Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Nebojsa Covic
Deputy Prime Minister - Serbia

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Ladies and Gentlemen:

We in the opposition in Serbia fought hard for years, at great personal cost, against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, the regime that did so much harm to many of our citizens and to the stability of the whole region. When we came to power on October 5, 2000, we were determined to change this heavy burden of the past, to change it profoundly and for good.

With this objective in mind, we have taken many steps so far. We have adopted the Law on Rights of Minorities and appointed a minority representative as the Federal Minister of ethnic groups and communities. We have established diplomatic relations with all our neighbors. Dealing with the crisis in Southern Serbia, confronted with arms, violence, and extremism, we exercised prudence and solved the crisis peacefully, focusing on a number of confidence building measures and cooperating closely with the international community. There is full freedom of movement in Southern Serbia today. We have established a multiethnic police force, withdrawn special forces as the peace was restored, demilitarized the area, and concentrated on integrating our ethnic Albanian citizens into all levels of social, political, and economic life. Of the total number of 12,500 displaced individuals, almost ten thousand Albanian refugees have already returned to this part of the country. We have been working hard, with our friends from the international community, on improving the living conditions and infrastructure in this underdeveloped region. We carried out a census and scheduled municipal by-elections for July 28. And, although a lot remains to be done, Southern Serbia has proven to be a story of our joint success and interethnic reconciliation.

In Kosovo and Metohia, whatever the final solution might be, our desire is to have a strong and successful multiethnic society, like the one I have just described in Southern Serbia. We have been working hard to help this objective be achieved as it will have a direct impact on the stability of the whole region. If we are not successful in creating a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo, the resulting turmoil and dislocation will have a dramatic, negative impact on the political situation in Yugoslavia and in the region as a whole. But as difficult and dangerous as it can be in the rest of the region, it in fact is just as bad or even worse for the future of Kosovo. If extremist groups there are allowed to prevail, the real losers will be all the citizens of Kosovo. Those same extremist groups that bomb buses carrying Serbs are also killing other Kosovar Albanians who do not share their extremism. What sort of society will result if the extremists prevail? What sort of relationship can they expect to have with Serbia if they drive the Kosovo Serbs out of Kosovo? Believe me, for Kosovo to survive and flourish economically, it must have a positive, constructive relationship with the rest of Yugoslavia. Otherwise, it will continue in perpetuity to rely on the generosity of the international community.

The reality is, unfortunately, profoundly different from what we all have been striving for. There are some real obstacles on the road and the situation is much worse than some internationals on the ground have been trying to present.

Exactly a week ago, the people who live in Kosovo and Metohia marked the third anniversary of the entry of the international forces in the province. These have been three years of relief, joy, and freedom for some, three years of agony, fear, and tears for the others.

When the international troops entered Kosovo and Metohia on June 12, 1999, they ended the inexcusable persecution of ethnic Albanians, conceived and carried out by the Milosevic regime. It was a beginning of new life for the Albanians that they had longed for for years. At the same time, the inexcusable persecution and hardships began for ethnic Serbs, and those, who have been courageous enough to stay on their hearths, have had to suffer for sins they have never committed.

Kosovo and Metohia is the only part of former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where people cannot move freely and where insecurity and fear of violence and death have been persistently and deliberately preserved.

When the Serbs travel in Kosovo and Metohia, they travel on bus lines that have no timetables. For the passengers’ security sake, the departure dates and times are unknown. So are arrival dates and times.

Deputies of the Serbian Coalition Povratak come to the Assembly of Kosovo and Metohia in armored vehicles, with a heavy international security detail. The actual choice of when they arrive or how long they stay in Pristina depends in the end not on them but on the whim of KFOR.

Officials of Serbia and Yugoslavia, the state that Kosovo and Metohia is part of, have to provide information on their travel to the Province three days in advance. For it takes three days to carry out preparations, checks, and complex security measures.

The human rights situation in Kosovo and Metohia is distinct from the human rights situation in other parts of post-conflict Yugoslavia. Unlike the situation for ethnic groups in Bosnia, the Serbs of Kosovo have been given absolutely no assurances whatsoever that their language, culture, religion, or way of life will definitely survive and flourish in Kosovo. Quite the contrary, everything really depends on the whim or good will currently of UNMIK and KFOR with absolutely no assurances about the future. This is an absolutely critical flaw, because nothing that the Kosovo Serbs see now can give them any comfort at all about their future. Freedom of movement outside of a few enclaves is totally impossible, refugee return is almost non-existent, and a climate of violence permeates the very air that the Serbs breathe.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to note a few disturbing facts. Two thirds of the total number of murders and abductions of Serbs and other non-Albanians in the province in the last four years have been committed since the international forces entered Kosovo and Metohia three years ago. There have been 5,800 attacks against Serbs and other minorities in the province, 1,138 people have been killed on their doorsteps, in their backyards, in their fields. Whole families, several generations that lived in the same households, do not exist any more. 1,077 people have been abducted, 864 of whom are still missing. In most cases, these crimes were committed by individuals that are well known to the victims' families. In most cases, these crimes were witnessed by other family members of the victims. Yet, we have seen no signs that Albanians perpetrators will be brought to justice for murders committed against those who do not belong to their religion or to their ethnic group, for usurpation of their neighbors’ property, for destruction of Serbian cultural heritage, for ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and Metohia.

