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OMRI: Pursuing Balkan Peace, Vol. 2, No. 5, 97-02-04

Open Media Research Institute: Pursuing Balkan Peace Directory - Previous Article - Next Article

From: Open Media Research Institute <>

Vol. 2, No. 5, 4 February 1997




    Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has switched tactics. No longer shunning full-scale force, Milosevic on the night of 2 February, instructed his police forces to attack peaceful protesters.

    On that day, heavily armed riot officers resorted to hitting with clubs, tear gas, and water cannon the demonstrators, who are demanding the regime recognize opposition Zajedno coalition wins in the 17 November runoff municipal elections. Eyewitness reports, some describing the city as "a battleground," say it was the most serious display of state aggression since 1991, when Milosevic deployed tanks to put down anti-regime demonstrations. According to sources in the opposition Democratic Party, at least hundreds of people, including foreign and local journalists singled out for attack, were injured and scores arrested during the evening of 2-3 February. Throughout the city, protesters hurled concrete slabs and lit fires in the streets in an effort to halt police charges and water cannons. The independent daily Nasa Borba on 4 February reported on the magnitude and severity of the police crackdown on that night under the headline: "The Police Beat Whomever They Could."

    Among those seemingly singled out for the brunt of attack were leaders of Zajedno. Vesna Pesic of the Serbian Civic Alliance was reportedly beaten about the hands, feet and ribs. Speaking to Radio Index, she commented "I was lucky some of the protesters tried to protect me. I suffered bruises but they saved me from worse injuries." Pesic went into hiding that day. Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic said he was pursued by plainclothes policemen, and his car was shot at, Radio B-92 accounts said.

    But the violence unleashed by the regime did nothing to quell opposition resolve to continue with the protests. If anything, the regime's aggression seems to have had the opposite effect, serving to galvanize opposition resolve. Serbian opposition leaders on 3 January addressed crowds in downtown Belgrade, calling for concerted but peaceful resistance in the face of police crackdowns. Draskovic urged "We must all turn into a river of non-violent resistance... All schools and faculties must close, we must not pay any taxes and bills, and we must all go on strike. They are taking money from the citizens to pay the police who beat the people," Reuters reported him as saying. Meanwhile, there were beatings and arrests during the night of 3-4 February, albeit not on the scale of the previous evening.

    Representatives of the international community were quick to condemn the new tactics. U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, for example, deplored "the most serious use of force" on 2-3 February. He called "on the Serb police and the Serb authorities led by President Milosevic to exercise restraint in the streets of Belgrade," Reuters reported on 3 February. Meanwhile, U.S. Charge d'Affaires Richard Miles met Foreign Minister Milan Milutinovic on 3 February to "condemn" the police violence and "to call upon the Serbian government officially to refrain from using police force in the streets of Belgrade."

    For the time being, however, Milosevic himself still seems to want to project an image of being aloof. But he did attend a state medal awards ceremony in which high-ranking officials -- including police dignitaries accountable for the repression -- were honored, international media reported on 3 February. -- Stan Markotich


    And the forces of law and order were active in Kosovo, too: Serbian police arrested over 100 ethnic Albanians there over the past week, according to the leading Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). The arrests reached a peak after three ethnic Albanians were killed in a 31 January shootout with police near Vucitrn. Senior LDK officials held an emergency meeting and called the situation "extremely serious." They charged Milosevic with stirring up tensions in order to divert attention from the Belgrade opposition protests. Police later claimed those killed belonged to the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) (see Pursuing Balkan Peace, 21 January 1997) and said that one of them, identified as Zahor Pajaziti, was a top UCK official. The police added that a large number of weapons, explosives, and maps of public buildings and military facilities were seized in the raids. The LDK charged that the police had "exercised brute force against those arrested and members of their families during systematic house searches," and that at least one man was badly beaten. This comes amid much speculation by Serbian opposition leaders that Milosevic will try to provoke a crisis in Kosovo as an excuse for declaring a state of emergency throughout the country. Elsewhere, on 29 January the joint Serbian-Albanian education commission met in Belgrade for the first time. The group consists of three Albanians and three Serbs and is provided for by the 1 September agreement on education in Kosovo, Deutsche Welle's Albanian Service reported. -- Fabian Schmidt and Patrick Moore


    After Serbia, Bulgaria is the second Balkan country to be rocked by domestic turmoil. On 3 February, the Bulgarian Socialist Party's (BSP) premier-designate, Nikolay Dobrev, announced the lineup of his new government, Bulgarian and Western media reported. Dobrev will present his cabinet to President Petar Stoyanov on 4 February, and a confidence vote by the parliament is scheduled for the following day. As provided for by the constitution, Stoyanov on 28 January had given Dobrev as the premier-designate of the biggest force in the parliament the mandate to form a government. The opposition had turned down BSP offers for talks about a coalition cabinet over the previous weekend.

