress in Bujanovac.

"We don't know what's going to happen," he tells me.

"But if many Serbs leave Kosovo and come to Bujanovac, they are likely to be angry and frustrated. There could be tensions. I think there would have to be some international police here to defend both Serbs and Albanians."

For many in southern Serbia, it is not this general election that they are paying attention to but its immediate aftermath.


SEE ALSO
Q&A: Serbian election
18 Jan 07 |  Europe
Albanians end boycott in Serbia
06 Dec 06 |  Europe
Serbia backs draft constitution
30 Oct 06 |  Europe
Country profile: Serbia
10 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Serbia
16 Dec 06 |  Country profiles

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