Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Fourth Report


Presevo valley


147. The Presevo valley area of Serbia is an area of mixed ethnicity, with a majority of ethnic Albanians (around 70,000).[300] This area was not generally involved in the conflict between the Kosovo Albanians and the Yugoslav forces which led to the launch of the NATO campaign in 1999. However, there was a long history of discrimination against the Albanians in the area. Charles Crawford told us of "the repression and bad behaviour and police brutality and all sorts of other things which have happened down there for a long time. The electoral laws and the municipal boundaries and these sorts of things were stacked so that the Albanians were, [according to the mayor of Presevo] discriminated against."[301] Chris Patten told us that "the Presevo valley has been very disadvantaged over the years. The public services are bad or non existent and people are extremely poor."[302] Yugoslav forces which redeployed from Kosovo after June 1999 are reported to have engaged in repression against the Albanians—many Serbs would claim that following their success in Kosovo, radical Albanians stirred up trouble in order to detach the area from Serbia.[303] After June 1999, ex-KLA fighters formed the self-styled Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac [the main towns in the Presevo valley] or UCPMB: there are now perhaps 800 guerillas.[304] As part of the Military Technical Agreement, which was signed by NATO and Yugoslavia/Serbia in June 1999, a Ground Safety Zone (GSZ) was established around Kosovo as a buffer between the Yugoslav army and KFOR.[305] The GSZ has allowed ethnic Albanian guerillas to operate with impunity in the area, conducting military training and attacking Serb police. We heard in Kosovo that every two weeks 60 young Albanians from the area around the Presevo valley were going into camps in the GSZ to train. In the worst incident so far, four Serb policemen were killed in November 2000. On 5 February, the Albanian militants exchanged artillery fire with Serbian police and Yugoslav army forces outside the GSZ. Jonathan Steele told us that in the last year there had been a "radicalisation of the Albanian population" in the area.[306] It appears that the Albanian militants are seeking to provoke Serbia into a violent reaction, with the eventual aim of linking the Presevo valley to Kosovo, and beyond that, perhaps to a greater Albania.


148. The Presevo valley is significant directly—the road and railway which connects Thessaloniki to Skopje and Belgrade passes through the GSZ—and indirectly, because of its impact on Serb-Albanian relations, and because of the harm it does to moderates in Belgrade and Pristina. Indeed, Misha Glenny told us that the insurgency was happening in part to undermine Mr Rugova.[307] Recent terrorist attacks in Macedonia also demonstrate the scope for the problems in the Presevo valley to spread.[308] Charles Crawford told us that the worst case scenario in Presevo would be if: "Albanian extremist groups provok[ed] a really major military confrontation [then we would] have tens of thousands more refugees streaming into Kosovo, streaming across the region."[309]


149. KFOR has been attempting to interdict guerillas crossing from Kosovo into the GSZ, with variable success: Charles Crawford told us that "I met our troops in Kosovo the other day [who] were saying that when the British had gone in to deal with this issue they had very quickly intercepted all sorts of people and taken them off and broken things up in a way which other NATO contributing countries apparently were not quite so keen to get involved in."[310] We also met our troops on the boundary between Kosovo and the GSZ. This is clearly vital work, both for the mission in Kosovo, and the region as a whole. We pay tribute to the work of the United Kingdom contingent in KFOR in controlling access to the Ground Safety Zone by ethnic Albanian guerillas.


150. The Serbian government, led by Nebojsa Covic, deputy Prime Minister, has proposed a political solution to the crisis. In phase one, this aims to prepare for dialogue by reintegrating the ethnic Albanians politically (for example by reinstating sacked officials), and gaining agreement that the GSZ should be lifted or reduced in phases; in phase two to end violence and replacing Serb/VJ forces with multi-ethnic police; and in phase three to engage in economic reconstruction. Jonathan Steele told us that, first, the new Serb government is "recognising it as a political problem that has to be solved by political means—this is clearly a distinction to the way Milosevic behaved in Kosovo; secondly, they are recognising the past injustices done by Serbian governments to the ethnic Albanians of South Serbia, and recognising that they were thrown out of public service jobs, the police, hospital management and all the other things, and that, therefore, the Albanians would have a genuine grievance; and, thirdly, that they are trying to talk to the Albanians. I think it is very creditable that they are talking not only to political Albanians, like Riza Halimi the mayor of Presevo, but also they have said that they are willing to talk to the leaders of the UCPMB guerilla movement that is operating down there."[311] Against this, President Kostunica has said that he will not meet the UCPMB guerillas.[312]