    Dobrev's government includes two deputy premiers: Georgi Pirinski, who returns to the Foreign Ministry, and newly-appointed Social Affairs Minister Nikola Koychev. More than half of the portfolios will be headed by new ministers, including interior, defense, industry, and justice. Gen. Sava Dzhendov -- former chief of the president's and parliament's security -- will become interior minister, while former Chief of General Staff Gen. Lyuben Petrov will take over defense. Finance Minister Dimitar Kostov, Foreign Trade Minister Atanas Paparizov, and Agriculture Minister Krastyo Trendafilov are among the key ministers to keep their post. Dobrev said he will announce the ministers of economic development and of education at a later date. A BSP plenary meeting passed the new lineup with 146 votes to 7.

    The new government is likely to be approved by the parliament, but a surprise is not to be ruled out. The BSP and its allies -- the Bulgarian Agrarian People's Union "Aleksandar Stamboliyski" and the Political Club Ekoglasnost -- hold 124 of the 240 seats in the parliament. But one deputy (former Sofia party leader Aleksandar Marinov) left the party in January, and one more deputy announced he would vote against a new BSP-led government. Marinov said as many as 10 Socialist deputies might follow his example and vote against a Socialist cabinet. The opposition will certainly vote against Dobrev, and the Bulgarian Business Bloc's deputies, who in previous no-confidence votes usually supported the BSP, will boycott the parliament, as BBB leader Georges Ganchev has announced.

    If Dobrev's government is approved by the parliament, it remains to be seen whether he will indeed call early parliamentary elections in three to five months, as he had previously proposed. The opposition wants elections by May at the latest, but within the BSP, many may prefer to cling to power as long as possible. But popular protest and intensifying strikes could still force Dobrev to call elections at an even earlier date.

    On 4 February, protests and demonstrations were in their 30th consecutive day. They continued throughout the country, with tens of thousands usually attending the daily Sofia rallies. A nationwide strike started on 29 January, albeit initially on a relatively small scale. Strike actions were extended in the following days, though, and look set to intensify further. Obviously, the trade unions could paralyze the country if they really want to.

    Over the past week, public transport in Sofia and Plovdiv came to a virtual standstill, and bus and commuter train services were disrupted in large parts of the country. Roads were blocked throughout Bulgaria, including the only direct road and rail connections between Sofia and Greece. Police reportedly tried to break the blockade on 1 February. Opposition leaders said people were beaten, although the police denied the use of violence. The socialist daily Duma on 3 February alleged that "40 Canadian businessmen" and Bulgarian tennis coach Yuliya Berberyan paid the protesters a total of $20,000.

    Strike organizers said Sofia public transport will go on an indefinite strike if the parliament approves the new government. On 3 February, Dobrev warned that "peaceful protests are understandable, but civil disobedience is outside the law." National Police Chief Hristo Marinski called on Stoyanov and the politicians to find a way of keeping the protests peaceful. The EU for its part made it clear that international help for Bulgaria's ruined economy will be forthcoming only after the political crisis is resolved. European Commission President Jacques Santer and EU External Relations Commissioner Hans van den Broek told Stoyanov on his first trip abroad as president that the EU will consider launching an international aid effort "as soon as the political situation in Bulgaria allows it." But -- and that is the basic message -- not a day earlier. -- Stefan Krause


    The third Balkan country currently in crisis is Albania. Following the collapse of pyramid investment schemes there, tensions are running high (see Pursuing Balkan Peace, 28 January 1997). Besides continuing street protests and strong pressure from the opposition on the government to resign, the country is now also facing the danger of hyperinflation. The government is trying to cope with the crisis by promising to repay the cheated investors and at the same time by threatening demonstrators with harsh prison sentences and cracking down on opposition figures.

    Last week Albania faced the worst riots since the end of communism in 1991. Protesters blamed President Sali Berisha and his government with profiting from the collapse of pyramid investment schemes and torched government buildings all over southern Albania. The total damage from the riots is estimated at about $50 million. The government is now eager to calm down tensions and bring public life to normal again by using a carrot and stick approach.

