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Isolation fear grips Kosovo Serbs

29 July 09 10:49 GMT

By Paul Moss
Radio 4's The World Tonight

Nikola shuffles his feet nervously, gazes around at the town where he has lived all his life, and tells me that he wants to leave.

Then he tells me he will not leave. Then he seems to change his mind and say that he will.

We are in Gracanica, a Serb enclave in the middle of Kosovo, surrounded on all sides by the majority Albanian-speaking population.

And Nikola, like most people you meet here, talks as if he is living under siege.

"There are threats from Kosovo Albanians, trying to kidnap people," he says.

"I don't feel safe here. My mother has trouble with the neighbour - he's Albanian. You don't have the things here you need for a normal life."

'Endangered' community

The tables have certainly turned.

During the late Slobodan Milosevic's time as president of former Yugoslavia and, later, Serbia, ethnic Serbs in Kosovo were accused first of removing the rights of Kosovo's Albanian-speaking population, and then of attempting to ethnically cleanse them from the province altogether.

But when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence last year, its Serb population found themselves a minority in the disputed territory. Some left their homes.

And now they have a new source of anxiety.

The Nato-led Kosovo Force (K-For) deployed to keep the peace in Kosovo has just announced it is reducing troop numbers from 14,000 down to 10,000.

It is a move that the Serbian Foreign Minister, Vuk Jeremic, warns will leave Serbs in Kosovo badly exposed.

"Today, in Europe, the Kosovo Serb community is probably among the most endangered," he says.

"When they move around, they feel they need to be accompanied by international security forces. It would be bad if the numbers were diminished."

But despite Mr Jeremic's protestations on behalf of Kosovo's Serbs, he himself has made a diplomatic shift that could well leave them with even more worries.

Until now, the government in Belgrade has insisted that Kosovo is entirely and eternally a part of Serbia.

But speaking to the BBC's World Tonight programme, Mr Jeremic proffered a new possibility of compromise.

He said he now wanted to negotiate with the Kosovan authorities, and promised that he would be "very flexible".

Asked explicitly if he might recognise Kosovo's independence, perhaps in return for some of its land being returned to Serbia, Mr Jeremic once again refused to rule anything out.

"We don't want to exclude any options," he said. "We need to come to the table and see what happens."

Abandonment fears

It may sound like a subtle shift of emphasis, but for many Serbs living in Kosovo, Mr Jeremic's comments amount to nothing short of treachery.

"They play a game of 'saving Kosovo'. They just say they love Kosovo because of their political careers," says Budmir Nicic, who lives in Caglavica, another Serb enclave within Kosovo.

"Belgrade hasn't done anything for the survival of Serbs in Kosovo," he complains. "They just say things to win over voters in Serbia."

Mr Nicic's scathing views reflect a common anxiety among Kosovo's Serb population.

Fearful though they may be of their Albanian neighbours, Serbs here are often even more suspicious of the "motherland", to which they are supposedly loyal.

Many are convinced that Serbia will eventually abandon its claim on Kosovo, perhaps in order to curry favour with the European Union.

As far as Agron Bajrami is concerned, Kosovo's Serbs have only one option.

The editor of Kosovo's leading Albanian-language newspaper, Koha Ditore, Bajrami argues that Serbs living in Kosovo must accept the country's independence, and make their peace with it.

"The majority of Albanians are willing to accept Serbs as part of this country," he says at his office in Pristina.

"But because Serbs won't accept Kosovo as their own state, this brings a lot of Albanians to view them as a threat to the state."

Opening minds

That idea, that Serbs will be forced to integrate, was echoed by another Kosovo resident, who is herself an ethnic Serb.

Danijela works for one of the country's myriad international organisations.

And unlike most of her fellow Serbs, she travels regularly to the capital, Pristina, scoffing at the idea that she might be in danger of attack.

As far as Danijela is concerned, it is self-interest and, in particular, the lure of business that will eventually coax Serbs out of their ghetto and into a more integrated existence with their ethnic-Albanian neighbours.

"Nobody can live in isolation for ever," she insists. "To improve our living standards, Serbs will start trading more. And naturally, opening of the market is going to open the minds of people."

"We will stop thinking about ethnicities, stop dividing ourselves as we are divided now," she adds.

Danijela smiles slightly as her train of thought reaches its conclusion:

"It's a time in the Balkans to think about the future," she says. "We can't live in the past for ever."

Hear Paul Moss's report from Kosovo on The World Tonight.

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