151. The plan has been welcomed by the international community. For example, the FCO has written that it "warmly welcome[s] the political approach set out by the Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Covic...rapid implementation of the confidence building measures outlined by...Covic would be the best evidence of the intention of the authorities in Belgrade to address the legitimate grievances of moderate Albanians in southern Serbia."[313] Charles Crawford also told us that "after ten years of effectively being isolated [the Serbs] are starting to realise that if they play the game with the international community, if they have a dialogue with NATO, they present their case reasonably, they can get quite good results, which is in fact the case."[314] As well as being a threat, therefore, the Presevo valley represents an opportunity to demonstrate the advantages of a cooperative relationship with NATO. Lord Robertson, the NATO Secretary General, has said that "the Covic plan is an important signal of the Belgrade authorities' desire for a balanced and peaceful settlement of the problems in southern Serbia."[315] Charles Crawford told us that the plan "is a comprehensive and impressive piece of work. It talks about confidence building measures, it talks about economic regeneration, it talks about democracy, all the right buttons are there and in some detail. Since [the Committee visit] they have been going out talking to NATO, talking to the EU, talking to lots of different people, the OSCE, trying to sell the general principles of this plan and I think basically they have been successful in selling the principles of the plan."[316]

152. Misha Glenny told us that "in some instances like the Presevo Valley the EU appears to fade away, for reasons which I do not understand. The main diplomatic thrust on Presevo is now coming from the US, who are actually getting close to micro-managing the whole situation, and I think, given that the EU must learn to take primary responsibility, diplomatic and aid responsibility for the former Yugoslavia in south-east Europe, it makes it look rather bad when this sort of thing happens."[317] However, the European Commission has announced 900,000 euros of immediate aid to support reconstruction in the area,[318] and EU monitors "are reporting on the situation in the area, and their contingent is being augmented."[319] Chris Patten told us that "We recognise in the Commission that the principal issues are ones concerning security, they are principally issues for NATO but we think there is also an important role for us in supporting the economic and social aspects of the plan put forward by the Deputy Premier of Serbia, Mr Covic...We have already put about a million [euros] in humanitarian assistance into what is quite a small area, mostly the provision of heating oil and the rehabilitation of a number of village primary schools. We have doubled that assistance so that we are now spending 2 million [euros] in that area. We have said to President Kostunica and to Mr Djindjic and Mr Covic and others that we are quite prepared as part of our 240 million [euros] assistance programme for the long term reconstruction of Serbia to put a certain amount of it into social and economic programmes in the southern municipalities of Serbia, into the Presevo Valley and the surrounding area."[320]


153. Despite his accusation of EU inactivity, Misha Glenny was optimistic about the prospects for the package: "there is an extraordinary consensus building around the Covic package, including local moderate representatives of the Albanians, both as a strategy for reducing tension there but also building up the region economically. My own feeling is that this initiative at the moment looks like it may fly. It has strong international backing; it has strong local backing."[321]

154. Jonathan Steele sounded a more cautious note, highlighting the risk if the policy of dialogue failed: would the West then accept that the Yugoslavs could use military force? He told us that he had recently been in the area and had seen "tanks firing from Serbia proper into the buffer zone. Of course we know that the Yugoslav army is not allowed to penetrate that zone physically with vehicles or men, but, if they are firing shells in there that may be a moot point in terms of legality and the Kumanovo agreement [Military Technical Agreement], but in terms of humanitarian consequence it is disastrous. It is creating the same kind of refugee exodus that we saw when the Yugoslav army was shelling Albanian villages in Kosovo two years ago."[322] One possibility was that "there could be a split of policy between Covic and Pavkovic, the Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav army, and, indeed, that it might be a deliberate one, that Pavkovic might be trying to sabotage the Covic initiative because he wants to move to military means."[323] Charles Crawford confirmed that there were different strains of opinion on the Serb side, but in his view the peaceful option was prevailing at this stage: "there are elements out there on the Serb side who are dangerous and want to have a go and go in there and sort it out in a very violent way, there is a sense among the senior leaders, so far as I can tell, of a need not to rise to provocations, to keep on with what you might call a diplomatic track."[324]

155. Jonathan Steele's solution was to put "some kind of international presence into this area, whether it is unarmed UN observers of some kind who can be there to monitor exactly what is going on and give information so we do not just take all the information from Covic and his people. Secondly, that we might even have to think of allowing KFOR to be able to move into that area in some capacity or other, preferably in a joint operation, which could include not only the Serbs of Serbia but even the Albanians of Kosovo, so that it was a tripartite thing, with Albanian representation from Pristina, KFOR, and Serb representation from Belgrade, so that it is really even-handed and able to see what is going on."[325]

156. On 8 March the North Atlantic Council authorised the commander of KFOR to allow the "controlled return of FRY forces into the Ground Safety Zone (GSZ), into a narrow sector next to the border with...Macedonia. This is a first step in a phased and conditioned reduction of the GSZ. Further controlled return to the GSZ should continue rapidly thereafter in defined sectors, subject to approval by the North Atlantic Council. Access to the final sector which has seen the most conflict will be authorised by Council at a later stage...[the NAC also confirmed] NATO's intention ultimately to abolish the Ground Safety Zone."[326] The KFOR commander has said that the federal army would be allowed to carry light machine guns and mortars in the zone, but no heavy weapons or armour.[327] By allowing the Yugoslav army to enter a five by five kilometre part of the GSZ next to the border with Macedonia before other areas, NATO would appear to be implicitly accepting that there is a connection between the insurgents in the Presevo valley and those on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. We discuss the situation on the border with Macedonia below.[328]