    Berisha tried to reduce public dissatisfaction by promising compensation to at least some of those who lost their life savings in pyramid schemes. On 28 January he told a rally of 10,000 supporters in Tirana that the government would "work to repay the money that was stolen" from them "quickly and fairly." The government thus has taken different approaches towards different investment companies. At least five top pyramid schemes have collapsed since last fall, while others are still operating but only paying interest, not returning capital.

    The government has acted against the owners of those pyramids that went bankrupt by mid-January and seized an estimated $300 million from two of them. The money was deposited with the National Bank but some of it only exists in the form of Albanian government bonds. According to Zef Preci, director of the Albanian Center for Economic Research, this amount would cover only a third of total investments. The government apparently plans to start paying investors out of these assets beginning on 5 February. The investors will, however, receive most of their money not in cash but rather in form of government bonds.

    In contrast to those schemes that have already collapsed, the government is still allowing some other investment companies to continue their operations. Larger companies that are closely linked to the government and that supported it during last year's election campaign may have a better chance to survive. VEFA -- the country's largest employer, which also runs a supermarket chain and building companies, and is involved in tourism and trade -- has survived by reducing its monthly interest rates to 5%, down from 8% last summer. When it started in the early 1990s , however, VEFA was offering up to 25%. Persistent but unconfirmed reports claim that the company holds a license for international arms trade and that its investment scheme -- one of Albania's first -- was designed to launder money from illicit trade. The company has always denied these claims. Yet various media reports have suggested that Albania may have been involved in arms trafficking to Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia.

    By allowing companies such as VEFA to continue their operations, the government apparently hopes to transform them into serious investment companies, which is possible considering that VEFA's non-pyramid activities may protect it from bankruptcy. The government's efforts to reform these companies and to pay money back to persons who lost in collapsed pyramids may, however, put Albania's economic progress at risk. Preci warned that "the only way the government can compensate people in full is by printing money, and that will set inflation alight." World Bank representative Carlos Elbirt, moreover, cautioned that any further surge in prices could be ruinous for the economy. And the inflation has already begun to rise. Due to a run on the dollar, the lek was traded this week as high as 125, up from just over 100 in late December. The central bank will hardly be able to support the lek, since it has foreign exchange reserves of just $270 million. The budget deficit in the first 11 months of 1996 hit around $260 million, some 11% of the GDP.

    Thus the government is facing an imminent economic crisis, while the opposition seizes the moment to press for new elections. On 30 January, seven opposition parties from across the political spectrum launched a Forum for Democracy. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new coalition is that it brings together the ex-communist Socialist Party and the vehemently anti-communist Association of Political Prisoners and the monarchist Legality Movement. They demand the setting up of an interim government of technocrats to prepare new elections. But Berisha strongly rejected the demand. Instead, the government arrested at least 149 people allegedly involved in the rioting. Many opposition figures are, however, among those arrested, and three others have been beaten up and injured by persons believed to be secret police agents. -- Fabian Schmidt


    Meanwhile in Macedonia, Fadil Sulejmani, the dean of the illegal Tetovo Albanian-language university, was released on probation on 1 February. Sulejmani was sentenced last July to two and a half years in prison for stirring unrest during riots over the fate of the university in February 1995. In an interview with Deutsche Welle's Albanian-language service, Sulejmani said that the Tetovo university is a reality the Macedonian authorities cannot further ignore. He added it has 2,500 students and over 100 professors. Sulejmani noted that a recently passed law, providing for the use of Albanian language at the Skopje university's department of education, was a sop to the international community. He charged that it was in the first place designed to deny ethnic Albanian students an education in their mother-tongue in all disciplines of the university. -- Fabian Schmidt


    Culture Minister Slobodan Unkovski on 30 January arrived in Greece for an official visit--the first by a high-ranking official from Macedonia since that country gained independence, Nova Makedonija and AFP reported. Unkovski was in Thessaloniki for the city's inauguration as 1997 European culture capital. He also met with his counterparts from Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia. In other news, the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights says that Macedonia generally respects the human rights of its citizens, according to RFE/RL. But the report pointed out that problems exist between the government and the ethnic Albanian minority and that ethnic Macedonians hold a disproportionately high number of positions in state institutions. It also noted discrimination against women and occasional police brutality. -- Stefan Krause