Unforgivably little has been done to clarify the fate of 1,300 kidnapped and missing individuals.

The non-Albanian property has been neither protected nor preserved. In most cases, if it has not been totally destroyed, it has been usurped by ethnic Albanians. In a few cases, certain groups of ethnic Albanians have made enormous profit from renting this property. In some cases even to international organizations!

There are those who will tell you that the situation is “improving” based on the reports that show that there were fewer murders and fewer attacks on Serbs and other non-Albanians registered in the last year than in the year before. Don’t believe them. The Serbs and other minorities have simply learned the rules of the game and how to stay out of harm’s way.

The Serbs and other non-Albanians have been forced to live in enclaves and ghettos in order to survive. There is an apartment building in Pristina where last remaining 110 Serbs live. In a single apartment building! In 1999, there were 20,700 Serbs in Pristina. Today, this building is their last retreat that they seldom leave. 51 of them are children, including a twelve-month old infant. This building is their home, their school, and their playground. They can never go out and play outdoors. They can only watch Albanian children playing in the park through iron bars on their windows.

Not only has the reduced number of attacks against the lives and the property of the Serbs and other non-Albanians failed to yield a result in an increased number of returns of the internally displaced individuals, but it has also failed to put a stop to a continued migration of the Serbs out of Kosovo and Metohia into the Serbia proper. There have been no steps, even symbolic ones, to facilitate the return of 280,000 internally displaced persons and refugees to Kosovo and Metohia. In three years, only 125 individuals have been able to return home. In the recent poll, more than 50 percent of the internally displaced persons in Serbia proper declared firm determination to return to their homes in Kosovo and Metohia. It is their essential and undeniable human right and we must ensure that it is thoroughly observed in accordance to the standards of the democratic world.

I am deeply concerned about the situation in Mitrovica that is a consequence of existential concerns of the Serbs and a result of profound interethnic distrust. We have been working closely with UNMIK and the local Serb community in Mitrovica to resolve this issue. It is a long and sensitive process. The Serbs in this town fear and worry that the same that has happened to many of their friends and relatives throughout Kosovo and Metohia will happen to them, too. They fear and worry that they will be thrown out of their homes, that their lives and their way of life will be threatened. That is why solutions that come out of improvisation and pressure can bear no fruit. It takes time to build confidence among all parties, to make sustainable compromises, and to respect interests of all.

Extremism in Kosovo and Metohia is an extremely powerful force, and sometimes extremists themselves are in power. If this had not been the case, we would have had bilingualism, interethnic tolerance, unbiased police, and independent judiciary.

Some may say that you cannot improve the conditions that have deteriorated for a long time in a day or in a year. I do agree and it would be unfair to say that the current conditions are worse than those of the past. I genuinely and deeply respect the results that UNMIK and KFOR have achieved under very difficult circumstances. But so much more remains to be done. In November 2001 I signed with then SRSG Haekkerup a Common Document outlining how we would work together to improve the situation in Kosovo. Belgrade has demonstrated by the get-out-the-vote campaign and on the Kosovo Albanian prisoner issue, that we can play a positive role. I believe that the key to our common future is to fully implement that agreement with your support and assistance, in good faith, and with as much energy as possible. This includes making a major push this year on refugee return, confronting extremists on all sides and insisting that there be real freedom of movement throughout Kosovo, working hard to make the institutions work, and trying to account for the missing on both sides.

Finally, a word about the relationship today between Belgrade and the Kosovo Serbs. There is a theory advocated by many that the Kosovo Serbs must learn to live entirely within Kosovo and Metohia. That same theory seems to prejudge the future of the province, by the way, by ensuring that it would be totally independent of the rest of Yugoslavia.

The communities in Kosovo and Metohia have a long way to go to true democracy and genuine reconciliation. And only then can we speak about a final solution. I firmly believe that we have less time than most of us think or want to prepare for it. So every day counts. We are here today to clearly identify a number of serious concerns for the protection of human rights and respect for the rule of law in the province. We need to address these issues as efficiently as possible and as soon as possible and make major progress even this year. If we fail, the future of Kosovo will look bleak indeed and, as the Ombudsperson for Kosovo noted recently, it will continue to be a human rights black hole of the democratic world.

Ladies and gentlemen, as annexes to this statement you will fined tables with data in regard to certain types of human rights violations, Principles of Program of returns of internally displaced persons from Kosovo and Metohia as well as Report on the destructions of cultural heritage in Kosovo and Metohia. I hope that this material will help you to understand this serious problem.

I thank you for your attention.