157. Also implicit in NATO's commitment to a "controlled return" of the Yugoslav army and a "conditioned reduction" in the GSZ is the idea that the Yugoslavs' activities in the zone will be monitored, and that further reductions in the zone will depend upon the Yugoslav army's behaviour. On 12 March NATO agreed a week long cease-fire with the UCPMB in the GSZ, although a number of Albanian insurgents have said that they will not be responsible if shots are fired against the Yugoslav army.[329] United Kingdom troops have been among the KFOR forces which have entered the GSZ with the Yugoslav army in order to monitor the fragile cease-fire.[330] The EU also has a monitoring mission in southern Serbia, and Chris Patten told us that "I am sure they are going to be required in larger numbers on the border between Kosovo and Serbia."[331] If the cease-fire breaks down, ascribing responsibility will clearly be a delicate task. As NATO has sanctioned the Yugoslav army's return to the GSZ, the sensitivity with which the Yugoslav army operates in the GSZ will have implications for the whole of KFOR's mission in Kosovo.


158. Jonathan Steele is correct in pointing out that the Yugoslav army is thus far unreformed. We had an indication of this from our discussions with representatives of the Yugoslav Army in Belgrade. It did not suddenly learn on 5 October 2000 how to conduct an effective anti-insurgency campaign which minimises civilian casualties. It is also unclear how much authority the new administration in Belgrade has over the Yugoslav military.

159. One of the difficulties in dealing with the Albanians of the area is that there is no generally accepted leader. However, it appears that the reaction from the Albanians of the area to the Covic plan has been less positive than that of the international community. One of the leaders, Riza Halimi, the mayor of Presevo, has said that he welcomed Belgrade's initiative, but had several objections to the content and the "take-it-or-leave-it attitude" of the Serbian authorities. According to him, the Albanians of the area are seeking autonomy within Serbia: this is not on offer in the Covic package.[332] On the other hand, Charles Crawford told us that he had recently spoken to Riza Halimi, who had told him that "the local commanders of the so-called UCPMB had accepted the proposition that a settlement to the Presevo Valley story had to be within the boundaries of Serbia."[333] The definition of "autonomy" will clearly be a significant element of the negotiations, and much work remains to be done to isolate the extremists and bring about a peaceful solution. We welcome the efforts of the new administration in Belgrade to resolve the crisis in the Presevo valley by peaceful means. We also welcome NATO's commitment to ensure that the return of the Yugoslav army to the Ground Safety Zone will be "controlled" and "conditioned." Recalling the difficulties of the OSCE KVM monitors in Kosovo in 1998-99, we recommend that the Government work within NATO and the EU to ensure that any monitors have a clear mandate and are fully resourced to fulfil their mission. We further recommend that the Government make clear to the administration in Belgrade that it will be held responsible for protecting the human rights of all its citizens in the Ground Safety Zone.

160. Chris Patten told us that "what is happening in south-east Europe is the most important test of our ability in Europe to manage any sort of...common foreign and security, policy."[334] We agree. We conclude that the crisis in the Presevo valley represents a significant test for the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, and for co-ordination between that policy and NATO. Failure in this area threatens what has been achieved so far in the Balkans, and we recommend that the Government act with its partners to address and contain the problem before it worsens.

300   Some areas of the Presevo valley are 90 per cent ethnic Albanian, while others are around 50 per cent. See­report/2001/02/11­090201.html. Back

301   Q198. Back

302   Q237. Back

303­report/2001/02/11­090201.html Back

304   Zoran Kusovac, Jane's Defence Weekly, 3 January 2001. Back

305   "The Ground Safety Zone (GSZ) is defined as a 5-kilometre zone that extends beyond the Kosovo province border into the rest of FRY territory. It includes the terrain within that 5-kilometre zone." The purpose of this GSZ shall be, among other things: "To establish a durable cessation of hostilities, under no circumstances shall any Forces of the FRY and the Republic of Serbia enter into, reenter, or remain within the territory of Kosovo or the Ground Safety Zone (GSZ) and the Air Safety Zone (ASZ) described in [previous article] without the prior express consent of the international security force ("KFOR") commander. Local police will be allowed to remain in the GSZ." MTA available on: Back

306   Q38. Back

307   Q40. Back

308   Ibid. Back

309   Q208. Back

310   Q204. Back

311   Q37. Back

312   B92 Daily News Bulletin for 3 March 2001. Back

313   Ev. p.40. Back

314   Q197. Back

315­017e.htm Back

316   Q198. Back

317   Q15. Back

318 Back

319   Ev. p.40. Back

320   Q237. Back

321   Q24. Back

322   Q37. Back

323   Ibid. Back

324   Q200. Back

325   Q37. Back

326   NATO Press Release, (2001)035, available on­035e.htm Back

327 Back

328   See paras. 161ff. Back

329­SEE/see­140301.html. Back

330   The Times, 14 March 2001. Back

331   Q24. Back

332 Back

333   Q199. Back

334   Q237. Back

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