    Turning to Bosnian affairs, following meetings with European leaders in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on 28 January that the international community will insist on "cooperation and compliance" with the Dayton agreement, adding that "there is no one individual upon which all this is dependent." This remark seems to bear out speculation in the U.S. and international press in recent weeks that Washington is looking beyond the embattled Milosevic and ailing Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to a new generation of leaders. And in a gentle poke at some European allies, as well as at Milosevic and Tudjman, she pointed out: "we want to have institutions built in Bosnia that will sustain a democratic, multi-ethnic state." -- Patrick Moore


    This, of course, is more easily said than done. A group of 28 Muslims returned to the village of Gajevi just inside Serbian lines on 30 January, Oslobodjenje reported. They had all completed procedures agreed on by the Serbs, Muslims, and the UN, and SFOR had checked them for weapons. Joint patrols involving the UN's International Police Task Force and the Republika Srpska police have also begun. Some 36 families in all are slated to return to Gajevi in keeping with the Dayton agreement but have been delayed by a series of violent incidents. Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic told the international community's Carl Bildt that she will issue instructions to local authorities on the procedures regarding the border area. -- Patrick Moore


    Robert Frowick, head of the OSCE mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, on 28 January said that all the political parties represented on the Provisional Election Commission have finally agreed on municipal election regulations, international media reported. Elections for mayors and local councils will take place on 12-13 July. The OSCE, which supervised the general elections last September, postponed the local elections because of gross abuse of the registration of refugees in disputed areas, particularly by the Serbs. Frowick said the OSCE will be more careful in supervising the ballot this time. Controversial election rules allow Bosnians to vote where they once lived, where they currently live, or where they say they intend to live. For those who want to vote in their old home areas, the refugees now have to submit documents proving they had property, held steady employment or owned a private business in the particular municipality. Bosnians can also opt to vote where they live now if they submit proof that they settled there before 31 July 1996, Reuters reported. In the third instance, the agreement imposes stricter rules on refugees living abroad who want to vote where they "intend" to live back in Bosnia. It is still unclear whether new election rules will offset concerns that voting will consolidate the results of wartime "ethnic cleansing." -- Daria Sito Sucic


    As local elections scheduled for 16 March in Croatia are approaching, more incidents and nervousness in last Serb-held region of eastern Slavonia can be observed. Local Croatian Serbs are pursuing a strategy of an open resistance to the region's reintegration into Croatia's legal system through frequent incidents and attacks on Croatian authorities. Meanwhile, the Croatian government has drafted a "Memorandum on the Completion of Peaceful Reintegration." The document seems to have met most demands from local Serb leaders, and the UN Security Council endorsed it on 31 December. It does not, however, meet the Serb demand for local autonomy, which both Zagreb and the local UN administration reject. Local Serb leadership publicly stated they were "very disappointed" with the Council's support to the Croatian government's letter of intent.

    The series of incidents started on 24 December in the town of Ilok, when some 50 Orthodox Serbs besieged in a church about 200 Roman Catholic Croats -- displaced from the region during the 1991 Croatian-Serbian war -- attending the Christmas Eve mass. After the service the Serbs broke into the church and vandalized the vestry. On 28 January, some 50 Serbs in Borovo Selo -- the scene of a famous incident at the start of the Serb-Croat conflict -- stoned Croatian pension officials, bank representatives, and police. The next day, a group of 30 - 40 young Serbs blocked access to offices distributing Croatian pensions in Borovo Selo and Trpinja. Local Serbian officials condemned the incidents and refused help offered by the UN, saying they would handle the situation.

    However, in the days to follow, new incidents were reported. A Belgian corporal serving with the UN force in the area was shot and killed on 31 January by a young Serb with a history of criminal and drug problems. A Jordanian soldier and a UN civilian officer were also injured in this incident. The UN had condemned the attack, but said it was a criminal rather than political act. Then, at least two explosions occurred the next day. An explosive device damaged railroad track near Vukovar on the line recently reopened by the UN to connect Croatian government-controlled territory with the Serb-held region. Also, a hand grenade was thrown in front of the Croatian pension payment office in village of Jankovci. Croatian media reported that another explosive device was thrown that same day at a house "inhabited by non-Serb families."

    Meanwhile, the UN Security Council endorsed Croatian plans that local elections in eastern Slavonia take place simultaneously with nationwide elections in rest of Croatia. The Croatian government outlined a series of political concessions to the local Serbs following long negotiations with the UN administration. The Council's condition for the Croatian government was to complete the issuing of citizenship and identity documents needed by Serbs to participate in the elections. The Council also called for "full cooperation" by the local Serbs, who are said to be frustrated with the approaching reintegration. For his part, Jacques Klein, head of the UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES), urged the Security Council earlier last week to send local Serbs "a very clear signal" that it was time to cooperate for their own sake.

    Moderate Serb political representatives advise the population to stay calm, obtain Croatian documents, and not abandon their homes and property. But the more radical among them threaten a huge exodus, comparable to that of the Krajina Serbs in the August 1995. As things stand now, nobody can say with certainty whether the process of reintegration of eastern Slavonia into the rest of Croatia will go smoothly. For example, Croatia's Interior Minister Ivan Penic says Croatia is not expecting many Serbs to move into Bosnia's Republika Srpska after the reintegration. On the other hand, Krajisnik recently asked the Vatican to influence the Croatian government to prevent an exodus from eastern Slavonia into the Republika Srpska. The UN, for its part, said the people who voluntarily leave their homes will not be regarded as refugees by the UNHCR.

    The Croatian government is convinced it has offered more than enough to the region's Serbs in the letter of intent. Croatia's behavior toward the Krajina Serbs in 1995, however, does not give the Serbs of eastern Slavonia much reason to be trusting. It may well take a lot more than words and statements to prevent the possibility of a new exodus. -- Daria Sito Sucic


    Like the proceeding year, 1997 opened with a major squall in the eastern Mediterranean. The immediate cause of the latest tensions was the 3 January announcement in Moscow that Greek Cypriots would, as earlier rumored, purchase and deploy an uncertain number of Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missile defense systems.

    Cyprus' plans for buying such hardware -- which the United States and the UN Security Council earlier sought to discourage -- are long-standing. It is part of Nicosia's efforts to counter what it considers to be the over-arching superiority of Turkish arms, not only in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus -- where Ankara has deployed estimated 30,000 troops -- but also just minutes away on the Turkish mainland.

    The deal's overall significance is suggested by the heated opposition it evoked in Ankara, as well as by Washington's quick-reaction efforts to defuse the crisis. Turkey protested the deal, arguing the project has offensive military implications and would alter the existing regional balance. Such developments, Ankara continued, would be so serious as to justify a Turkish counter-threat to prevent the missiles' deployment, if need be, by force of arms. Ankara also announced its determination to construct naval and air bases to counter what it sees as Athens' diplomatic and material support for Nicosia's ongoing arming and base-building efforts.

    The United States, for its part, immediately registered its displeasure with S-300 deal , as well as with Turkey's tough reaction to it. Washington promptly dispatched a fire brigade, in the form of special envoy Carey Cavanaugh, to the region. After consulting both sides on Cyprus as well as in Greece and Turkey, Cavanaugh returned home in mid-January, triumphantly claiming a crisis had been averted because "not one part" of the missile system would be deployed for 16 months.

    This description of the benefits of a cooling-off period fails to recognize the deliberate origins of the crisis: the present ballyhoo was not prompted by accident -- as occurred last year when Greece and Turkey threatened to go to war over an uninhabited Aegean islet in the wake of an innocent shipping incident -- but wittingly, albeit for different reasons, by Nicosia and Moscow.

    The S-300 transaction is very much in line with the declared policies of Cyprus and Russia, making it unlikely the deal will simply be scuttled unless either Nicosia or Moscow wins concessions on their main concerns: rolling-back Turkey and thwarting NATO expansion, respectively. With negligible muscle and few cards to play, Nicosia sees the deal primarily as a means of encouraging the United States and European Union to pressure Turkey to withdraw from the northern third of Cyprus. This would then be the first step toward the island's reunification and integration into the EU.

    For Russia, the stakes are both larger and more multi-faceted. It offers, like earlier deals with Iran, a means of advertising Russia's independent, post-Kozyrev foreign policy vis-a-vis the West. It also demonstrates Moscow's role as a determined international arms dealer. Those benefits, however, pale in comparison with the geopolitical advantages the deal offers Russia, namely to put gentle pressure on Turkey as an indirect warning over NATO expansion. -- Lowell Bezanis

    This material was reprinted with permission of the Open Media Research Institute, a nonprofit organization with research offices in Prague, Czech Republic. For more information on OMRI publications please write to

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